Welcome to repository of articles on the craft of poetry, launched in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2015!
Submission Advice from Main Street Rag Publishing Company
Anatoly Molotkov’s recently launched Application of Shadows was published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, whose very detailed submission guidelines offer valuable advice for submission of a collection of poems, regardless of what publisher or contest you are submitting to. These recommendations apply to chapbook submissions, as well, and are good to keep in mind when submitting poems, too. Reproduced with permission from M. Scott Douglass.
Every contest has deadlines. Their most important purpose is to keep the process moving in an orderly fashion and permit enough time for a fair reading. Reading manuscripts for contests is not leisure reading, it’s frantic. Every reader in the chain has his or her own obligations outside of this contest. Given that and given that there is always a mad rush (by authors) to mail manuscripts on the deadline date (as much as we would like it to be otherwise), common sense says it does not benefit an author to wait until the last minute to mail a manuscript.
Having said that, here is an interesting statistic that has proven to be true over many years of running contests: About half of those who enter wait until the final week to do so.
Of course, everyone is working on their own time schedule and at their own convenience. What authors need to know is: because SO MANY wait until the very end to enter, those who enter early tend to get more of a readers’ attention. It’s simple math. Imagine having a week to read 15 manuscripts. That’s roughly 2 a day, easily manageable. Then the last week of entry arrives and suddenly you have the same timeframe to read 75 manuscripts. Just the thought can be oppressive and overwhelm a reader’s schedule. It is mathematically impossible to devote the same amount of time to each manuscript when the volume is increased, but the amount of time available to read them is not.
Recommendation: Don’t wait until the last minute to send your manuscript.
The MSR Poetry Book Award guidelines call for between 48 and 80 pages of poetry. Most often, the manuscripts that make it through to the final round are in the 60-70 page range. There is no way to say across the board why this is, but it could be that these authors have culled out weaker pieces and concentrated on quality rather than filling the maximum number of pages. From a judging standpoint, the deciding factor between quality manuscripts can come down to one or two or a handful of poems that don’t seem to belong with the rest. It’s that competitive.
Also, for a full-length contest, poets will tie a group of chaps together and submit them as a book. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The deciding factor can be how well these sections relate to each other.
Recommendation: Instead of concentrating on filling the page requirements, edit for quality, strength, connectivity.
- Use white paper. Light weight–the lighter the better. Don’t add to the expense of entering contests by using heavy, expensive paper. Quality paper won’t impress us the way a quality manuscript will.
- Print on one side only. Type–no handwriting should appear anywhere on the manuscript.
- No more than one poem on a page. Note: I did not say every poem should fit on a single page–I said don’t put two poems on the same page.
- Use a readable font in a readable size. 12pt is fine for entry, but we print most of our books in 11pt because 10pt can be difficult to read and 12pt takes up too much space. A simple Roman font is best (Times, Times New Roman). A sans serif is also okay (Ariel, Helvetica), but they don’t register italics very well and many of us use italics somewhere in our work.
- Numbering pages saves us the trouble of counting.
- Remember page dimensions. Almost every entry comes in on 8.5 X 11: standard letter size. I’ve had people downsize fonts and change leading to fit more lines on that size page so they can fit a larger manuscript into our page limitations. The final product can only fit (about) 40 lines per page. The more artistically inclined have skipped lines and words all the way across the page. The final product will be between 5.5 and 7 inches wide. Minus margins, that means between 4.25 and 5.75 inches of printable space. If you want to have your work remain exactly as you laid it out, keep page dimensions in mind when you create and/or edit your work.
How you organize your work can be a deciding factor. We get many very good manuscripts, sometimes it is the sequence in which the material within a particular entry is read that makes it more or less appealing to the reader. That may mean having separate segments, but it may also mean sequencing in a more interesting format to create a rhythm or a sense of anticipation.
Below are some comments made by judges. Some are direct quotes, some are paraphrases of comments made by several judges. Some of these comments were specific to poetry contests, others to fiction contests (which we no longer sponsor).
Manuscript was longer than it needed to be.
Good poems, but nothing binding them together as a group.
“There is a wonderful chapbook in here.”
“I wish some of these writers would learn to use spell-check.”
“This writer needs an editor.”
Uneven. Some beautiful poems, but others that don’t seem to belong.
“The form and flow are nice, but the writer doesn’t take any risks with the material.”
Nice sound quality to many of the poems, but they don’t actually go anywhere or say anything new.
“I have no idea what this title is about.”
“I know this is an acceptable style of poetry but it has little if any punctuation so it just leaves words on a page…”
“Has a lot to say, but isn’t very poetic.”
“Too many incomplete sentences.”
“The poet threw in a form (apparently) for demonstration sake because it didn’t fit with the rest of the collection.”
“There are a lot of epigraphs that show the author is familiar with other people’s work, but they don’t appear to have any purpose other than demonstrating how well-read the author is.”
“Paints pretty pictures without any emotional attachment.”
“Subject was vague and I couldn’t relate to it.”
