Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.

DID YOU KNOW

Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.

 

 

Fun with Terminology

Fun with Terminology

Gwynn Scheltema

National Punctuation Day

“Yes, Virginia, there really is a National Punctuation Day!”

National Punctuation Day (NPD) claims September 24 for a celebration of punctuation and its importance—a sentiment close to this editor’s heart. Founded by Jeff Rubin in 2004, he encourages people who value correct punctuation and spelling to post pictures of errors spotted in everyday life.

Just a bit of fun, to be sure, but good things have come out of NPD too. StudioSTL,(a non-profit that brings together authors, educators and artists with youth ages 6–18 to develop writing skills to be used in life, work, and school) raises money each National Punctuation Day for their free writing programs and raises awareness for the value of correct punctuation.

The return of the interrobang‽

FontFeed credits National Punctuation Day with the revival of the interrobang. For those, like me, who have no idea what an interrobang is, Wikipedia defines it thus: “A sentence ending with an interrobang (?!  or  !? or ‽ ) asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question. For example: You call that a hat‽” To create one in calibri, press alt8253. Well, who’d’ve thought‽

 

CAPS LOCK DAY

And as if that’s not enough, on October 22, it will be CAPS LOCK DAY?! This day was the brainchild of Derek Arnold of Iowa who was peeved by people using ALL CAPS to emphasize themselves on the web. He proposed that on this day EVERYONE USE ALL CAPS FOR EVERYTHING TO SHOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS and to poke fun at people who use this annoying typing style, in the hopes of bringing some sanity to the Net.

Of course, CAPS LOCK DAY has an underlying humour, but as with a lot of humour, there is a kernel of truth (sometimes a whole nut tree) to be unearthed.

A Sky Full of Poems

The use of humour reminded me of a poetry book I had as a child called A Sky Full of Poems by Eve Merriam (American poet and writer; 1916 – 1992). She had a series of rhymes and poems to help understand grammar and poetic terms.

Here are a few excerpts for you to enjoy that speak to homonyms, homographs, cliché, simile and metaphor:

From the poem “Nym and Graph”

A sound-alike is a homonym
Sing a hymn, Look at him.

A spell-alike is a homograph
A general staff, A walking staff.

//
Said Homograph, “From my point of view
I once saw a saw saw then a sink sink,
I saw a fly fly and a rose that rose up,
I sat down upon down,
I felt a felt hat,
And met a fair maiden at the fair.”

//
“Now tell me Homograph, can you
See things from my point of view?
For I, sir, aye, yes I eye a dear deer
And a hare with hair that is half of a pair
While I pare a pear beside a new gnu
And shoo a bare bear away from my shoe—
And all this I do at ten to two, too!”

From the poem “A Cliché”

//
Warm as toast, quiet as a mouse
Slow as molasses, quick as a wink.          

Think.
Is toast the warmest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.

//
Is a mouse the quietest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might be a shadow.
Quiet as a shadow
quiet as growing grass
quiet as a pillow
or a looking glass.

From the poem “Simile: Willow and Ginkgo”

The willow is like an etching,
Fine-lined against the sky.
The ginkgo is like a crude sketch,
Hardly worthy to be signed.

The willow’s music is like a soprano
Delicate and thin.
The ginkgo’s tune is like a chorus
With everyone joining in.

//
My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo.
 

From the poem “Metaphor”

Morning is
A new sheet of paper
For you to write on.

Whatever you want to say,
all day,
until night
folds it up
and files it away.

The bright words and the dark words
are gone
until dawn
and a new day
to write on.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Eve Merriam was a pen name. She was born Eva Moskovitz. Another author who writes under a pen name is our guest author at Turning Leaves 2017, Vicki Delany who also writes under the pen name Eva Gates.

Smile Poetry 101

Smile Poetry 101

Gwynn Scheltema

In last week’s post based on Irene Livingston’s humorous poem, “I Cannot tell a Lilac”, I spoke primarily about light verse and nonsense rhyme, but along the way, mentioned a few other poetic forms connected with humorous poetry. Here’s a quick explanation again of the general forms, light verse and nonsense rhyme, followed by an alphabetical primer on 5 other specific humour forms.

