POETRY

Many schools are hopeless at teaching poetry writing, and little better at introducing children to the work of good poets. The rot set in when they decided to stop teaching the rules, the idea being to free children up to write in their own style, but the result is a disaster: children are encouraged to write without rhythm or rhyme, producing poems which might be mistaken for shopping lists:-

indentA tree at the edge of a field,
indentThe tall grass waving in the breeze,
indentA horse breaking wind in a stable,
indentA black cow munching while rolling its eyes,
indentAnd a partridge in a pear tree.

This is not what poetry is supposed to be, so let's look at how it should be done:-


Rhythm

At first you might not notice that the rhythm of this sentence has been planned, but almost every syllable's been chosen with great care to make it rise and fall in strength: alternating back and forth between the weak and strong. That pattern would become boring if it went on in exactly the same way for a long time, so it is a good idea to break it up a bit either by removing the occasional weak syllable or by putting an extra one in so that the listener is taken by surprise: again we feel the rhythm of these words, though now they hit us with the odd surprise: listen to how the pattern can be changed, and notice the extra weak word in this phrase.
indentYou should pick a format for a poem and stay with it till the end, so each line might take the form: weak-strong weak-strong weak-strong weak-strong (four strong beats in each line), though you can play with this structure by occasionally missing out a weak syllable or by adding in an extra one (strong weak-weak-strong weak-strong weak-strong). Here's a little poem of mine that uses this format, inspired by watching the Tour de France cycle race on television.

indentWhile riding next to Bartoli,
indentI heard a massive fartoli,
indentIt wasn't him, I have to say:
indentIt was a horse beside the way
indentWhich galloped wildly, snorting hard;
indentGaining on us yard by yard...
indentTill field was trees, and horse was gone;
indentTowards the tower we hammered on.

It's also possible to base a poem on the pattern strong-weak strong-weak strong-weak strong-weak, but it is much harder to keep to and can be irritating to listen to if it goes on too long, so it's best avoided. Whenever you encounter a good poem, have a look at the structure: count how many beats are there in a line, and think about whether it's based on units of weak-strong or strong-weak.


To Rhyme or Not

Rhyme is not an essential component of all poems, though most do sound better with it, and in some cases it is vital: a non-rhyming limerick simply won't do. I'm sure you know how rhyme works already, but you may not know the rule for what happens when the stress is not on the last syllable of a line: the whole word from the stressed vowel onwards should sound the same for a pair of rhyming words, so "running" and "cunning" rhyme with each other, but "running" and "winning" do not, and nor do "cunning" and "runner". If you write a poem with five strong beats per line, you may find that it works best without rhyme, but with four beats per line it usually needs rhyme to work properly. I don't need to show you another rhyming poem: it's more to the point to show you a poem which proves that rhyme isn't always necessary. The following is an extract from Wordsworth's "Prelude":-

indentAnd from my pillow, looking forth by light
indentOf moon or favouring stars, I could behold
indentThe antechapel where the statue stood
indentOf Newton with his prism and silent face,
indentThe marble index of a mind forever
indentVoyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

It would be unrealistic for most of you to expect that you could ever write like that, but it's not completely impossible that one or two of you might. To develop the skills, you might try writing a story using that format: non-rhyming lines of five strong beats, primarily using units of weak-strong. Notice that some of the lines flow straight on into the next without a pause.


The Limerick

The limerick is a harder test of rhyme than most other forms of poem because there are always three lines in it which have to rhyme with each other, while in other poems they normally only come in pairs. Here's one of my limericks, written at a time when we were bombarded by adverts showing truck drivers munching away at their Yorkie bars. While this poem sounds for a moment as if it is going to have an extremely rude ending, it finds a surprising way out:-

indentThere once was a man in a truck,
indentWho picked up a female, what luck!
indentShe climbed in real quick,
indentAnd admired his gear stick,
indentSo he gave her a jolly good Yorkie to suck!

If you are going to write rude limericks, they are rarely funny if they contain very rude words, so the art is to hint at them rather than saying them directly.


More will be added to this page later, but there is enough here to get you started (and you wouldn't be taught any of this in most schools). Don't forget that the best songwriters are poets, so you can study the words of some songs as poems. You might also like to try writing your own words for tunes which you like if you don't think the existing words for them are all that great. I personally like to write amusing songs with political messages, such as this one calling for the naked rambler to be freed from prison: The Naked Rambler.