Skillbuilding in Verse (#1)

Most of my poems either go by syllable count, (more or less) iambic pentameter, or a combination. This has been true since I started writing poetry as a child. Iambic pentameter is like a well-loved pair of jeans that you can dress up to go out or dress down to stay in.

For a while now, I’ve been planning to do drills in more formal verse to sharpen my skills — the book The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn has been staring out at me from my bookshelf.

My poetic education consisted of a unit on poetry in fifth grade and, later on, an English major. (I unintentionally specialized in pre-1850s British literature.) I absorbed poetic concepts by subconscious osmosis via analyzing poets like Milton — while analyzing poems, I cared much more about analyzing the imagery and shapes of the sounds, only dabbling into meter when it suited. The fifth-grade unit was enough to get me to a point in my small town where I once won a local poetry competition for my childhood age cohort. College-level lit analysis got me to the point where I can write poems that stand a decent chance of acceptance in literary markets, depending on what the publication needs during the open call. Over the past two years, I have restlessly experimented with new things while putting off drills and exercises as something I would just get around to later.

This week, I started to work through the book, and it’s exciting to get back to formal poetic study after a long while of pushing forward without consulting maps. I’d like to share some of the verses that I’ve composed as practice pieces, rough around the edges and a tad formulaic as a result. I’ve had quite a few ideas for real poems while reading, too, and those notes are being compiled elsewhere.

Please note that The Poem’s Heartbeat doesn’t actually have exercises in it — I’m just composing my own verses as concepts come up as a way of reinforcing them.

Anapestic verse

In the cosmic web dancing out life,
each new journey yet hidden from now,
these hard jumps between worlds every birth
tied to lots spun out deftly by Fates,
give me truth: grant its beauty and love.
These libations I bring in turn back to the Gods,
reciprocity rooting me down,
this devotion unfolding a path
up beyond the line marked by tall trees
where the nymphai wait, showing the way.

Trochaic verse

I don’t actually like composing with trochees on their own. However, for the purposes of study ……

Yoyo stares at me and sweetly purrs,
eyes closing, lounging comfy,
half between awake and knocked out.

Zeus casts lightning down like
breath illumined, angled,
forging icons within
soil like hundred-handers —
fulgurite formations,
fertile nitrate rainfall —
rumbling thunder, shaking
glass, my heart unsteady.

Dactylic verse

Call to the God of the lyre and bow,
swift-moving song rising, greeting him here.
Mark out each rhythm and cut the tune.
Weave all together like francincense
permeates air; Apollon receives.
Each of us holds the enchanting vine
cut and divided, still here in time.
Measure retunes us, intact like strings,
ready receivers of love’s blessings.

Old English-inspired

Halfway through,    hearken to the king,
lightning-rushing    bright and sharp,
the beginning the end    reborn through Zeus.
He ingested all,    filling fecund,
only to disgorge    in opaline wonder.
Fitting to plunge    first and final,
here — the fulcrum    upon the father
of the not-yet,    the never-now
son of ivy,    prince of the winepress.

Beyond these, the book covered two types of feet that are not usually seen on their own in English — spondaic (two strong) and pyrrhic (two weak). I didn’t create any practice verses for those because they are rarely encountered on their own.

We then moved into a chapter on metrical variation.

Metrical variation

(mostly anapestic, a stress variation in the first line)
An offering to Hekate well-placed,
her wood icon alight and alive,
gives retreating old months their farewells.

(mostly iambic, with anapests in lines 1 and 4 and a few trochees and spondees)
In the quiet evening, crickets murmur songs.
How sweet it feels to open windows now
after high summer baked pavement and clung
like eversummer ghosts of winters to come.

One of my lingering questions about syllable counts is whether I should go by the dictionary or by my voice. I know, for instance, that I have tended to treat mirror, error, and prayer as two syllables because the dictionary says that they are. However, in my dialect’s pronunciation, all of them are one syllable (albeit a held one). This first came up when I was editing my poetry for Acts of Speech, which is coming out on October 29, and I decided to leave the verses as they were. Moving forward, I think I will treat words like this as one-syllable, but confine them to stress positions.