They want me to give up on this poetry life, y'all -- but I don't know another way to pray. -Barbara Fant
During the last three weeks, we’ve explored the origins of poetry through three dimensions: history, mythology, and liturgy. For the last Thursday prompt of this month, we’ll explore one of the earliest elements of poetry: the spoken word.
Before written language, the earliest poetry was spoken or sung. As I’ve mentioned in the other prompts, poetry was used to transmit the culture of a people from one generation to the next — its history, mythology, folklore, religion, stories, and even in some cases its law. Certain poetic devices — such as rhyme and repetition — probably developed as mnemonic devices to aid memorization.
As written language developed, these devices were used in a variety of poetry forms. For example, sonnets rely on particular rhyming patterns as part of their form. Other forms, such as pantoums, are heavy on repetition and some forms, such as the villanelle, employ both.
Consider one form that crosses over between poetry and music, the ballad. Ballads are clearly written for the ear, using rhyme and in some cases, repetition as part of the form. A good example of this is the American folk song, “John Henry” about a legendary African-American steel driver who attempted to race a steam engine and won, dying at the end of the contest. I’ll quote one of the stanzas below:
John Henry said to his captain, "Captain, you go to town, Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please, And I'll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord, I'll beat that steam drill down."
You see the use of both rhyme and repetition in this particular ballad: the end rhymes in the second and fourth lines, the refrain of “Lord, Lord” which is present throughout the entire piece, and the repetition of the fourth line in the fifth.
Now, let’s consider modern forms. As we move into the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries and with the advent of free verse, one might think that these time-tested poetic devices would fall by the wayside. Not so. Let’s consider a relatively new form: the bop, created by Afaa Michael Weaver. According to poets.org, the bop is a “form of poetic argument consisting of three stanzas, each stanza followed by a repeated line, or refrain, and each undertaking a different purpose in the overall argument of the poem”. To see how this works, check out part of “Rambling” by Weaver. First, we have the stanza:
In general population, madness runs swift through the river changing, changing in hearts, men tacked in their chairs, resigned to hope we weave into air, talking this and talking that and one brutha asks Tell us how to get these things They got, these houses, these cars. We want the real revolution. Things...
And then, the refrain:
"I got rambling, got rambling on my mind"
Now let’s talk about spoken word. Spoken word poetry is just that — spoken — and it is geared to the ear. Modern spoken word poetry, whether as part of regular performance or slam poetry, employs these devices as well.
Here is a great example of poems using time-tested poetic devices in a modern way. Listen to Columbus poet Barbara Fant perform two of her poems, “Swallowing the Sun” and “Handfuls of Honey” at a TEDx Columbus event in 2011:
If you especially listened to “Handfuls of Honey”, you will hear her use of repetition as a poetic device. She does this in her use of refrains, which she modifies slightly throughout the piece — for example:
when He closes His fist and pulls us back in, I pray He calls us beautiful
and, later in the poem:when He calls us back, I pray He calls us beautiful
She also employs repetition through the repeating and expanding of images/metaphors throughout the poem — for example:
it's about be, it's about be, it's about bee, like honey, like gold, like glow
and again, later:grew it light, like risk, like gold, like glow, like sky
So this week, in our final days of National Poetry Month, I’d like you to try to write more for the ear than for the eye. Tools in your kit might include rhyme, repetition, refrains, and good old sonic standbys such as alliteration, consonance, and assonance.
Did you have an egg-exciting weekend?
Well, whether you did or not, it’s time to hunker down to write a new poem. This time we had to back-pedal to poems written to Prompt 207 History, provided by Nicole. We had inadvertently bunny-hopped over it because we were…simply too egg-excited, this being National Poetry Month and all and we’re still in poem-a-day mode. Yep.