Light Verse

Poetry on light-hearted or playful themes written primarily to amuse and entertain. Although the genre often uses elements of nonsense verse, like made up words and grammatical play, it is technically competent and possesses a sophisticated level of wit.

Image result for oh the places you'll goDr Suess is a master at light verse. Sales seminars use the Green Eggs & Ham story to illustrate the 5 most important selling techniques. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is a popular adult graduation gift.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

 Nonsense Rhyme

Poetry that subverts language conventions and logical reasoning. Humour comes from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or a punchline. Uses elements like rhythm and rhyme and is whimsical and humorous in tone. Although these poems are also known for the use of made-up words, these words are still used with recognizable grammar and syntax, and each nonsense word is a clear part of speech.

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyEdward Lear and Lewis Carroll popularized the form in the late 1800s, but more contemporary examples can be found in the “Vogon” poetry found in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in this sample from John Lennon’s “The Faulty Bagnose”:

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Bouts-rimés 

Bouts-rimés (French: “rhymed ends”) originated from a literary game invented in the early 1600s. They are verses created when the poet receives a list of rhyming words from another person and uses them in a given order to produce a result that makes at least partial sense.

John Keats produced “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (1816) in a bouts-rimés competition with his friend Leigh Hunt. Here’s an excerpt:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.

Clerihew

A Clerihew is a comic biographical verse invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley in 1905. Clerihews are written as four-line verses of two rhyming couplets, the first line almost invariably ending with the name of a person. A form of roasting, the humour comes from putting the listener’s sense of rhythm on edge with its purposeful varied line length and awkward rhyme as well as its off-the-mark treatment of the named subject. Here is an example by Edmund Bentley called “Cervantes”:

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

Epigram

Epigrams in poetry (they appear also in prose formats) were originally meant as an inscriptions suitable for a monument, but now the term refers to any short, pithy verse especially if it is sharp and moralistic.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834 produced an epigram that neatly sums up the form:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Limericks

These days, limericks are probably the best known form of humorous poetry. Limericks first appeared in medieval times, but were popularized in 1846 by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense  We all recognize the distinctive form and “punch-line” ending. They are often bawdy too.

In terms of form, a limerick consists of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme and must have seven to ten syllables and the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines are always shorter (five to seven syllables) and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.

Here’s a fun example from Rudyard Kipling:

There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said. “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is—
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

 Macaronic

This form dates back to the a comic Latin verse form that incorporated common dialect words and gave them mock Latin endings for effect. The same technique is now applied to combinations of modern languages.

This sample from Charles G. Leland called “To a Friend Studying German” plays with English and German:

Vill’st dou learn die Deutsche Sprache?
Den set it on your card
Dat all de nouns have shenders,
Und de shenders all are hard.

Your turn

Although these forms produce verse that is light and makes us smile, I’m sure you can appreciate the work that goes into creating them. Fancy trying your hand? How about posting a limerick below about writing.

DID YOU KNOW

In addition to a bouts-rimés being a form of humorous verse, it is also a form of constraint poetry: poems written within strict conventions. Gwynn gave a workshop on “Playing with Constraints” in Ottawa for the Tree Seed Reading Series. If you would like to organize a poetry workshop for your group, check out our On-Demand Workshops options.

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

Gwynn Scheltema

Now that the blooms are spent, I’ve been pruning my lilacs. I miss their heady scent and pendulous flowers, but each year when they are in blossom, I think of Canadian poet Irene Livingston’s poem “I Cannot Tell a Lilac.”. Ruth and I chose that poem as the first place winner in a contest for a poetry book collection called Open Window 111 (Hidden Brook Press 2002)—sadly now out of print.