“I Sure wish this author knew how to use a word processing program.”
M. Scott Douglass
Poetry Rewriting Hints
©Susan Stevens Chambers, 2018, reproduced with permission from the author.
Exercises to help tighten your poem
- Look at your poem and cull out the “plurals” and “generalisms”. Singular words are often stronger than plural. General words such as “fields, forests, winds” don’t invite the reader into the experience the way specific words do, such as “cornfield, Scotch pine, north wind”. Watch out for general terms such as “old people”, “the fan”, “car”; give them a personality: “Old Homer”, “the Mighty Mouse fan”, “the orange Volkswagen”.
- Pull out every other line of your poem— first the even, then the odd—and see what happens. (If this is a form poem, ignore the rhyme scheme for the moment, the idea is to check for redundancy that you may have allowed to creep into your otherwise brilliant work). This works particularly well on a computer, where you can create a new file and play with the poem all you want while still preserving the original version. It can be done on paper, too, using the old cut and paste method. Just be sure you have some extra copies.
- This hint also works well on the computer: if your poem is in the first person, try rewriting it with “she” or “he” or a person’s name. If it is in the third person, try it with “I”. Which is stronger?
- Another variation of the above: if your poem is in the past tense, try putting it in present tense, or vice versa.
- Do you have more than three separate themes going in your poem? Pull out the theme introduced last, and see if the poem isn’t stronger. Save that theme for another poem. Try it again with the remaining two themes, is the poem stronger with less?
- This is the opposite of #5. Do you have two short poems on similar themes, or on contrasting themes that could be merged into one poem? Sometimes you will need to create a new stanza, tying in the two themes. Experiment, you may end up with a unique third poem that is better than the two separate short poems.
- Look closely at the first and last stanzas of your poem. Often our first stanza was simply a “trigger” and is unnecessary. Often we go too far and “tell” rather than show in the last stanza, thinking we need to explain just one more time, when the stanza above “shows” and is a more powerful finish. Be merciless, chop off the first and last and see what that does to the poem.
- Search your poem for compound sentences. Run through the poem and read only the first half of each compound sentence. Is the last half necessary? Should it be a separate sentence?
- This is the opposite of #8. Do you have three simple sentences that could be combined into one sentence? Watch out for a machine gun effect—too many short sentences. Sometimes varying simple and more complex lines can give the poem a wonderful weave.
- Look for parenthetical phrases (usually set off by commas). For example: “I wonder, by the way, who will be named director?” Take the phrases out where they are not essential to the meaning of your sentence.
- Avoid the temptation to put an asterisk at the end of your poem, explaining the historical significance, or identifying a slightly unusual word. The poem must stand alone. If it does not, clarify it, but don’t try “telling” what it means, that will always weaken the poem.
12.Take questions out of your poem. Make them statements and see if the result isn’t stronger. Only break this rule when you have looked at it both ways, and argued long and hard with yourself.
- See how many “ings” you can take out of the poem without damaging it. Usually short (preferably one) syllable words are stronger than longer words. Look at each small word in your poem, especially “the” and “and”. Take out all unnecessary small words.
- Read your poem aloud. If it jars the ear, or makes your tongue stumble, rework the spot. Then, read it aloud again. Think it sounds smooth? Have SOMEONE ELSE read the poem.
- This is another good computer exercise: if there is a particular stanza in a poem that is bothering you, try placing it in the poem in a different spot. Put it after the first stanza, move it to the second, etc. If there is a particular sentence that is bothering you try the same method, moving the sentence around, from line to line.
- This is a variation on #15 above: if a sentence is bothering you, try reversing the order of the sentence. Try changing passive sentences into active ones.
- Look at all the adjectives—words that describe nouns and specify the size, color, number and the like. How many do you have in your poem? While we like the specific rather than general in a poem, avoid overused and obvious adjectives (blue sky, golden sunsets, green forests, for example, don’t lend anything to a poem). Be arbitrary. Remove one half of your poem’s adjectives and see if the poem still reads well.
- Look out for laundry lists of words! If you use more than one to describe something, decide which one is stronger and eliminate the others.
- Play with the structure of your poem, especially if it is free verse. If it is in stanzas, try putting into one long stanza on the page. If it is all together, see if breaks improve the presentation. Look at your line breaks. Are they natural breath pauses? Is the word at the end strong?
- Look at spacing, do some words need to be placed apart or together for emphasis? Look at how the line scans across the page. If it is in long lines, break it up into shorter. If it is in short, try merging some lines— now how does it look?
- Look at your title. Is it consistent with the poem? Does it add or detract from the overall quality of the poem? Don’t repeat your “best line” (why weaken a good thing?) and don’t repeat first or last lines, work on the title. ONLY BREAK THIS RULE WITH VERY DELIBERATE THOUGHT! Put three titles at the top, sometimes this helps overcome our becoming too committed to one, read the poem with a different title to different audiences, and ask for comments. Listen to what discussion is generated and decide which title gives the best “ah ha” factor.