Without further ado, here are the contributors and their words.
stimmyabby: flags, colors, bruises
Jules: dead, fish, balloon
thisgirlremembers: specter, shroud, flush
Barbara: chromosomes, mountain, glue
Debi: tragedy, God, pirates
Misky: magnolia, leaf, tree
James: buffalo, saplings, wildflowers
Viv: famine, pun, chorus
Elizabeth: love, deer, whirlwind
Nicole: clawing, scales, streetlamp
Irene: fossil, flesh, water
Use as few or as many words from the list. Change the form and tense of any word you wish. Write a poem about anything under the sun. Then post your link in the comments section. If you don’t have a blog, you could simply paste your poem in the comments if you wish to share.
Note: We Write Poems will run the final Monday wordle prompt the last Monday of April 2014. We’ll still be hosting prompts on Thursday, alternating a regular prompt with a wordle prompt. Just so that you’ll keep to your writing practice. You heard it, it’s a practice.
Any soul that drank the nectar of your passion was lifted. From that water of life he is in a state of elation. Death came, smelled me, and sensed your fragrance instead. From then on, death lost all hope of me. -Rumi
Throughout April, I’ve been offering prompts that touch upon the early origins of and uses for poetry. This week, we will go in a bit of a spiritual direction.
I titled this prompt “liturgy” to encompass a broad range of spiritual purposes for which poetry is written. Where I work, the term liturgy is used to refer to a collection of texts used for public, communal worship. What sorts of poetry might this call to mind? In Jewish and Christian traditions, one might think of the Book of Psalms, where parallelism, both synonymous and antithetic, is a common poetic device. Consider this excerpt from Psalm 27, usually attributed to King David (King James Version):
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
One might also think of our modern Christian hymns, and there is certainly crossover between hymns and poetry in that regard. One of the most prolific hymn writers of the 19th century, Fanny Crosby, began first as a poet. She wrote her hymns and poems mostly in four-line stanzas with an a-b-c-b rhyme scheme, as evidenced by the first verse of “Near the Cross” which I quote below:
Jesus, keep me near the cross, There a precious fountain, Free to all, a healing stream, Flows from Calvary's mountain.
Throughout human history in other religious traditions and faiths, poetry has been used for praise, thanksgiving, supplication, prayer, and expressions of sorrow to the deity or deities in question. The Rigveda, a Sanskrit collection of hymns written in verse form composed between 1700 and 1100 BC, is a great example of this. The hymns in the collection address several Hindu deities, including Ratri, or “night”. I’ll quote a portion of a hymn praising her from book 10 of the Rigveda:
1. WITH all her eyes the Goddess Night looks forth approaching many a spot: She hath put all her glories on. 2 Immortal. she hath filled the waste, the Goddess hath filled height and depth: She conquers darkness with her light. 3 The Goddess as she comes hath set the Dawn her Sister in her place: And then the darkness vanishes. 4 So favour us this night, O thou whose pathways we have visited As birds their nest upon the tree."
Spiritual poetry can also speak of more elevated themes, such as unity with the deity, the transcendence of one’s physical existence, and prophecy. The lines of Rumi’s poetry which began this post are a perfect example. Rumi, a Persian poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic, believed very much in the use of poetry, music, and dance to reach God. He spoke freely and frequently of seeking union with the Divine, as evidenced by this example:
I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels bless'd; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become what no mind e'er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.
Many of us are in the middle of religious observances right now. Some of you are observing Passover and the Easter season this week. You might use this prompt to ground yourself mentality, emotionally, and spiritually to prepare yourselves. Might you consider the stories of your faith as a starting point for this prompt? Perhaps you seek greater union with the Divine. Perhaps you are full of praise and thanksgiving, or like King David to whom authorship of Psalm 23 is attributed, you have walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” and you need to cry out in sorrow.
For the agnostics, atheists, and questioning folks among us: this prompt might be a great opportunity to think about belief (or lack of) and consider it further. Perhaps you might explore the moment you began to question what you were told about God. For the scientific or humanistic minded among us, what does creation say to you? How do you feel about faith as a general concept and other’s expressions of it? There are many directions in which you can go.
Meditate upon this, and write where your muse takes you. I’m looking forward to the results.
I think you know the drill: Use a few, use just some, or use all the words. Be inspired and relax about it all. Write. Just write. Post your poem or prose to your blog, and then return here, and post your link in the comments box so we can all enjoy your creation. Have fun!