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

I remember being intrigued by the playful title and hoped that the poem would not be overloaded with cliché references to the lilac blooms and scent we all know so well. But like the Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize winner that she is, Irene Livingston delivered surprise and delight!

The poem was fun, light-hearted. Livingstone played with semantics and form; she invented words. The poem danced to a happy bouncy rhythm; it had a quiet humour. The rhyme was subtle and skilled. None of it was forced. Everything from the images to the word choice was deliberate, but had the feeling of a careless, happy-go-lucky throwing together of thoughts and feelings. And at the end of it, I could smell the lilacs, see the ponderous blooms hanging low and feel the promise and warmth of spring. It remains one of my favourite poems.

Here are the first few lines of Livingston’s poem:

I’m cycling along so nicely, in brightfully
spritzing four o’clock sun-stream, when I suddenly
spy, with my little eye, a bushlet of fabulous lilacs

“Oh lilacs!” I cry to the halcyon Sunday street.
“Methinks I will toodle on up to the door,
give a light tap-tap and inquire as to
whether I might be permitted to snap off
some sprigs of vosnifferous, luminous blooms……

Is it Nonsense?

Words like “brightfully” and “vosnifferous” take me back to childhood nonsense poems that were fun to read but seemingly made no sense. Like: “”Hey diddle, diddle / The cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moon…” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

But “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” isn’t nonsense. It’s the story of a young child riding a bike through the neighbourhood and being so overcome by the lilacs that he wants to pick them… with funny results.

So if it’s not a “nonsense poem”, what is it? Nonsense rhymes and “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” are both forms of light verse, a genre that includes a myriad of “fun” verse forms from epigram and clerihew to boute-rimes and macaronics.

Encyclopædia Britannica, defines light verse as “poetry on trivial or playful themes that is written primarily to amuse and entertain and that often involves the use of nonsense and wordplay. [It’s] frequently distinguished by considerable technical competence, wit, sophistication, and elegance.”

Light Verse Grows Up

Light verse has been around since Greek and Roman times. The Greek Anthology contains many epigrams. The Roman poets Catullus and Horace used innuendo, wordplay and satire.

In Medieval times light verse took on a narrative form and was often bawdy and irreverent but with a moral undertone. The limerick also made its debut around this time as did fable stories like Pierre de Saint-Cloud’s 40,000-line Le Roman de Renart  [Reynard the Fox] written in 1174.

In the 18th century, mock-epics joined the genre, like Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, and Lord Byron’s verse novel Don Juan. Light verse was still filled with innuendo and moral judgement, but took on a sardonic and casual tone.

In 1846 Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense  popularized the limerick form:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

IImage result for captain reecen the late 1800s Lewis Carroll introduced nonsense poems, like “The Jabberwocky” I mentioned earlier. W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads introduced absurdity like in this excerpt from “Captain Reece.”

Of all the ships upon the blue,
No ship contained a better crew
Than that of worthy CAPTAIN REECE,
Commanding of THE MANTELPIECE.

A feather bed had every man,
Warm slippers and hot-water can,
Brown Windsor from the captain’s store,
A valet, too, to every four…..

IImage result for 2 little whos by e. e. cummingsn the 1900s, poetic forms introduced by Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists, and the distinctive techniques of the Beat poets and e.e. cummings confused the boundaries between light verse and serious poetry. Flippant and irreverent tones were actually seriously intended. Poetry that began in an amusing way ended sometimes in bitterness or terror. What had been playfulness with grammar and syntax became forms of their own such as this excerpt from e.e.cumming’s poem “[2 little whos]”

(far from a grown
-up i&you-
ful world of known)
who and who

(2 little ams
and over them this
aflame with dreams
incredible is)

Today, I believe the line between serious humorous poetry and light verse is firmly blurred. Wit and satire, absurdity and irreverence abound in both forms. But for me, in light verse, I still look for the elements I found originally in “I Cannot Tell a Lilac”:

  • a quiet understated humour
  • playing with semantics and form
  • inventing words
  • a happy bouncy rhythm
  • subtle, skilled rhyme
  • evoking a feeling of entertainment and delight.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Irene Livinston won her Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize in 2001 at the Orillia International Poetry Festival. But did you know that the first winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour also honoured poetry (with a satirical twist) —Paul Hiebert’s novel Sarah Binks (1947), a fake biography of “The Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan”. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes the book as “a comic creation which derives from Canadian literature while simultaneously making a contribution to it.”