- Look at your “big” theme within the poem. Does it need more? Should you be expanding on that theme? Sometimes what bothers you is the unsaid thing, have you been TOO brief?
- Look for words which have double meanings and insert them in place of your first word choice. Poetry should have a little mystery. This doesn’t necessarily mean a more complicated word; it could mean substituting a simpler word.
- Check your similes. Can they be turned into metaphors? Check for alliteration— maybe you can substitute a word to bring more music to the poem.
- Create a little DRAMA. If your poem could be made more powerful with a slap rather than “he seemed upset”, make it a slap. Take risks. Poetry is one of the oldest forms of storytelling; you don’t have to stick to the truth.
- However, in creating under #25, make sure your poem is consistent, true to place, season and time. Sometimes what bothers you is the lilac blooming in September, the sweet sound of the crow. Watch your times, your light, watch out for changes of voice or position within the poem.
The point of all these rewriting exercises is to help you think about the poem—the structure, the words used, the placement of lines. This usually can eliminate the mother hen attitude we take towards our babies and make us more receptive to change inside our masterpieces. We can all make our poems tighter, stronger, so they are the best they can be.
Sound and Sense, by Sharon Ramirez
Judsen Jerome once said that:
unless you care as much or more for
your syllables and sounds,
for your beat,
for your line shape,
for details of your pattern
as you do your meaning,
you may as well write prose.
To understand and appreciate poetry as an art, I believe it is necessary to study tempo and sound, pause and flow, line and stanza, rhyme and rhymelessness, as much as it is to study metaphor and imagery. Current trends: much emphasis on imagery, with little interest shown in form or meter.
Of course you can appreciate a poem without knowing these mechanics, but to go beyond immediate appreciation, to a deeper level, how gratifying to discover some of the means by which poetry produces its particular effects. This is for those of you who wish to go behind the scene, as a reader, and to enhance your own poetry, as a poet. This going behind the scenes leads to an intellectual appreciation, a necessary study for anyone who is to be considered “educated” in the art of poetry, whether he or she writes or not. Take one of Shakespeare’s lines,
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,”
Why did he use the rhythm he did, of non stress, stress, 5 stresses to a line? Why didn’t he use the reverse rhythm of stress, non stress? Why 5 beats, why not 4 or 6 or even 12 syllables like the French poets?
In recent years, the medium of poetry–the moving sound stream, the song-stuff–has become an unfashionable subject.
Tradition has been flung out the window for the small “I”, the expression of self. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but what I do say, is, the poets I turn to again and again, took the time to educate themselves about their art.
When someone like Eliot deviates from regular meter, I know he’s doing this on purpose, that he knows the traditions of English poetry, but chooses to vary his patterns of stress to achieve a particular effect. Eliot served his apprenticeship by learning the classical rules. And so did John Donne. How many of you have taken the time to read some of the best love poetry ever written? Try these lines:
She is all states, and all princes I. Nothing else is.
Or: For God’s sake hold your tongue and let us love.
Or: You to whom love was peace, that now is rage,
Who did the whole world’s soul contract,
And drove into the glasses of your eyes
(The latter metaphor is a classic example of the Metaphysical poets violent yoking together of opposites.)
John Donne doesn’t scan perfectly, but when his meter deviates from the English tradition, it follows the content. More about this later. If you’ve never read Donne, do so.
One more line: A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
perfect iambic pentameter (The Relique), yet not all of the poem is in this meter. Sometimes meter, and form, too, can force you into saying wonderful things.
For me, much contemporary poetry is like pablum, especially compared to Donne, who is a rich banquet of sensory delights.
Although my talk is primarily about sound, meter, and line length, I want to emphasize how form can add a wonderful tension to your poetry.
Form: A good poem is original in response and idea and presents either a new idea (content)or a new approach (form) to an old idea which offers insight into common experiences. The poem offers an interpretation, not a description, of those experiences. If there is nothing new in content, usually the form changes and the form becomes a cultural function.
Therefore: New idea–traditional form.
Old idea–experimental form.
You need to know about form in order to (1) recognize form deviations by other poets and (2) to know how to write in form when it’s appropriate for your poetry. Knowledge of form gives you greater freedom in the creation of your poems.
We all write in meter of one kind or another, the meter reflecting our inner rhythms. Most of us write in iambic, even if we don’t consciously think, “Oh I guess I’ll write a poem in iambic pentameter, that is, five beats to a line, every other syllable stressed, beginning with the second.” I taught myself the meters by reading other poets, and scanning those poems that I liked the most. I didn’t know what the meters were called, much less what a foot was, but I knew I liked lines like,
“There being not another Troy for her to burn.” (Yeats)
Or “Bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
“About suffering, they were never wrong,” (Auden)
“It is the pain, it is the pain endures” (Empson)
So much goes into meter: let’s begin with the syllable which has these four important characteristics.
Color or timbre (overtones)
Stress, or relative force or loudness
Quantity, or time in utterance or duration
Pitch, the quality of sound determined by the frequency of the vocal vibration
Silence, or pause, absence or relative absence of sound between words or syllables may be longer or shorter
than the sounds before and after.
