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Tag Archives: imagery
8:39 am — Atlanta
Hello everyone. I hope all is well after the weekend. My title is a little tongue-in-cheek but, when I told one of my colleagues, last year, that I was retiring to write poetry, he replied with great seriousness: “Write lyrics. That’s where the money is”. And, if you have a musical ear, the ballad is as close as you can get to lyrics.
Many of our favourite songs are ballads, especially in the folk and country genres. England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and the United States, all have long histories of ballad writing both as poetry (Robert Burns and Walter de la Mare) and song (Gordon Lightfoot, Springsteen, The Beatles, today’s power rock ballads). If you watch American Idol, or any of the other competitions, you know many ballads are sung.
Ballads have a specified form, but from what I have seen with all the ballads I have read, it is a rare poet who follows the form strictly, so it is forgiving in nature. After all Rule Number One is break the rules.
Ballads started as narrative songs with a recurrent refrain. In literature they became narrative poems, often sentimental, tragic, comic, or historical, written in short stanzas, and full of sensory imagery. Think The Ballad of Casey Jones, or John and Yoko, or Davy Crockett.
The word comes from the Old French balade, a song accompanying a dance, from Late Latin ballāre, to dance.
A ballad is a composition written in metrical feet forming rhythmical lines. They are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains (four-line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables), known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed (in the scheme a, b, c, b).
That looks and sounds scarier than it is. The brackets make it seem complicated. What you want is a topic. Choose a folk hero, or sentimental topic, say the loss of something. You can look to history for subject matter. Then write a four line stanza. Lines 1 and three have eight syllables and lines 2 and 4 have six. The iambic means every second syllable is stressed, as in the word “announce,” or the line “I eat my peas and honey with a knife”. If you go through, you will note every second syllable is stressed. Iambic is our natural speech pattern, in English.
The good news is that you can have different line lengths, different rhyme schemes, no rhyme scheme, a different stress pattern, so long as there is a discernible rhythm to the stanzas when read.
Here is an excerpt from “Barbara Allen,” a traditional ballad:
In Scarlet Town, where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’
Made every youth cry well-a-day
Her name was Barbara Allen.
All in the merry month of May
When green buds they were swellin’,
Young Jeremy Grove on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbara Allen.
And, an excerpt from one of the most famous of the literary ballads “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” by Oscar Wilde:
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.
Note that Wilde decided he wanted six lines rather than quatrains, but if you read it you will feel its rhythm. Once you have the rhythm in your bones, and I suggest looking up ballad texts if the idea of writing one intrigues you, you will find it surprisingly easy to reproduce. Try at least for a quatrain or two on more than one topic, because, if you decide ballads are not for you, the quatrains can serve as a resource for when we tackle pantoums. But you might surprise yourself: ballads can be addictive because of their rhythmic quality.
Have fun with this and post your results on your blog, or here in the comments, even if it’s a lone quatrain, but you know you nailed the rhythm.
Thursday, I promised you a break from no no words, so will be sharing with you some sites worth taking a look at; Friday will be our usual roundup, back to its normal listing, now that April is done; and next Tuesday, perhaps another form, perhaps a small break and a general exercise. We shall see, dear readers.
Meanwhile, share this with anyone you feel would enjoy it, by clicking on the buttons below. Happy writing, everyone.
8:57 am — Atlanta
Hello dear readers. I hope everyone is well and writing. Today, I shall speak about a group of words and then we will take a week’s break from my telling you what you should not be using. Next week I shall talk about some internet resources I have found worth bookmarking. Then, it’s back to words that should be used sparingly.
The grouping for today:
here is/are, there is/are
The main problems with these phrases are their blandness, lack of specificity, and use of verbs of being, which contribute to the blandness. They say nothing. I said in a blog about active versus being verbs: This is not to say never use being verbs. Sometimes we want to have a state of being, but too much being leaves the reader with a fuzzy, and often dull, image. There is nothing to see when something is, as opposed to something running, singing, breaking…When you use being verbs, do so with deliberation and an awareness of the effect.
You read: “Look. There’s John.” Or you read: “Look. John is standing over by the fountain.” Which gives you a picture?
You read: “Where’s the bread?” “It’s here.” Or you read “The bread is on the cutting board.” I am still using a being verb in the second example, but I am talking about the state of the bread’s location. I am being specific about “here”.
In poetry your phrasing will be less stilted, but the rules of specificity and sensory imagery still apply. You need to give the poem and your readers something to hang onto: active verbs, specific whens and wheres.Your objective is to engage the readers’ senses.
Be aware in your own reading, not just of poetry, but of newspapers, magazines, and novels, of how often these phrases appear and how much the writing lacks because of them. Be aware, too, of the writing that does not use these phrases and how much richer and more concrete what you are reading about becomes.