The 13,000 Km Workshop

The 13,000 Km Workshop

Gwynn Scheltema

While caring for my post-operative mom in Zimbabwe this winter, I signed up for a creative writing class. Although it was an introductory class, I knew that coming away with just one new skill or “ah ha” moment that moves my writing forward would make the day worthwhile.  Besides, I needed to do something that would get my head (and pen) back into writing.

The facilitator was John Eppel, an award-winning poet and novelist, and newly retired English teacher. I didn’t know his work, and with no Internet connections available to me, I arrived without expectation. There were sixteen of us in the group, seated on dining room chairs gathered in a circle in his living room. We were all ages, and a good mix of men and women. I relaxed. This all felt comfortable and familiar.

In his introduction, I learned that John was primarily a poet, and had been raised in a small mining town not too far from my own home town of Bulawayo. Like me he had been through the Rhodesian civil war of the 60s and 70s, but unlike me, he had remained in Zimbabwe, teaching English at a private school and for South African Universities. He told us that the day would be spent not “learning how to write”, but learning about the power of words. Perfect! I love words. Today I would be a happy word-wallowing hippo.

And the day delivered—in spades. There were many “ah ha” moments. Here’s one about paradox:

“Philosophy gives up at paradox, but that’s where poetry begins.”

Poetry begins? A paradox is a situation, person or thing that seems to combine absurd or contradictory elements that prove to be true. I liked John’s explanation that dual meanings in words allow room for reader interpretation, and the wobble in logic makes the reader stop and think about what is written, even if only at a subconscious level.

He’s right. Take this line from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion.”

….blue is the balsam, water sounds still unfrozen, and the trail is evident…

If water “sounds still” there is no noise, but if it is “still unfrozen” is must be running and therefore making a sound. A paradox, but one for me that now suggests new sounds, perhaps the creak of ice forming, or pop of a bubble trapped in the forming ice.

Image paradox

Now stretch that concept to an image (a cluster of words to which one or more of our senses respond.)

Image paradoxes, like word paradoxes, merge opposites. In the well-loved poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” an image that has always intrigued me is in the line:

…Of easy wind and downy flake.

I realize now that image is a paradox. What is a “downy flake”? “Downy” suggests soft and warm (life), yet “flake” suggests stone-sharp and cold (death). By using opposing words together, the image attempts to evoke a simultaneous experience of living and dying—which, (not coincidentally) is the theme of the whole poem.

Symbol Paradoxes

But John Eppel took it a step further. He introduced me to symbol paradoxes. First he explained: “A symbol is an image with a more fixed connotation than other images.” We all recognize a white dove as a symbol of peace or a red rose as a symbol for romantic love. Symbolic images gain even more power when they are used in an opposing way.”

A unicorn is a symbol of purity and also, paradoxically, of lust. In the play, “The Glass Menagerie”, the glass unicorn represents fragile Laura’s lust for self-absorbed Jim and also her lack of sexual experience. The breaking of the glass unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura’s failed attempt at seduction.

 

Heady stuff for sure, but it fired up our discussion over lunch. We all agreed that it was freeing and motivating. I couldn’t take home the Zimbabwe summer sunshine, but that day exploring paradoxes on the other side of the world travelled home with me. Now, I’m inspired to drag out some of my poems that “aren’t quite there” and see if working in a few paradoxes might make them sing.

 DID YOU KNOW?