“It sprawls”–the two words are quite different in sound color; in fact, they have no color at all in common. The stress is different too; “it” is weakly stressed relative to “sprawls,” which is forcefully attacked. The quantity is also different. “Sprawls” takes much more time to say than “it.” The pitch is different too. We raise the voice (increase the speed of our vocal vibration) on “sprawls,” bringing it “up” in pitch.
The English language is so very rich in possibilities of sound color. The following categories are most frequently utilized by our poets.
Resonance: prolongation and fullness of sound. The sounds n,m,ng, z, and zh (none, maim, ring, nose, rouge) usually produce lingering, droning, vibrant effects. The nasals (n,m,ng) are sometimes called hums. Listen: The moan of doves in immemorial elms/And murmuring of innumerable bees.
Harshness: Includes throaty sounds, usually called velars, made by putting the tongue back toward the soft palate: k and hard g, as in kick and jug; or hard c, as in cough. Example:
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs;
Plosiveness: Sounds articulated by a sudden release and then an interruption, of breath; b, p, t, d, g, and k are often plosive. There is usually a complete stoppage of breath before the release, as in pop.
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!
These lines, celebrating a blacksmith’s life, enact in language the plosive and percussive sounds of the forge and the anvil; they attempt only to suggest, not to reproduce, such noises.
Breathiness: There is a wide range of sounds–it includes the groups known to linguists as aspirates, sibilants, and fricatives–that are especially suitable in contexts that seek to create images of such qualities as breathlessness or hissing or whispering. The aspirate “h” can be used to create a suggestion of breathlessness, as in fatigue–
From harmony, from heav’nly harmony
Voiceless dentals, f, and th as in thin, and voiceless sibilants (s as in sea, sh as in shrew, and ch) are included in this group: Sweet singing mermaids sported with their loves/
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure/to spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure.
We hear how in Marlowe’s poem the pattern of color complements the sportive marine imagery.
Liquidity: This is the effect of certain nonfrictional and vowel-like consonants, L and R. W is another milder consonant sound. These melodic consonants are frequently combined with resonants: Or summer wading in a willowy run. Or, one by Herrick, Making melodious words, to lutes of amber.
Briefly about vowels in general: A great preponderance of vowels over consonants, especially of long and open vowels and long diphthongs, almost always produces a kind of softness somewhat different in quality from the softness that may be created by resonant or breathy or liquid consonants.
A preponderance of long vowels and diphthongs often produces an effect of dignity or somberness or deliberateness:
It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
Or: Their thousand wreaths of dangling water-smoke–by Tennyson,
creates a slow tempo–compare this line to:
Swift as the sparkle of a glancing star–by Milton
Short vowels, striking alliterations, lack of resonance and other tempo-slowing qualities produce a line that is as swift as its image. “The sound must seem an echo to the sense”–Alexander Pope.
Briefly, before I go into meter, I want to emphasize how meter tells your reader when to go fast, slow, take you seriously or not. Meter sets the tone (tone is the poet’s attitude towards the subject.) If you write about death in anapests, (The dish ran away with the spoon) you’re writing satire, unlike Milton and his spondaic “Blow, burn, and make me new.” Meter gives the reader clues and helps make your poetry more accessible.
Pay particular attention to how many stresses you have in a line. The more stresses, (or beats or long syllables) you have, the more formal, serious the verse. If you’re writing Hallmark verse or limericks, you’ll have fewer stresses. For serious poetry, you can’t have too many stresses per line. More about this in the “Foot, Line, Meter” portion. Scan your own poems, see what meter you favor. If there isn’t a pattern, or you want to change a sing song pattern, make your lines longer and write in iambs. Try five beats to a line the first time around.
Foot, Line, and Meter
Verse is writing that uses lines. Any writing that is broken into consciously determined line units is verse.
Free verse is that in which the length of the lines is not measured by a specific number of units. Metered verse is that
in which the length of the lines is measured by an arbitrary number of units.
Syllabic verse is the most simple type of metered verse. Line length is determined by the number of syllables.
Each of these lines has
five syllables. Some
-times that requires di-
viding the end words.
Accentual verse is that in which line length is determined by the number of stresses, regardless of the number of syllables, as:
Anglo Saxons sang their mead songs
In lines of four emphatic feet
With no fixed pattern imposed on the number
Of light syllables, nor set positions–
But the first or second stress in the line
Had to alliterate with the heavy beat
In the third position, starting the second half.
Once a poet decides to write in a meter, he or she stays within it, allowing for wide variations at particular points–a traditional liberty of English verse. The poet is more or less bound to stay within a pattern once he or she adopts it because once there is an established pattern, the reader or listener has expectations of a certain order.
Variation beyond that which is needed for securing rhythmic variety and now and then for a sudden emphasis brought by metrical surprise makes the reader wonder why the pattern has changed. If nothing in the sense of the verse warrants that change in pattern, the variance can be viewed as irrational and inconsistent, and the reader is not satisfied.
