Shall I Compare Thee To a Summer's Day?...Or Shalln't I?
By Nicole M. Bouchard
One of the stumbling blocks that many writers come across in attempting to put their thoughts to verse is the intimidating, collective shadow of the greats that leans over their shoulder to cast a dark cloud across the page.
In the essential guide, Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, author William Baer illustrates prime examples of meter and scansion by referring to Shakespeare, amongst many other classical poets. Shakespeare, however, is perhaps one of the more intimidating ghosts of volumes past as his rock star status and timeless themes in various genres are still inspiring countless works today. It’s easy to cower in the shadow of his quill, get tongue-tied with his Old English and believe that because you can’t write like him, you mustn’t be fit for pen and paper. Most students can be persuaded to eke out a few words on the page, a tentative step into deep woods, but when faced with their first exposure to Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, their courage wilts in the blazing glory of the Shakespearean sun.
I’ve often heard it said by aspiring writers that because they don’t write like so-and-so, they must not really be writers. It isn’t one’s mission to be the next (insert amazing author/poet here) but to be the most authentic, poignant, powerful and pure version of themselves. Poetry, it seems, is one of, if not the most, infamous mediums for leading devotees to levy unrealistic expectations upon their pens, stunting the words before they even mar the white surface of the paper.
First and foremost, it is important to realize that you, everyone, has a voice, has something of importance to say, and it is how you use that voice and message that defines you. This isn’t to say that everyone who desires to should quit their jobs and become poets. This is saying that everyone can have poetry as a rewarding part of their lives.
Author and instructor Melody Mansfield developed an exciting poetry curriculum at
“Students, in particular, are often so intimidated by what they deem to be "real" poetry—i.e. that which is so highly metered, rhymed, and formalized as to seem to be disconnected from life/emotion entirely. They often come to it with an attitude of "if I can't understand it, then it must be good" that is, of course, defeating. They also are put off, as we all should be, by overblown "poetic diction" that speaks to an age that was embarrassed to say "elbow," but that no longer has any real bearing on their own lives.
One of the things I do is to have them bring in "Found Poems"-- words and phrases found in science textbooks, teen magazines, even shampoo bottles--that help us move toward some kind of a definition of what poetry is and can be.
Also, after studying a breadth of poetry-- seeing a number of different styles, subjects, forms, etc-- I have them look in depth at the work of one poet, of their own choosing. I have them choose this poet as a surrogate "mentor" and examine her/his work for techniques the students admire and would like to emulate.
And of course, we write our own poetry, then do highly codified peer workshops in which the students analyze and consider what works well in their peer's poem, as well as where there may be points of confusion.”
The concept of modern language, looking to voices that speak to our time, to our individual tastes is one of the most important facets to making poetry more widely accessible. Put all notions of comparison aside and find the poets that speak to you. Poetry can be many things and can be discovered in many places. Finding poets whose work resonates with your life experiences can open the door to finding the right form of the medium that can work for you or at least give you an idea of thematic direction in your own work.
Writing as many pieces as you can in as many forms as you can will help you uncover your voice. Until you come to that point, reading who you perceive to be general guides can inform your outlook. Do you see yourself conceptually in contemporary poets such as Stephen Dunn, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver or Nikki Giovanni? Do you happen to be pre-dispositioned toward the classics and traditional forms/poets such as John Keats, Alice Carry, Robert Frost or Lord Byron?
Perhaps you are inclined to love a little of both. Openness for discovery of the words that will shape your world and a willingness to try a bit of everything when working on your own form will lead you to develop the style that suits you best.
Additionally, poetry is changing and so are the “rules” about what poetry can or should be. There is such a thing as interactive poetry in a digital forum that uses linguistic chemistry (treating words like molecules) to formulate patterns and changes with a mouse click; there are “fibs” which use the mathematical progression known as the Fibonacci sequence to govern the syllable count in each of the six lines; there is hypertext poetry using hypertext mark-up with no order except that which the reader chooses by following a particular link. Trends discussed recently at the Mass. Poetry Festival by colleagues from Drunken Boat, Solstice and Midway included performance poetry (the utilization of YouTube), erasure and the creative use of Google search terms.
The technological possibilities of the digital world play a significant role in many of the newer forms. We are not only able to share our work around the world in minutes but also to share our work in new, highly complex or fundamentally simple ways. The end result is that the confident or trepidatious poet has much more choice, many more tools in his workshop. Not only is poetry being broadened in terms of who utilizes it, it is being broadened in terms of how it’s being utilized.
Something to try: To give a discernible measure of consistency for you to judge, choose one general topic (ex. the moon) for a poem and write about it using up to four different forms that you don’t typically write in (two new and two traditional). Watch the evolution of the subject matter. Do visual effects contribute to the meaning? Has the strength of the message changed? Do you feel better able to convey the theme/underlying message with one form over another? Once you’ve gathered your findings, try the exercise again but use a more specific topic (ex. first love). Think about deciding factors such as the level of personalization you intend to give to the poem; if it is meant to portray your experience, a form that relies on user/reader interaction wouldn’t be suitable, yet if it comments on a more universal experience, user/reader interaction would be revealing.
~Three Centuries of American Poetry edited by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson Jr.
Nicole M. Bouchard is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, The Write Place At the Write Time. This publication features fiction, poetry, non-fiction, book reviews, craft essays, resources, fine artwork and numerous NYT best-selling author interviews including Janet Fitch, Alice Hoffman and Arthur Golden as well as interviews with additional creative professionals. For her work on the literary magazine as well as her journalistic and fiction work, Ms. Bouchard was profiled on the cable television program, Creative Women Today. She is a Letters member of the National League of American Pen Women and recently joined the Women's National Book Association. This spring she served on the Small Press Panel: How Online Journals and Social Media Transform Poetics at the Fourth Mass. Poetry Festival. She was also the creator and instructor of a four week online intensive creative writing course in 2011 affiliated with The Write Place At the Write Time, entitled, "Passion, Philosophy and Prose: The Power of the Pen". Her publication is now partnering with the esteemed, independent Milken Community High School creative writing program to donate their time and resources this summer to take a few select students through the online creative writing course. She lives in New England and relishes the power of gray, rainy days for writing.