Spring Thaw, our upcoming retreat, is the perfect opportunity to play with paradoxes in your writing, and focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors. Join us for three days or five on the shores of Rice Lake for an all-inclusive escape to write.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhyme Time

Rhyme Time

Gwynn Scheltema

I was at a coffee house poetry open mic reading the other week, and someone made the comment, “Why doesn’t anyone rhyme anymore?”i-am-coffee-storefront

I’m guessing they were referencing the kind of recognizable rhyme we think of associated with Hallmark verse or Robert William Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.  [no disparaging here, just identification]. Of course, the debate over the merits of traditional verse versus free verse continues with no resolution in sight, but given the myriad aspects associated with poetry, it’s interesting that that debate usually centers around rhyme or the lack thereof.

The truth is, free verse is alive with rhyme. All kinds of different rhyme. Let’s take a look.

Traditional rhyme

Rhyme is based on an identity of sound between words or verse-lines, “sound echoes” if you will. Traditional verse relies largely on end rhyme or external rhyme – placing rhyming words at the end of a line:

Lets take the first few lines of Robert Frost‘s famous poem, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.”
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

In traditional verse forms, the end rhyme is usually organized into rhyme schemes. The rhyme scheme in excerpt above is ababcdcd.

Anything but end rhyme… 

Now compare that with these lines from a “free verse” poem, The Anniversary”, by American poet Ai:

I’m not afraid of the blade ninja-877220_640
you’ve just pointed at my head.
If I were dead, you could take the boy,

There are no end rhymes here, but there is plenty of rhyme nonetheless.  In the first line we see an example (afraid; blade) of internal rhyme – rhyme that occurs within a verse line. As in a lot of free verse, rhyme also occurs from line to line, just not necessarily at the end. (head/dead).

Rhyme, rhyme rhyme….

 

These are perfect, strict, full, or pure rhymes– the last fully accentuated vowel and end consonant are identical. Be aware that we are talking sound here, not spelling. – cat/hat; tree/bee; fool/mule; tough/huff.

hands-1345059_640Perfect rhyme can be further divided: masculine rhyme, where one final stressed syllable rhymes (sang/rang), and feminine rhyme, where at least two syllables rhyme and the final syllable is not stressed (mo-ther/bro-ther; com-par-i-son/gar-ri-son).

Additionally, Ai’s poem contains slant rhyme (also known as off rhyme, near rhyme, imperfect rhyme or half rhyme) – words whose sounds are closely related but not identical. If the poet plays with consonants at the beginning of words, that’s alliteration; at the end of words, it is called consonance. If the poet plays with similar vowel sounds, it is known as assonance. Blade and head at the end of the first and second lines have the same end consonant sound, although they have different vowel sounds. Other slant rhymes would be bend/hand; home/same; trophy/daffy; fellow/fallow; kind/conned.

Rhyming choices don’t end there. Eye rhyme, for instance, plays with sight, not sound: two words that look like they ought to rhyme, but don’t. (love/move; lull/full; though/cough).

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool”, is chock full of rhyme.graffiti-8391__180

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

 

I’m sure you’ve already found internal rhyme (thin/gin); and slant rhyme (real/cool). There’s also assonance (sing/sin), alliteration (lurk/late), and consonance (real/cool) and repetition (We). This piece also has para rhyme, or rich consonance, that uses consonant blends and the order of consonants to create sound echoes. (left/late; strike/straight; jazz/die-s).

Conventional verse was primarily rooted in the oral tradition, and rhyme helped us remember the lines. Free verse is largely a written medium, appreciated visually as well as through sound.

Rhyme creates emphasis and structural unity, and draws attention to the relationship between words and thoughts. In Brook’s poem, notice how the absence of repetition (We) in the last line emphasizes the thought that their lives will be truncated too. Good rhyme goes beyond the obvious.

I love rhyme, but it doesn’t have to always be end rhyme. In many ways I prefer to discover the patterns and links as I read. When used effectively, I believe rhyme adds to the sensory impact of poetry by creating a pleasing network of related “sound echoes”.