Poems that begin as ballads keep on being ballads to the end, and iambic sonnets do not suddenly change into trochaic couplets.
In scanning, one should look for the general metrical pattern of the entire poem or stanza, and then interpret the meter of troublesome lines in terms of that pattern.
The major difference between verse and prose is the higher ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables in verse. It is easy to err in providing too few stresses in verse, and difficult to err in providing too many stresses. The more strongly stressed monosyllabic words you use, the more intense and emotional the poetry will be. Stress at least one out of every four syllables. One out of every three would be better. One out of every two is normal.
Form: A good poem is original in response and idea and presents either a new idea or a new approach to an old idea which offers insight into common experiences. The poem offers an interpretation, not a description, of those experiences. If there is nothing new in content, usually the form changes and the form becomes a cultural function.
Therefore: New idea–traditional form.
Old idea–experimental form.
Trochee trips from long to short,
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow spondee stalks, strong foot, yet ill able
Ever to come up with dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long,
With a leap and a bound the swift anapests throng.
Poetry is either
(a) Verse which is metered poetry
or (b) Free verse which is unmetered poetry.
Whether it’s metered or not has neither bearing nor merit–
Whitman’s metered poetry is inferior to his vers libre.
Stress is the most prominent acoustic element in English, unlike French. Classical Greek and Chinese accomplish by pitch what English does by stress.
Important uses of stress in lines of poetry:
- To create meter and/or rhythm
- To avoid monotony
- To change tempo
- To intensify meaning at a particular point.
Feet are composed of syllables or groups of syllables that constitute a metrical unit. The feet are as follows:
Iambic: (Iamb) Nonstressed, stressed syllables (Most common)
The brain is wider than the sky. (Emily Dickinson)
Trochaic: (Trochee) Stressed, nonstressed syllables
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry. (W. H. Auden)
Anapestic: (Anapest) Nonstressed, nonstressed, stressed
And the peak of the mountain was apples, the hugest that
ever were seen,
And they prest, as they grew, on each other, with hardly a
leaf in between. (Tennyson)
Dactylic: (Dactyl) Stressed, nonstressed, nonstressed
After the pangs of a desperate lover,
When day and night I have sighed all in vain,
Ah what a pleasure it is to discover
In her eyes pity, who causes my pain. (Dryden)
Spondaic: (Spondee) Stressed, stressed
Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death.
Less often used feet are: Pyrrhic and choriamb
Dactylic hexameter is the meter of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aenid, and other Greek classics.
Iambic meter is best suited for informal speech, for linguistic naturalness. The Latin iambus derives from a Greek word meaning
“a cripple.” The short syllable represents the lame foot, the long one, the foot descending with normal strength, perhaps with the added strength of the cane. Iambic examples:
Fell prey to burning tower where you stood,
I heard the song, recalled the past, and cried. (Sharon Ramirez)
Wherin Leander on her quivering breast,
Breathless spoke something, and sighed out the rest.
The rhyme of the iambic pentameter lines forms a heroic couplet.
The increasingly disordered meter helps vivify the lovers’ loss of control in general, and their somewhat uncoordinated physical movements in particular.
Highly regular meter tends to establish a formal tone; if the poet wants to lessen the intensity or suggest a homely quality, he or she will likely violate the normal iambic pattern by distributing stresses and nonstresses irregularly, by adding extra syllables to the line and reducing the number and strength of stresses. An example from Wordsworth which reflects a lack of strong stresses in the two full lines:
and if one wheel had rest
It was because the other was at work.
The pair had but one inmate in the house.
For contrast, when the poet wants to suggest vigorous and dynamic qualities of life, and the attitude is informal, the verse will show strong and abundent stresses like this example of
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
A poem with perfect iambs would be boring. Often a poet will substitute one foot with another, usually with a trochee which is an iamb turned around. This is called an inversion, which
catches our attention as something out of the ordinary.
Who stooping opened my left side, and took
From thence a rib, with cordial spirits warm,
And life-blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound, (Milton)
Trochaic is used primarily for very short lyrics and brief passages of dialogue. It is effective for unusual subject matter, and has an incantatory quality. There are no long, outstanding trochaic poems in English, to my knowledge. Examples of trochaic:
Swing your partner round and round
Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick.
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poisoned entrails throw …
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Shakespeare, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats are perhaps the great masters of English trochaic meter. Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven” in trochaic meter.
And the dish ran away with the spoon!
Anapestic meter tends to produce lightness and speed.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea.
Dactylic, of the four basic meters, is the most artificial.
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashioned so slenderly,
Young, and so fair! (Thomas Hood)
The poem is dactylic dimeter, or two dactyls to a line, alternating with monometer.
The following Mother Goose lines are basically, but not purely,
Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating his Christmas pie.
To market, to market, to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, jiggety jig.
Pure spondaic feet don’t exist in English because when stresses occur in succession, meaning almost always demands that some be heavier than others.