Viv: glory rights song
Misky: pay pallid scurry
Jules: children vision drudge
Nicole: towers, sight, liquid
Barbara: crow black kinks
Lorna: dancing green spiral
Hannah: belly grows powers
Christopher: broke spell simple
Abby: nose bed ripple
Irene: brother myth say
Are you poeming every day in April? Are you poeming copiously in some form in April? Are you poeming at all? If so, Red Wolf Journal would love to see your poems on the theme:
“The River: Within Us and
This theme, of course, is about rivers, in any way, shape, or form. What do rivers mean to you? What do they symbolize? What about the rivers -- both literal and metaphorical -- in your lives? Do you, as Michael Stipe said, need to "find the river"? As your soul is “as deep as the rivers”, as Langston Hughes put it, we want to read about it in a way that we’ve never seen before. Show us how the river which draws your soul travels. For more information, please see the full explanation of our theme as well as Red Wolf's general submission guidelines.
Raven was in a deep sleep, dreaming the world. He saw things and they happened, He dreamed things and they came to life. - Red Hawk, "Raven's Last Dream"
In last week’s prompt we explored “history”. This week, we turn our gaze to “mythology”.
Poetry began as an oral tradition to transmit the history, stories, and culture of a people from one generation to the next. Included in this was the culture’s mythology. Of course, mythology can overlap both history and religion in earlier cultures — in many cases, what we now label mythology were considered true accounts of the actions of the gods and other superhuman characters in those cultures, and legends were considered true stories about the actions of humans. Mythology and legends were often transmitted through epic poetry — consider one of the most famous examples of this, The Odyssey by Homer.
The term “myth” has become somewhat pejorative, denoting something that is fictional and not true. I’ll bear out this idea a little further with a question: if Zeus’ defeat of his father Kronos is considered a myth, what about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by Yaweh? In different times and places, both have been considered literal retellings of real events.
I present the previous question to broaden the idea of “mythology” a bit. For this week’s prompt, I’m going to ask you to take the word “mythology” and run with it — in any direction you choose. You can go epic with this. Or, if you’d like a modern example of mythology in poetry, you can check out “Raven’s Last Dream” from which I quoted at the beginning of this prompt. Do you look to mythology from your own culture? Might you look to the stories of heroes/heroines or warriors — what about Cú Chulainn, Hua Mulan (and not the Disney version!), or Samson? Do creation stories fascinate you — whether it be Yaweh speaking the world into existence, or the Maori story of Rangi and Papa?
Consider other possibilities. Would you do some mythologizing of your own — might you take a modern event and explain it as a result of a supernatural event? What might happen if an ancient mythological or legendary figure appears in modern times — would Saraswati perform on India’s Got Talent, or how would King David fare at a poetry slam? Or do you think in terms of metapoetry about mythology itself?
As Jim Morrison put it, “Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/Celebrate symbols from deep elder forests”. I’m looking forward to what you create. :)
This wordle comprises a selection of words from poems submitted to Prompt 206 “Which Childhood?” So the following are the poets who’ve submitted poems and the list of words which I’ve picked:
Ms Pie: embryonic, borrowed, turtle
Nicole: toothpicks, earlobes, fatness
emangsteroo: fighter, hatching, jagged
Jules: aura, ripples, unwrapping
purpleinportland: stockings, shame, songs
Marian: color, emerald, snapshots
Misky: marshmallows, pine, sap
Stimmyabby: dissecting, microscope, almonds
Annell: snakes, coastal, leaf
Barbara: record, books, homing
Debi: unseen, lemon, foot
Irene: lame, birds, roots
Kind of a delightful potpourri, so hopefully they serve as your inspiration for meanings and associations so you create your own particular scent of a poem. That’s the whole idea. Be free to change forms and tenses of the words. And you may choose to use a sprinkling of the words or (gulp) the entire lot. Just follow your muse and play. Don’t you forget, this is the month for poetry and love. Or love for poetry. Or… (gulp gulp) never mind.