Too Close to the Sun

Too Close to the Sun

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, a friend and fellow writer posted an excerpt from a poem on Facebook. It happens to be one of my favourites, W.H. Auden’s “Museé des Beaux-Arts.” Like so many poems, it is a take on one aspect of the human condition. How truly awful things happen to people at the same time most of the world is going about their ordinary lives.

His opening lines set the tone:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

On the surface, Auden is talking about those great old Master painters — Rembrandt,  Vermeer and Caravaggio,XIR3675 among them — how they understood the contradictions of life. In the poem, he focuses on a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.”

In this tragic snippet from Greek mythology, with a pair of wings held together by string and wax, poor fated Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax melted. The feathers fell apart. And Icarus landed in the sea. Great story inspires great poetry. (See also poet William Carlos Williams for his equally gorgeous take on the tragedy.)

I’m not going to discuss Auden’s poem, which is a masterpiece of subtlety. I’m going to talk about the painting which, for years, has hung in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, touted as a masterwork by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder.

They might have made a mistake. Or not.

There are inconsistencies that call into question if this painting is actually Bruegel’s work.  There have been suggestions that perhaps it’s an excellent copy of the original, likely by a very talented student, perhaps even Pieter Bruegel the Younger. (Way to go, son!)

people-219985_960_720Studies show it was likely a painted wood panel, probably by Bruegel, that was later transposed onto canvas. Somebody had to do a lot of over-painting to cover up what didn’t survive the move. Over the decades, this painting has been radiocarbon dated, scanned by electron microscope, zapped by energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (whatever that is) and had the charcoal under-drawing examined by infrared reflectography. (Don’t ask.)

Yup. It’s a Bruegel alright. We think. Pretty much. His.

Is the painting and the poetry it inspired any less marvellous for all its controversy-inspiring history? Of course, it is vital for art historians and museums of art to know as much as possible about the treasures in their care. It’s more than placing value (though that is an obvious factor) — it’s about the life story of the art, its provenence.

But for those of us who are inspired by beautiful art, and especially work that offers a ticket to inspiration, the who really made that part of the equation is secondary. Auden’s poem is no less brilliant if it wasn’t really Bruegel’s painting. Williams poem would still move me to tears.

bruegel-close-up-icarus-legsAnd that painting, it’s haunted me for years. Not because I didn’t know who painted it but because of those pale white legs, way off in the bottom corner and flailing just above the surface, desperate yet completely ignored. The farmer tilling his soil. The shepherd looking off in the opposite direction. The angler, mere feet away, just working at getting a catch. The lovely ship, sailing past into the harbour…

It’s the human condition that inspires my art. Our crazy, conflicted selves who can feel compassion and contribute money and goods to help those suffering in never-ending senseless wars. And who can, that same day, head out for popcorn and a movie that glorifies shoot ’em up scenarios and terrorist car bombs.(This, of course, includes me. I am human, after all.)

We make no sense, really. Capable of stunning and original art in so many forms: music, dance, theatre, film, painting, sculpture, textiles, multi-media and yes, literature. All of our art is an overwhelming rainbow of style, voice and technique. At the same time, we are cold, cruel and self-centered.

In life, we are constantly flying too close to the sun and forgetting the rest of the world. This contradiction, this puzzle of what makes us spectacular and despicable at the same time, this is a big part of what drives me to write.

And imagine, this post came to me because my friend, artist and poet Ingrid Ruthig, posted a snippet of a poem on her Facebook page. So what inspires you to make words on the page?

Did You Know?

  1. There’s two spots left and still time to register for our fall writers retreat Turning Leaves. Literary agent Hilary McMahon joins us for the whole weekend. Workshops. Inspiration. All fees and taxes included. You just need your pyjamas, toothbrush and work in progress. November 4 to 6 at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching, Ontario.Turning Leaves Brochure 2016
  2. If you’d like to see one of Bruegel the Elder’s painting up close without taking a trip to Belgium, check out this YouTube video of how Google’s art project captured a digitized image of “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” (1502).
The Unoriginal World of bobbi leblanc

The Unoriginal World of bobbi leblanc

Gwynn Scheltema

I was reminded about poetry when I went to the ballet this week. And not necessarily what you may expect…expressions of beauty through pattern or escape to a lyrical world (although that certainly happened).