Here’s an example of Spondaic and pyrrhic from Yeat’s “Among School Children:
I walk through the long school room questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;…
What is notable about the feet is how the four consecutive stresses (three primary and one secondary, perhaps) of the first line slow the rhythm to match the sense beautifully. The speaker is an old man who comes as a public official to inspect a school. He’s walking through a long room and he’s moving unobtrusively and with deliberate care.
Metrical verse is described by the number of measures in a line.
Here’s a rare example of monomoter, a line composed of one foot:
And die: (Herrick)
Dimeter is two feet to a line:
When I descend
Towards their brink
I stand, and look, (Hardy)
Trimeter is three feet to a line:
Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal king:
Dark night is all his own, (Johnson)
Tetrameter is four feet to a line:
Al of a knyght was fair and gent
In bataille and in tournament, (Chaucer)
Pentameter is five feet to a line:
Of mortall life the leaf, the bud, the flowre, (Spenser)
Hexameter is six feet to a line:
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. (Pope)
Heptameter is seven feet to a line:
O Time, whence comes the Mother’s moody look
Among her labours, (Hardy)
Pentameter is the most common line length in English poetry.
Blank verse is iambic pentameter, unrhymed. Hamlet was written in blank verse.
Free verse, difficult to define, is hard to scan in that no two person’s scansions will completely agree. Free verse has form in the sense that the arrangement of syllables and words, the line lengths, and the distribution of pauses fit the sense at every point. Sometimes it rhymes, sometimes it has distinct feet, but doesn’t adhere to traditional form and meter. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. C. Williams are free-verse poets.
Submitting Your Work, by Bruce Parker
If you write poetry to put in a drawer and never show it to anyone, this article is not for you. But if you craft words, sound, rhythm, image, symbol, metaphor, into works of art you want to send into the world, to contribute a grain to the great, ever-growing heap of poetry in English, then how do you do that?
- Find a market, that is, find a periodical, a literary journal or review, a magazine or online zine that seeks poetry to publish. These avenues typically acquire first North American serial rights, often without payment, for first publication; thereafter, copyright reverts to the poet, with the proviso that if the work is republished elsewhere, the first publisher be acknowledged.
There are several ways to find an outlet for your work. One is to look in Poet’s Market, which comes out annually, is widely available, and lists around a thousand outlets for book publishers, magazines, contests and other venues. Arranged alphabetically by title, each entry provides contact information, where to submit your work and how, guidelines and criteria, the needs of the magazine, any contests or awards, and tips on submission.
Another means to search for a home for your poems is Duotrope, an enormous data base that now lists more than six thousand markets for poetry and all genres of prose. Each listing provides information on what kind of work the publication is looking for, how long it takes for them to get back to you, what percentage of submissions are accepted, whether there is a submission fee, and more. Each listing also has a link to the publication’s website, where you can read their submission guidelines and hopefully some of the poetry they publish, and find out how to submit. Duotrope costs $5 a month or $50 a year, and is well worth it if you submit a lot, because you can keep track of all the poems you have submitted by title, where submitted, date of submission, in your own account. Duotrope asks that you update your submission entry when you have a result, acceptance (we always hope) or rejection, with the date of response, so they can update their data base. Personally, I have sent 221 poems out in the last 12 months, have 80 pending response, have sent 3 out this month, and have an acceptance ratio of 6.5%. I couldn’t possibly keep track of all this without this sortable data base. In addition, Duotrope lists which publications respond the quickest or slowest, and which have the best and worst rate of acceptance. (I keep a log book, as well, because not all the publications I submit to are listed in Duotrope.) A Duotrope account will also get the Duotrope Weekly Wire in your inbox with their latest new listings of paying and non-paying markets, fee-based markets, markets which have become defunct, and those which are open/reopened to submissions or closed, and themed deadlines.
Almost half the markets listed in Duotrope use Submittable as their submissions manager, and it is another good place to look for a home for your work. A Submittable account is free, and remembers your contact and payment information after you first use it. Many markets, but not all, charge a fee, to submit, usually two or three dollars, to pay their Submittable bill. Snail mail has largely gone away. Submittable also tracks your submissions, if they are through Submittable, and updates the status of each, “Accepted”, “In-Progress”, “Declined” and “Received.” Submittable enables a publication to move its usually very large number of submissions through their review and decision process electronically. And at the top of the Submittable window under “Discover” is a listing of markets seeking submissions (via Submittable), their deadlines, and links to their web sites. A Submittable account also gets the Sub mishmash Weekly newsletter which brings you still more opportunities to submit, and news of the “publishing and other creative industries.”
Every editor wants you to read the publication before submitting to see what they accept, what their tastes and interests are; actually, they want you to buy an issue or subscribe. If you submit a lot, that can quickly come to a lot of money if the publication does not allow at least some access to what they have published in past issues. One way around that is a free subscription to The Review Review, a newsletter whose premise is “we read the reviews so you don’t have to.” This is a cornucopia of news, advice, markets, interviews with editors, deadlines and more.
