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Tell the Truth, but Tell It Slant: What Makes a Good Poem?

koertge_brimstone journalsI might be working with kids labeled disadvantaged or gifted; it might be librarians or English teachers (also disadvantaged or gifted). I write the same thing on the board every time:

The wounded soldier staggered past the house.

Then I ask what’s wrong (I use the word wrong because I’m bold and reckless). Usually everybody just stares. Then they guess: There aren’t enough syllables? There are too many syllables? What house? How old is that soldier? Let’s bring those troops home from Iraq!

Here’s the answer: it doesn’t make sense to write an even line about something as uneven as staggering. Consider this:

Excitement is the thing I crave the most.

Really. Well, hide the lampshades. This party is just getting started.

When I tell people that a line’s rhythm can sometimes match its meaning and that meter should at least not grate against content, they furrow their brows. When I say that full rhyme isn’t always best but is sometimes tedious and misleading, they look at me as if I’ve just stumbled in off the moors with a body part between my teeth.

I admit that no one reads out loud in iambic pentameter (the WOUND-ed SOL-dier STAG-gered PAST the HOUSE), and I also admit that the natural line-reading can lie beside the metrical one in a sexy and interesting way. But in classrooms and NCTE seminars, in SCBWI meetings and in reviews of poetry and poetry novels, I hear an awful lot of people insisting on lock-step meter and full rhyme. Their criticism is usually this: someone didn’t stick with some prescribed rhythm and/or the words-that-rhyme aren’t perfect.

And you know what that means, don’t you? No dessert for the poet, and we’ll just have to see about Disney World this summer.

I want to suspend those rules for a while and introduce a new one: what effect is the poet after?

Wounded and limping, the soldier staggered

is a more satisfying rendition of the line that began this essay. What it says and how it says it are more copacetic. Rhythm married to sense is part of the effect the poet wanted.

People nod and write in their notebooks. Smiles all around.Until I ask my audience to write the next line and make me a couplet. Their eyes roll back in their heads and the list begins:

haggard
laggard
flaggered
slaggard

(and why didn’t I go to that other workshop, “The Bunny as Marxist Dupe”?).

Still, God bless them, they try.

Wounded and limping, the soldier staggered.
His eyes were dim, his face was haggard.

or

Wounded and limping, the soldier staggered.
He went ahead. He was not a laggard.

When I ask if either of the new second lines is interesting, many admit they’re not. “But what are we supposed to do?” they ask. “Staggered doesn’t have that many rhymes.”

I’d like to suggest that the very inevitability of the haggard/laggard choices should automatically rule them out as first  options. The effect any poet wants is rarely the self-evident.

So if the likely is excluded, what’s left?

Wounded and limping, the soldier staggered
toward a house just beyond that ragged

This possibility has at least two things to recommend it. Neither line stops at the end and congratulates itself but carries me on. Next is the word ragged, a dandy slant-rhyme with staggered, suggesting that the poet was either clever or lucky. And who doesn’t want to read things by lucky, clever people?

By the way, a sixth-grade student in Canada recently perked this couplet right up with her variation on line two:

His face was dim, his eyes were haggard.

Merely by moving nouns to unlikely places, the line gets distinguished. Haggard eyes is so-so, but a dim face is a pretty innovative way to suggest fatigue bordering on demise.

Here’s something else for teachers and reviewers to consider. Let’s pretend the following list of end-rhymes is all we know about a poem and a poet’s intention:

renewal
rougher
gruel
suffer
juicy
proper
Debussy
clodhopper

For me, there are two things think about:

1) For full-rhyme, these are pretty interesting words. 2) Every line ends on an unstressed syllable.

Sometimes it’s fun to pretend that the writers started with just the rhymes, that they were there before the meaning or the feelings. Instead of always imagining poets have deep things they want to say or tortured emotions they want to express, maybe they just wanted to fool around with some words.

In this case, some of these pairs (juicy/Debussy) look like they might belong in light verse. But not all of them. And then there’s the interesting dilemma of the unaccented last syllable. Every line ends unstressed. What’s the effect of that? And how can such a swoony, falling-away energy be used? Also, will the lines end with periods every blessed time, or is there a spot or two where rushing ahead might be best?

These are the problems the poet faces: not how-can-I-say-the-tremendously-important-thing-I-want-to-say but how-can-I-use-these-words-in-an-interesting-way.

Here are the first two stanzas of a poem called “Returning Home”* by Leslie Monsour. They illustrate most of the things I’ve been talking about. She gets the effects she wants with a hesitant, exploratory meter and with tentative half-rhymes.

The whispers of the house are not our own;
They’re of our absence, air unbreathed, dead moths.
It’s musty here. Our old thoughts stretch and yawn
Like wakened dogs, we start where we left off.

Go for a walk, reclaim familiar streets,
Bring in the customary flowers, fill
the laundry basket, rest on unchanged sheets,
Pull dandelions by twilight, sort the mail.

She starts stanza one with an attractively spooky first couple of lines, breaks lines in the middle so nobody is lulled to sleep, rewards her readers with a strong simile toward the end of the stanza, and signals her tentativeness at the whole situation by avoiding the authority of full rhyme and choosing own/yawn.

The only full stop in stanza two is at the end because she’s been moving from chore to chore, never really stopping until the  mail is in her hands. She gets her feet on the ground with streets/sheets and then undercuts that inevitability with fill/mail.

These are a lovely couple of stanzas, and they make me want to read on.

When I write poetry, it’s always free verse, because rhyme and meter are too hard for me. Here’s what I’d be likely to do with the same subject:

I’m glad to finally find myself at home.
I’m really not the sort who likes to roam.
Everything around here smells so stale.
It’s almost like I’ve walked into a jail.

That’s just awful. If I showed it to my wife, she’d slap me around and send me back to my computer. And she’d be right. The rhymes are so smug, and the whole stanza struts around pointing to itself.

So. Is full rhyme always bad? Absolutely not. English is a rhymerich language, and fixed forms like the sonnet make their  traditional demands. Q. What’s a poet to do? A. Not hum the obvious melody every time, and experiment with dissonance when the situation warrants.

Is regular meter always bad? Of course not. But is that kind of uniformity really appropriate for most poems? Is it, given what the poem is about, the effect the poet wants?

It was Emily Dickinson who talked about “the Truth’s superb surprise.” Surprise doesn’t come from the predictable. That’s  why she advises writers to

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.

I’m standing right beside Ms. Dickinson on this one. Can you find us in the photograph, there on the end in the second row? She’s the one in tulle.

*From The Alarming Beauty of the Sky (Red Hen Press), © 2005 by Leslie Monsour. Reprinted by permission of the author.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ron Koertge About Ron Koertge

Poet, author, and humorist Ron Koertge’s latest book is Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II (Candlewick).

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