Elements of Poetry

Go ahead—groan. As soon as I say the word ‘poetry’, almost everyone closes up because they’re thinking of the common,

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Sugar is sweet

And so are you!”

And that is not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is rhyme and rhythm—subtlety done. Putting poetic skills into play with poise. For some people, this comes naturally. For others, it will take practice.

Poetry offers a very important and ancient element to writing. In the days of old when stories were told orally, poetry was the most common form because it was easier to remember, and who doesn’t like a good story?

When you’re sitting around a camp fire at night and someone is telling a story, would you rather listen to a monotone story of how a group of people once went into these woods only to disappear, or would you rather hear the rise and fall of the voice, the suspenseful pauses, the use of the environment (such as throwing a firecracker into the fire the moment a gunshot goes off in the story), and the speed, then slowness of the voice? Which would you prefer to hear? Which one would you remember for the rest of your life?

Poetry is the only key to ancient storytelling that translates into modern day writing. Sure it gets complicated—look at Shakespeare if you want a reminder, but it doesn’t have to be. The primary use of poetics in prose is to paint a picture.

Here is something I had written, but we’re going to dissect it, so you can identify the poetic elements:

Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around, then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

Knowing the wolves were of no threat to him, he tugged the edges of his hood closer to his face and hugged his cloak around him as he ducked his head and pressed on through the skin-biting wind, step by step through the snow, ice, and rock. Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood. If he lifted his head, he knew he would see the impressive sight of Nirrorm’s castle jutting out of the mountain at the end of the valley―its sharp towers a contrast in the night and an imposing, frightening sight to the unfamiliar, but he kept walking―one step at a time.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

He stood at the foot of the wall staring at the structured stone. His journey had drained him, and he did not wish to speak above a whisper, for he had little strength. He knew he could conjure a magical orb that would answer the watchmen’s question, but he was familiar with the laws of Nirrorm.

Magic was forbidden here.

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him. As if that would harm him. A small smirk touched the corner of his pale lips, but he swallowed and forced his voice to be heard. “I am Prince Lorrek of Cuskelom, and I seek sanctuary.”

All right, so on the surface it looks like a normal intro to a story, but let me take it apart for you, so you can see the elements of poetry at work here. Let’s draw out the sounds of just the first paragraph:

‘A’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘A_E’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face

‘AIN’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘D’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

EE’: he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain.

‘H’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face…

‘IGHT’: wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘K’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape…

‘L’: A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘O’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘R’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain…

‘S’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf‘s howl caused him to halt and look around then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

‘T’ & ‘TH’: Wind raked across the darkened barren winterscape as he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain. A wolf’s howl caused him to halt and look around and then up at the sky at the full moon’s pale face; wisps of clouds passed swiftly across the bright night sun.

This is the poetic element in its basic form. We use alliteration to make the first letters of the words to rhyme such as the ‘T’ and ‘TH’ here: ‘he trudged through the knee deep snow through the mountain terrain’. Rhyming occurs at the end of the word such as ‘ bright night‘. Assonance also comes into play, and this makes the middle of the words to rhyme, as it did here: ‘…the full moon’s pale face.’

The use of sounds via letters is important, but the use of sounds via repetition is also a tool.

At last he came to the castle walls, and the honorable watchmen saw him before he saw them. “Halt! Who goes there?”

Now, I could have said “the honorable watchmen noticed him before he saw them” or the other way around, and my editors and proofreaders would recommend I change it, but it just sounds right. For an example of one that doesn’t sound right, here:

Even in these night hours, he knew this path well―having worn it well during the years of his childhood.

The use of ‘well’ doesn’t flow easily, and it doesn’t sound right to my ears. I would probably rephrase one or the other so I don’t repeat that word. It can work the way it is, but I don’t like the sound of it.

Here’s another example of the use of repetition to stress a point:

Sighing, he lifted his chin and looked up, up, up to the top of the wall where the watchman leaned over to see him―and aim their arrows at him.

Sure, he lifted his chin, so we automatically know he’s looking up, but I wanted to stress just how close to the wall he was and how high the wall was, so I repeated the word three times. Very rarely do I use a word more than three times when doing this, but it’s not unheard of.

Using repetition creates a sound—a rhythm. Another example of repetition this way is with the use of the word ‘and’. In the text above I don’t have an example, but it’s something like this:

He went up the stairs and down the hall and through the chambers and into the last place her saw her—the hanging gardens.

The use of ‘and’ here is deliberate. It sets a rhythm, stresses a point, and draws out the systematic way he searched for her.

Repeating little words to form a rhythm or set a pace to a story is often frowned upon by editors. In their mind you’re supposed to use the word once in a sentence/paragraph because it’s more professional that way—more proper. However, if you deliberately used those words, don’t back down just because someone disagrees with you. Show them why you did what you did. This is why it is very important to know why you must choose every word that you write with care.

So check your own style. Does it use any elements of poetry that I’ve explained? Does it use sound as I demonstrated? Sure, it might not be your style, but it’s worth experimenting with. Applying these tools properly takes practice. That is why it is important to read and write poetry even though you may never publish it or allow anyone to read it. Study the sounds, observe the structure, and it will slip into your writing, adding an extra depth to your words, sharpening those images, and strengthening those sentences.

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One comment on “Elements of Poetry

  1. This is a really good, helpful post. I’ll definitely be saving it as it’ll help me some with my poetry that I’m writing these days, and just my overall writing in general. I do agree with the not backing down part. I remember a teacher telling me that if we wrote everything the “proper way” it’d all be the same, and quite boring, to read. I’ve seen big authors express the same type of thought. In creative writing you get creative and proper goes out the door sometimes in exchange for setting the tone that paints the images which will settle firmly in your reader’s minds for a long time to come.

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