Writing Excuses 16.15: Poetic Structure, Part 1
Key points: Sonnets are memes! Poetic forms are memes. Structure, rhyme scheme, meter can be tools of communication. Patterns of difference and repetition. Sonnet, villanelle, sestina, different forms suit different themes and topics. Repetition catches our attention, but it needs to point to something.
[Season 16, Episode 15]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Poetic Structure, Part 1.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And this is haiku.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Humm…] [Mary Robinette] I’m not going to pause to count to see whether or not that was actually haiku, however…
[Howard] I counted five times to make sure.
[Dan] It is. Our tagline is very accidentally a perfect haiku.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s
[Amal] That’s beautiful.
[Mary Robinette] That is so beautiful. And thus, poetic structure. Which Amal will speak to us as part five of our eight part series on poetry.
[Amal] Yes. So, poetic structure. So, one of the things that we’ve been sort of… I feel like up until this point in this series, I’ve been trying to talk about lots of underlying ideas about poetry, some things that are assumed, some things that are received, and stuff like that. To kind of challenge and develop our ideas of what a poem is or can be. But what I want to do in today’s episode is talk about some much more recognizable poetic forms, and talk about how, even though you don’t need a poem to be structured in an explicit way that has been received with like centuries of lineage and baggage behind it, in order for it to be a poem, it can be really fun to play with those forms on the same. So you absolutely do not need to write a sonnet in order to be writing a poem. You don’t need to write a villanelle or a sestina or a limerick or a haiku for it to be a poem. But since we have these forms, I would love to actually talk about the forms themselves and how they can be not so much constraining as liberating sometimes. Especially when you’re just starting out writing poetry. Also, to talk about a revelation that I experienced about poetic structure that I received from one of my students while trying to teach a class on structure, when I was talking about sonnets. What happened was this. I was talking about how sonnets have come through a series of transformations over time, the way that the sonnet form tends to get taught at say an undergraduate English student level is that it is 14 lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme. But there is a distinction that happened. In the past, once upon a time, Petrarch, an Italian poet, wrote in a certain rhyme scheme because Italian is a rhyme rich language. So poets were wanting to write sonnets the way Petrarch did copied that scheme. But then Shakespeare comes along, and Shakespeare, recognizing that English is a rhyme poor language, changes the rhyme scheme of the sonnet. Instead of having a turn in the poem that happens in the middle, he has the turn come right at the end, before that last couplet. All this sort of stuff. As I was going on and saying this in class, a student, absolutely ingeniously, interjected to say, “So, you’re saying a sonnet is like a meme?”
[Amal] I said, “Oh, my God. Yes.”
[Amal] A sonnet is a meme. My mind exploded. I thought this. This is the most… How could I not have seen it before? A sonnet is a meme. So is almost any poem that is a received form that you interact with and engage with and transform as you move forward. Then it occurred to me that there is actually a fantastic example of this in that there is a specific poem that has been meme-ified more than perhaps any other, which is This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams…
[Mary Robinette] That was exactly what I thought you were going to refer to.
[Amal] So, here you have this poem. This is the plum poem, if you’re not familiar with its actual title. If you literally just Google this is just to say meme, you will get the most beautiful panoply of transformations of this… Of the plum poem.
[Mary Robinette] This is just to say, that this is a podcast that you were probably saving to listen to later.
[Amal] Exactly. Exactly. So this is what I want to kind of touch on. But even though the idea of a structure in a poem, of a rhyme scheme, of a specific meter, look essentially like constraints, like things that are going to limit your creativity, they are going to hamper you in your progress towards poetic majesty, they also can be tools of communication and of ultimately freedom as you engage with and transform them and contribute to a kind of accumulation of meaning around these poems. Shakespeare 100% did this with something like my mistress eyes are nothing like the sun. Where he took this idea of a sonnet is a sincere honest love poem, and one of its defining features is that you’re going to itemize a kind of shopping list of your beloved’s features and kind of sing the praises of each one. He just comes out and goes, “Nah. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. Coral is more red than her lips are red.” And just kind of goes down this sort of like seemingly nasty list of ways of saying, “Nah. My lover is actually not that great. She’s not a goddess, she’s not got all this stuff.” But “And yet, I think my love more rare than any she belied with false compare.” It’s totally transforming the whole principle of the poem.