Short and sweet today. I am in recovery mode from having a temporary crown put on a molar yesterday. I shall see you back here tomorrow for the last of the short roundups. Next week we are into May and I shall return to the regular roundup list. Tuesday will be ballad day, and next Thursday, bookmarkable sites.
9:09 am, Thursday — Atlanta
Verbs. No part of speech communicates as effectively as a richly active verb. Whenever you come across a dull being verb (am, are, is, were, was, be, being, been), try to reorganize your poem so as to employ, instead, a better and more active verb. You want the reader to interact with the poem and that happens with active verbs.
Here is what Moat and Fairfax, from The Way to Write, have to say: “Imagine you were around at the moment the rudiments of language were being discovered. First came the grunts in the shape of names — MAN. WOMAN. FIRE. Then from outside, MAMMOTH! One big name, speaking danger. But with it a new need, the need to name something entirely different. ‘What’s that mammoth up to?’ The verb was born.
Dependent on nouns, but powerful.
Not so powerful when the mammoth is merely being, when for instance he’s sleeping; but when he’s acting, when for instance he tosses you over his head, very powerful indeed.
Nouns may be the most loaded words, but verbs are the most dramatic.
‘The mammoth is asleep under the tree.’ That expresses a state of being; a calm observation — you might say it gives a false sense of security.
‘The mammoth sleeps under the tree.’ That’s more powerful. You get the feeling that the mammoth is putting his back into it. His sleeping has almost become an act. The reader is put on the alert.
‘The mammoth has gone to sleep under the tree.’ More powerful still. That really does suggest action. It also points out that the mammoth was awake beforehand. Now the drama’s creeping in. He might wake up.
All three statements are in the present. They all say the same thing — to the untuned ear. And that’s the point. The tuned ear detects the difference. A difference of meaning, and a difference of power. The writer must have an ear; and by discipline he must tune it to register where the power, and so the meaning, lies.”
Active vs. Being
This is not to say never use being verbs. Sometimes we want to have a state of being, but too much being leaves the reader with a fuzzy, and often dull, image. There is nothing to see when something is, as opposed to something running, singing, breaking…When you use being verbs, do so with deliberation and an awareness of the effect.
A friend, Kaspalita, who is part of a duo who created a network for writers, Writing Our Way Home, wrote a poem this morning that illustrates my point and he kindly allowed me to use it as an example.
I snort up the letters in your poem
enjoy the soft edges of your vowels
your consonants draw blood
I’m spraying ink onto the page
nothing is wrong/nothing is right
the paper skits under the speed of my hand
in the morning
illuminated in a pool of dawn
I see a heap of broken words, and
on the floor, dark letters cast aside in last night’s frenzy
the only things moving are motes of dust
caught by the sun
by Kaspalita, March 17, 2011
Note the active verbs and how they set the tone and drama of the poem. Be conscious of the images they give you. Find the being verbs. The speaker is speaking of a state of being in all cases. The being verbs are necessary, but are, as they should be, a small percentage of the verbs.
Go through one, or more, of your poems and highlight the active verbs and the being verbs. See how many being verbs you can make active and if you leave a verb of being, do so because you know it is the right verb.
Thank you if you stayed through to the end. There was no way I could shorten this [and I could have made it longer!]. If you have questions, or something you wish to comment on regarding verb use, please do comment.
I will see you tomorrow for the Friday roundup of prompts and exercises and Tuesday for the next phase of dialogue poems.
8:12 am, Thursday — Atlanta
Good Day to all. If you remember, last Thursday I set an exercise to prove a point about the strength of nouns in writing. In case you haven’t read last Thursday, here it is. You might revisit the post anyway to remind yourself how dreadful my adaptation is, before reading the poem below.
When you read Masefield’s poem “Cargoes,” note the specificity of nouns. Ask yourself how those nouns affect your reading of the poem. How do they affect the mood of each stanza? How does the imagery affect you sensorily?
John Mase field
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
A book I think everyone should own is The Way to Write by John Fairfax and John Moat. It is a slender volume on language. They say this about nouns:
“The word noun comes, one way or another, from the Latin word nomen which means (here we go again) a name. ‘The name of a person, place or thing …’ Knowing what we do about names and the power they command we can surmise that nouns are important. They are, in fact, the most important, and for one good reason. Of all the parts of speech, only nouns are independent. All the rest, directly or by implication, depend on the existence of nouns for their own existence. Nouns depend on nothing.
TIGER. Bang. It stands all on its own.
But, ‘RAN’ or ‘PUNY’ or ‘INTO’ or ‘MOREOVER’ or ‘STEADILY’ — they just don’t figure. Not on their own.”
Notice in your reading of poetry, when you like a poem, whether the writer uses strong nouns and verbs; if you don’t like a poem, ask yourself what is missing…
Next Thursday, a little on verbs and a final thought on adjectives and adverbs; tomorrow is the prompt roundup for the week; and Tuesday, more dialogue poems.