Thursday 13 November 2014


Laughable aren't they. They come in several varieties. Let's deal first with the most easily identifiable -

  • Poetic words - these are the easiest to detect. Some people seem to think that words like "gossamer", "palimpsest", "lozenge", "lambent", "shimmering", etc have intrinsic beauty, or trigger poetic thoughts in the reader
  • Poetic things - everyone thinks rainbows are beautiful, so a poem that mentions them will be beautiful too
  • Form-driven rhyme - most famous poems rhyme, and rhyme is the most obvious feature of many old poems, so poems must rhyme at all costs, even if all you can think of to rhyme with "love" is "dove".

I suspect the problem with all of these is that the original reason for using these features has gone (or at least has become diluted). People are copying old tricks without asking themselves if they still work - all style, no substance. Even if there are still valid reasons, over-use can reduce the effectiveness of a trick. Other, less obvious features that have lost their force include certain types of

  • Imagery - some images are especially tempting to poets: how some things at night are more easily seen if not looked at directly; pebbles that look so beautiful in the water lose their beauty when dry; how you can see the darkness for a moment when you turn a light on in a dark room; how a pre-natal ultrasound scan resembles a radar screen
  • Linguistic constructions - "An abstract noun in the possessive case followed by an adjective and a concrete noun ... is a nineteenth century favorite ... In the twentieth century it was succeeded in favor by another phrase ... in which the first noun is usually concrete and the second abstract. Thus: 'the pale dawn of longing'", "Anatomy of Criticism", Northrop Frye.

As this latter quote suggests, it's partly a fashion issue - metaphors become dead metaphors, ugly becomes the new beautiful, and the young generation react against the devices of their elders. Wordsworth thought the poetic diction of eighteenth century writers artificial and unnatural - features that he thought should be avoided if possible (though note - artifice is welcomed by some other poets). Poe ("There is a distinct limit... to all works of literary art - the limit of a single sitting") and Pound ("To break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), The Movement and LangPo tried to cleanse the language of the tribe too.

Not all devices that are commonly used deserve to be described as "poeticisms". Over-use is in the eye of the beholder. People who read a lot of modern poetry may notice trends invisible to less avid readers. There are lists of common contemporary devices, amongst them being

Some of these devices (like beginning many lines with "Because", or writing poems that are a list of commands or instructions) are the result of standard workshop exercises and might be striking to readers who've not seen that trick before.

Some layouts are poeticisms too. Centred layouts (especially on coloured paper) are suspect. But if poeticisms are over-used devices, devices copied without thought or reason that hope to take a ride on the power of older poetry, then using regular boxes of text risks being a poeticism. When a "shape poem" is made of rectangular stanzas, you can see from the other side of the room that it's trying to look like a poem; you don't even need to read the words. When you read the words, the shape often makes no sense. It did in the olden days when people wrote in standard forms with a fixed number of syllables per line, but imitating appearance without the motivating cause isn't a good idea.

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