[Dan] Yeah. I love… I’ve got a 19-year-old daughter. She is constantly trying to show me, because now she’s off to college, and so most of our communication is done over text, and she will send me all these things she thinks are hilarious. I say, “No, they’re not. Those are not remotely funny. What’s wrong with you?” What we eventually figured out is that the root of this kind of massive generational gap between what I think is funny and what she thinks is funny is…
[Mary Robinette] That you’re a dad?
[Dan] She knows the memetic structure behind everything that she is trying to share with me.
[Dan] So it’s not necessarily funny on its own, it’s funny because someone is taking a known form and playing with it. I love the idea of… That your brilliant student who compared that to poetic structure is absolutely dead on. One of my favorite web comics is Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North.
[Dan] That is… He actually has… What’s brilliant about that one is that it’s like six panels that are identical every single time. They’re thousands upon thousands of comics that he has put out and they all have exactly the same visuals with different texts. One of them, in response to critiquers who were like, “How can you possibly just use the same images over time? That’s so boring.” He literally calls back to sonnet structure, and says, “No. The form is just the way in which you are saying something, and allows you this incredible freedom of expression, because you don’t have to worry about all these other aspects of it.”
[Howard] During the break between recording episodes, I posited what I now think is a possible doctoral thesis for someone who understands…
[Howard] Poetry and oral tradition. That was the idea that poetry with rhyme and meter is a checksum for the oral tradition. Well, in between episodes, I was reading up on the word meme and Richard Dawkin’s original interpretation of it, which is that it’s a unit of information which, when exposed to humans, is easy for the humans to copy. Easy for them to replicate. So, yes, these forms with meter and rhyme, it makes it easier for us to replicate them. I love that concept, and the idea that memes at some point… Like Dan said, I have a 20-year-old and a 26-year-old and a 17-year-old, and they’re regularly trying to show me things on their phones. No, I don’t want to look at your phone, I just… Do you want to tell me a story? No, I want you to have the experience of this meme unfolding before you. I guess, Dan, I’m fortunate in that I have a little bit more of the context, because I regularly think they’re funny.
[Mary Robinette] Well, speaking of stories that we want people to tell us… Let’s pause for the book of the week. Which is Resident Alien. That was your suggestion, Howard.
[Howard] Oh, my goodness. It’s not a book, it’s a television program which is airing now on scifi. It’s based on a comic book, and it is about an alien who crash lands on earth and who must take the form of a human in order to fit in in order to complete his mission. The alien is played by Alan Tudyk. In the very first episode, there is a scene where Alan Tudyk is watching Law & Order and trying to replicate the dialogue. “I’ve gut mn mukoset.”
[Howard] Rewind. “I’ve got news for you, Cosette.”
[Howard] Okay. Alan Tudyk pretending to be a human being is my new favorite jam.
[Howard] As of this recording, the first four episodes are out. It’s funny in that the tagline that they’ve been using is 3 5-syllable sets. It’s the doctor… Excuse me. Alien comedy doctor dramedy we all need right now. I realize that in the patterning of their marketing for it, they’ve created poetry. Anyway. It’s beautiful. I think you’ll enjoy it. Scifi.com, and it’s called Resident Alien.
[Amal] That sounds so great. I extremely want to watch it.
[Amal] I love Alan Tudyk so much.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah.
[Amal] Alan Tudyk being sinister, in particular, is of great appeal to me.