There is also a Yahoo group called Creative Writers Opportunities List ([email protected]), which is just that, a listing of opportunities for writers of all sorts to submit work. Messages will resume January 8, after their holiday hiatus.
Finally, there is Poets and Writers Magazine, which always has lists of calls for submission and deadlines in the back of each issue.
And there’s always the public library, where you can find periodicals to read like their editors want you to, and books and magazines such as the above.
- Prepare your manuscript. First and foremost, follow the submission guidelines to the last jot and tittle. No colored ink or paper, no funny fonts; don’t send more poems than required, longer poems than allowed, genres or subjects for which there is no call. Guidelines vary from publication to publication, so read them carefully. Guidelines can be vague or leave out important details. When in doubt, use 12-point Times New Roman and you’ll be right. Most Submittable users want all your poems in one document. Unless it’s for a contest, put your contact information on each poem, preferably at the top right- or left-hand corner. The most acceptable formats for Submittable are .doc, .docx, and .pdf. Some markets have their own submission manager system, and very small ones may ask that your submission be an attachment to an email. In any case, Apple Pages users will have to export their document to Word or .pdf and go from there. If a cover letter is required, or optional, it should reflect some familiarity with the market you are submitting to, and it should contain your contact information. If you append a bio, a maximum of five previous publications is about the most an editor wants to see. Most cover letters are not read until the submission has been examined. When submitting by mail, always enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope (the industry calls it an SASE) for a response. Weigh your submission and affix appropriate postage; for the cost-conscious, a second ounce stamp is cheaper than two first class stamps.
- While you are waiting for a response, write another poem.
If you Can’t Lick ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Clichés in Poetry by Anita Sullivan
Poets want to write good poetry, and among many, many other things, we are told this means avoiding clichés.
What’s a cliché?
The dictionary says “a hackneyed phrase,” which is no help. A “hackney” was a horse for hire that ordinary people could ride without risk. So, the so-called “definition” requires immediately a poetic leap to figure out.
You might think of a cliché as a word or phrase for hire, one that ordinary people can understand, can relate to, without risk. For poets, a cliché can be a snare and a delusion (that’s a cliché), because it gives you the impression that you thought it up yourself, and you did not.
Poets usually want their work to be fresh, interesting, a bit unpredictable. But that’s not the same as deliberately weird, inappropriate, dramatic, silly, vulgar, etc. just to avoid being ordinary (hackneyed). Look at the ancient Hebrew poem The Song of Songs, for example. It’s packed with clichés, repeated from poem to poem (“your eyes are like doves, your cheeks like pomegranates”). Yet somehow it manages to remain fresh and exciting after some 2500 years of being spoken and read.
What, then, is the opposite of a cliché? Probably something that could become a cliché, but hasn’t yet. Therefore, shouldn’t we all aspire to write them? We want people to remember our poems, to hum them quietly to themselves, to speak them aloud to family and friends. We want our words to become famous, we want them to become household words, don’t we?
So, maybe it’s not the words themselves that define “cliché” but the situation around the words. The same words in one situation can be like a summer rain shower, while in another they can be like stale song lyrics.
So, again – What is a cliché? Maybe it’s just something tame and familiar in a place where we really want something wild and strange. Nothing wrong with “ordinary” in itself, but poets are supposed to be the ones who push the envelope (to use a cliché) in language, or at least in literature.
Poets, after all, use the same words everybody else uses, but they arrange them differently. And the reason they arrange them differently is because – or partly because – some kind of thought, feeling, image, or little knot of inchoate urgency precedes the word. Don’t rush over this little knot in your haste to get to the words. Linger here awhile.
All humans come into the world not speaking words. But we’re not stupid and useless during that pre-word period of our lives. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” said Wordsworth, meaning (possibly) that we come into the world blessedly free of the word-cords that later dominate our view of things. We still know something instead of being told. The first words we each say as babies are, in a sense, clichés, because they’ve been said many times before. But for us, they are like little explosions, rocking our entire bodies, hearts and minds. We enter the world already veterans of a previous set of experiences, that of spending nine months in the womb, and then the birth process itself, which is no picnic. A truly primal and forceful dramatic set of events takes its place in our bodies prior to words, and that set of events becomes part of our memory.
Writing poetry can be a way of recreating the non-verbal experiences of our lives, which continue from conception, all the way through until the moment we write the next poem. Poetry is a way of honoring and – to tell you the greedy truth, mining – this rich lode of voiceless experience. Good work, if you can get it.
Anita Sullivan is a poet, essayist, gardener, translator, and retired piano tuner in Eugene, Oregon. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University, and is an emerita founding editor of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, which published her book Garden of Beasts in 2010. She is on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association.
Three Great Things (and One Not So Great) about CreateSpace by Amy Miller
In the past few years, Amazon’s CreateSpace has become a popular self-publishing platform for poets and authors who have chosen to publish their book on their own instead of going through a traditional publisher. And authors aren’t the only ones using it—literary journals and small boutique publishers often print their books through CreateSpace for its affordability, ease of use, and convenient distribution via Amazon.
