I just read a prize poem in a university literary magazine—a pretty thing it was, too. Had it not felt so special to me, I would have stopped reading it because the poem had minor stylistic faults. A few lines, more or less, were out of measure, causing the poem to lack in rhyme, rhythm and reason for being—a trio, by the way, essential to good poetry.
The thought in the poem was good and well-developed. The rhymes were perfect, but the measure was faulty, exceedingly so in places. For example, the first line of each stanza was
intended to have eight syllables; but they ranged from eight to ten and twelve, and back again. The poet could have easily avoided such errors by omitting an unnecessary word or phrase, or by substituting here and there with the proper accent and right number of syllables.
Another poem I read online pleased me both in subject matter and poetical expression; but the change of accent in just one place made the line read like plain prose and marred the effect. It gave me the feeling I once had when I was ten years old, lying sick and nervous in my little bedroom where there was a miss-matched patch on the wallpaper—as if I must make the change necessary to restore symmetry and harmony.
The line read:
“And still I love to open to that pretty page.”
The first line of every other stanza in the entire poem ended with a word of two syllables, accented on the first. If she had only said: “And still I love to open to that loved passage.”
In the editorial department of a leading collegiate poetry journal, appeared a famous quote by French poet, Arthur Rimbaud:
“The poet is truly the thief of fire.
He is responsible for humanity, for animals even; he will have to make sure his visions can be smelled, fondled, listened to; if what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form; if it has none, he gives it none. A language must be found…of the soul, for the soul and will include everything: perfumes, sounds colors, thought grappling with thought.”
— Arthur Rimbaud
To make shoes that have shape and will hold together, or chairs that will stand alone, a poet must go through a learning process, an apprenticeship; but to write “Hamlet,” “The Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Scarlet Letter” or “In Memoriam,” one has only to feel the impulse—nature will do the rest.
I am not a poet, but I have read and enjoyed poetry from childhood. I have written plenty of verses to notice how defects arise in poetry.
A poet selects the subject matter for a poem. He expresses the thought as well as he can—that is, he “thinks it” as well as he can. The general result is good; in parts the poem rises to real excellence. The poet is pleased and satisfied, and calls it finished. Perhaps he does not notice that some rhymes are imperfect and the measure is faulty. He might notice these subtle errors, but he reasons that he must preserve the sentiment even at some slight sacrifice to rhyme and rhythm.
Is it necessary to sacrifice either sentiment or true poetic expression?
I contend that it is not. It will take time, patience, and skill. Sometimes a poet may need to alter an entire stanza to remedy a single defect. But is it not worth the time? How much better to bring out a slightly different shade of the desired thought, clearly, and clothed in real poetry, than to retain the original thought with defects. I know from experience that any poet can do this. The satisfaction of “the doing” is payment in praise, instead of moans. It is not often, however, that the editor of a literary journal purchases a poem where the poetic style is not as perfect as its writer can make it.
I read a lot of classic poetry. It is easy for me to refer to forced rhymes and inaccurate measures in the works of acknowledged poets—even Henry Longfellow, John Whittier and Alfred Tennyson occasionally made use of “poetic license.” Until we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in all that goes to make a real poet, let us emulate their virtues, not hide behind their faults.
Poets of all skills crowd around the foot of the ladder that stretches to the summit of poetic attainment. Those who succeed in obtaining recognition must climb towards the top.