[Amal] So, I want to pick up on the last thing you were saying about pattern, actually, and how that fits into this idea of poetic structure. So, a pattern is essentially a recognition of difference and repetition, right? And the… So often, when we use a shorthand like rhyme scheme and stuff like that, what we’re talking about is a pattern of difference and repetition. And that poetic forms are an orchestration of those kinds of differences. They are formed over time, they have different origins, different contexts, that kind of give rise to them. That each one can be its own mini lecture that I don’t really want to get into, because I want to talk about structure more broadly. But I do want to point out that when you look at a poetic form, I would encourage you to think about what it is suited for. The sonnet comes out of a love poetry tradition. But something like the villanelle… if you look at a villanelle, thinking of famous ones, something like Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light, by Dylan Thomas, or Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath. I think I made you up inside my head. The thing that when you look at a villanelle, the repetition… The refrain in it makes it peculiarly suited to themes of obsession, to themes of being caught up in some feeling or idea, in a way that is different from something like a sonnet, where you kind of are building towards an argument and then turn away from it. Or from a sestina, where you have this ludicrous form of like repeating six words in a different pattern every stanza in a way that ultimately feels eclectic. Or like a sort of pattering of rain or something like that. So… Yeah. Sorry.
[Mary Robinette] No. Continue your thought, and then I have a question thought.
[Amal] So, it’s… All this to say that different poetic forms can be… Can come out of a process that has suited them to a particular theme or topic, and then you can get a lot of mileage out of subverting that theme or topic, the way Shakespeare does with a love sonnet to make it slightly more sarcastic or something like that.
[Mary Robinette] This is so interesting to me. So, one of the things that I talk about, and it took me a while to get to it, was the idea of repetition carrying important. So, in puppetry, people have heard me talk before about head bobbing, which is where the puppet’s head just bounces up and down. The problem with that is that it carries no meaning. It’s not that the puppet’s head is moving, that’s not the problem. It’s that it’s not pointing to anything. Part of this is because the way people are wired, when you’re thinking about narration, that someone who is droning is hard to listen to. But repetition also catches our interest. This is, I think, related to how we are originally hardwired, which is that repetition is inherently unnatural. So when you hear something repeating outside in the wild, that’s important and that’s something you should pay attention to. When you’re… Like in prose, when you have accidental repetition, when something… A sentence is awkward because of the accidental repetition, it’s because it’s pointing to the wrong thing. So, my question is, after all of that, is one of the things… Like, it sounds like what you’re talking about with this, with these different forms being well suited to different things, is, to some degree, because of where that repetition happens, because of what it’s pointing at. Am I getting this?
[Amal] Absolutely. Absolutely, completely. I love the example of accidental repetition or unintentional repetition that happens in prose. Because the… There’s a corollary to that which I find really fascinating. Those of you who did the night brain exercise might find this interesting to muse on if you look at the results of what you did. When I see people do the night brain exercise, there are a few things that kind of come up, that recur. That in the shape that their unguarded, unselfconscious thoughts take as they’re trying to write past a snag or something, one of them is a sort of chanting repetition. That, as they’re trying to write something that is poetic, they’ll find themselves repeating a sentence over and over again. As if the repetition itself is going to bring them into a more poetic affect. It works. It absolutely works. Because the intention is there. Off the top of my head, I think of something like TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men where it ends with, “This is how the world ends. This is how the world ends. This is how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” You need that repetition, that accumulation, essentially, of a kind of storm gathering.
[Mary Robinette] That’s so amazing. I cannot wait for us to get to part two, where you’re talking about the without constraints.
[Mary Robinette] So, do you want to slide us into homework so we can…
[Amal] Absolutely. So, your homework for today is to essentially write a poem with a form. So right either three haiku or one villanelle. You can look up the constraints of these respective forms. They are widely available online. I want you to pay attention to the demands of the form. Consider how those constraints that you’re experiencing can actually inspire the theme of a poem or a certain mode of poetic expression. If these particular two forms don’t speak to you, go for another one. But it has to be an established, traditional form that you are engaging with from our contemporary present moment.
[Mary Robinette] This is amazing. Thank you so much. You are out of excuses. Now go write.