CreateSpace is actually a range of services, from low-cost printing for the DIYer to comprehensive design and marketing packages for authors who need more help and don’t mind spending some money. But even at its most basic level—simply printing a book that you designed, and distributing it through Amazon—CreateSpace offers a few perks that, only a few years ago, were luxuries the average self-publisher could only dream of. Here are a few.
Great thing #1: You get perfect binding
This little bit of bookspeak means the book has a spine, as opposed to being bound by staples. CreateSpace perfect-binds every book it does with a tidy-looking squared spine. For a chapbook, this is an elegant, professional touch; most local print shops can’t do perfect binding if your book has less than 100 pages. The average chapbook has a spine too narrow to get any type on it, but if your cover design can be extended to add a pop of color on the spine, that will look nice on the bookshelf.
Great thing #2: You get an Amazon page
CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, and part of the package is that you automatically get an Amazon page for your book, at no cost. This means customers can order your book from Amazon while they’re shopping for moisturizer and tennis balls. It’s also how you order copies of your book for yourself—say, 20 copies for an upcoming reading. As the author, you get them at a deeply discounted price: A chapbook will cost you about $2 per book, plus about a buck for shipping. That’s roughly what you’d pay a local print shop to do a chapbook for you, but to get that price with your local printer, you’d have to order about 100 copies. Which you don’t have to do with CreateSpace because…
Great thing #3: It’s print on demand
This is another bit of bookspeak, a technology that’s been around for several years and is finally hitting its stride. In the olden days, a printer would print a “run” of books, anywhere from 100 to several thousand, and the publisher—or author—would have to store all those books somewhere and hope they could sell enough to make up for the cost of the run. Today, with digital printing and machinery that can bind and trim books quickly and cleanly in small quantities, we have print on demand: When a customer orders your CreateSpace book through Amazon, the order goes to a printing facility (often in Charleston or San Bernardino), where a machine whirs to life and prints, binds, and trims just one book. Then somebody at the printer mails it to your customer in an Amazon box. Later, if you order 20 copies for yourself, the machine whirs again and prints out 20 books, and somebody mails them to you. And so on. No cartons of books gathering dust in a warehouse, no large print run that you have to pay for up front.
Not-so-great thing: It is Amazon
Of course, not everyone loves Amazon, a company derided for the death of the local bookstore and countless other retailers. But fear not—if you’re Amazon-averse, there are dozens of similar self-publishing programs. Some, like Lulu.com and Lightning Source, have been around for years. Others, like Penguin’s Book Country and Ingram’s Spark, are newer players, and more seem to come on the horizon every day. Shop around, but while you’re at it, you can sign up for a CreateSpace account—it’s free, with no obligation—and start poking around in the program, taking advantage of its easy interface and numerous online forums and tutorial pages. Then, armed with that experience, you’ll know more when you go out looking for a self-publishing platform that’s right for you.
Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in Nimrod, Rattle, Willow Springs, ZYZZYVA, The Poet’s Market, and other journals, and she won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland. A longtime editor and print designer, she works as the publications project manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Plotting in Poetry by Tiel Aisha Ansari
Plot development tends not to get a lot of attention in discussions of poetry. Partly this is because poetry tends to emphasize mood and emotion over the mechanics of plot, and because of the brevity of most poems compared to a novel or even a short story, there’s not much room for conventional plot development. However, even a short poem, a “moment” poem, can imply events that occurred before the moment captured in the poem, and which created that moment: what’s called “backstory” in the movie industry. In this case plot, like character, relies on the reader’s inferential ability.
The damn toaster’s on the blink again:
bitter smoke stains the kitchen ceiling black.
One day it’ll burn down the house
and then you’ll be sorry. Penny-pinching old bastard,
I went to school in the same clothes three years running.
I scrape black crumbs and choke on the stink.
Bitter smoke stings my eyes and makes me blink.
One of these days I’ll burn the house down.
Then you’ll be sorry.
The essentials of plot are pretty much all here, though implicit: characters (the narrator and the “old bastard”), situation, conflict. Since the narrator is a child, or leaving childhood (“I went to school…”), there’s also a sense of time moving forward. The narrator’s entry into adulthood will be marked by a liberating and/or retaliatory act. It’s like a Thomas Hardy novel in miniature.
The trick, of course, is to have the story in mind as you write the poem. View the poem as a slice of a longer story, and the necessary implications, backward and forward, will suggest themselves.
Of course, longer poems may have well-developed plots. Such poems are often referred to as ballads. “Ballad” means a couple of different things; there’s a specific poetic form called a ballad, but a ballad can also be any song or poem (rhymed, metered, or not) with a strong narrative element. A good example is Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” which you can read at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/248090 .
Is plot necessary to poetry? Depends on the poem. However, we’re story-telling animals by nature, and an implied plot can be a good way to hook the reader’s curiosity and draw them into a poem.
Tiel Aisha Ansari currently serves as President of the Oregon Poetry Association.