The Traditional Theory of Poetry, Page 4 

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

9. Poetry is Musical, continued.
The sound of the words must harmonize with the idea, mood, or feeling in the poem. For example, notice the softness created by the s sounds in these lines by Robert Herrick:

So soft streams meet, so springs with gladder smiles
Meet after long divorcement by the Isles:

And consider Shakespeare's Sonnet 30, with its moaning and sorrowful sound and feel:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
  But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
  All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Rhetoric of expression or quality of presentation.
This may be stretching the concept of musical a bit, but the effect of the words that clothe the ideas should not be minimized. Looking for "just the right word" is an essential task of the poet.

As Alexander Pope put it,

True art is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.

Memorable lines are those with ideas worth remembering as expressed in that particular way. In their expression of thought, great poems depart from the stale and common or in some other way convey a sense of surpassing, of sublimity, of rising above the ordinary. In this sense we may say that poetry should surpass reality in expression. Even poetry written in a conversational manner is not conversation. Compare Henry Vaughan's "The Lampe":

'Tis dead night round about: Horror doth creep
And move on with the shades, stars nod, and sleep,
And through the dark air spin a firey thread
Such as doth gild the lazy glow-worm’s bed.

Compare this with the ordinary statement, "It was totally dark and fearfully quiet; nothing could be seen but blinking stars."

Metrical persuasiveness.
Meter aids the rhetoric of expression in power, creating a sense of inevitability. Words and phrases lock in as the meter drives forward, with correspondence between stressed syllables of the poetic foot and stresses words or syllables of meaning. Consider Alexander Pope:

Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea.

Or Shakespeare:

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

In these two examples, tea and kings get heavy stress as the couplets conclude because they are both positioned in the second syllable of the iambic foot, which is the stressed syllable.

10. Final Thoughts
As I have said before, the way to learn to write poetry (or prose, for that matter) is to read a lot of it. When you find a paticular poem or poet you really like--or really dislike--ask yourself why. What is it about the poem that resonates with you? The meaning? The way the meaning is encapsulated within the lines? The images? The metaphors? Spend time with the poems you love. Read them over and over and recite them aloud. Memorize them so you can enjoy them aloud while you drive and enjoy them silently when you are in a place where you have to keep silent.

Then, write some poems and revise and revise and work on them, until you have some work of your own that you want to add to your memorized or often repeated poems.

Next page: Poetry FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)


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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com