No, I was reminded about the quest for meaning in art and the effect of succumbing to fads and affectations.

The Quest for Meaning

The National Ballet’s mixed winter program began with two offerings of classic Balanchine choreography: The Four Temperaments and Rubies. As the knowledgeable and always eloquent creative Director and Principal Ballet Master, Lindsay Fischer reminded us in the pre-performance talk, Balanchine choreographed always with the music uppermost in his mind. He didn’t start out with an idea he wanted to express. Instead, he listened to the music and let the music suggest the movement.ruby-1254568_960_720

When you listen to a symphony, you don’t spend that time wondering what it means. You let it transport you and enjoy the way it makes you feel. Balanchine’s ballets are like symphonies. You enjoy them for the emotions they stir in you, for the beauty in the patterns that delight you, for the surprises that please you when you least expect them to.

Good poetry is like that too: the music of the words and rhythms, the surprise of juxtapositions and turning points, the satisfaction of found mutual experience and ah-ha moments. And the delight of images that make you feel like you see what the poet sees. To paraphrase Chekov, poems that allow the reader to experience the moon by seeing “the glint of light on broken glass”.

And always emotion. It’s not necessary to read poetry looking for meaning. Allow the images to evoke whatever emotion or memory they do for you. There is no right or wrong reaction to what is written. Like a symphony, or a Balanchine ballet, let the poem transport you and move you.

 

Fads, Trends and Affectationscactus-659128_960_720

The final offering was a new work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman called Cacti. At first it was disturbing, confusing, but it didn’t take long to become comical, in fact, hilarious.

It poked fun at all the trendy things we’ve seen on stage and in dance competitions: androgynous dancers; bizarre props that seem to be symbolic but aren’t; weird, intrusive (and often annoying) lighting and stage sets; contorted body positions and music that isn’t sure what rhythms or mood it’s going for.

In short, it was using conventions and trends that others had been using, in fact, overusing. And did it result in “art”? Was it trying too hard to be “art”?  What resulted was a parody of art.

In this case, the choreographer was going for that and succeeded brilliantly. But it was a heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.

It took me back tofun issue 2004 when Ruth and I were on the editorial board for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Submissions of poetry went through a “fad” at that time, where everything was lowercase, even the pronoun I, and the poet’s name. Poems were made up of numbered parts, had words in italics, parentheses and were often divided by slashes. And all of them (it seemed) started with a quote from someone else or notes on what inspired the poem. That’s not to say that these devices cannot be used; there are some very fine poems with one or more of these elements in them. But what we were seeing was random, put in there without meaning or context because the poet had seen it elsewhere and was imitating without understanding why it was like that in the first place. That’s the pretentious part.

Given that we had to deal with hundreds of submissions, it was frustrating. Our 2004 spring issue was the “fun” issue, so as a lark, and to do much the same thing that Ekman did in the ballet Cacti, we (the editorial board) collectively wrote a poem that parodied all these affectations. We published it as “The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem” by a fictitious poet called bobbi le blanc (Notice: non-gender, possibly French and/or English and all lowercase name.). It was a hoot. But in the fun, like the ballet Cacti, there was that same heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.

It was a long poem with many numbered parts (of course), but just to give you a taste, here are the first two stanzas. Enjoy a giggle. The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem

 

Can You Use Parody?

Interestingly, parody is a great way to loosen up the mind and your writing. Try taking something you’re editing and rewriting it in the same style of a well-known writer, say, Ernest Hemingway (simple, direct and plain prose) or William Shakespeare (image-rich, iambic pentameter, 16th-century prose) or Margaret Atwood (precise, ironic and witty). When you are finished, consider how  your own work is different. What makes your style, your voice, unique?