Sometimes, I identify with Emily Dickinson—oh, not in her genius as a poet, but in her need for reclusiveness. True, my love of alone-time doesn’t come close to hers. Toward the end of her life, as I recently learned, she would not meet face-to-face with anyone but a family member. Others had to sit in an adjoining room and talk through a partially open door.
This is part of what I learned in a half hour lecture by a Great Courses professor, Grant Voth. But more importantly, I learned more about this woman’s poetic techniques found in over 1700 poems discovered after her death. That’s what I’d like to focus on for today’s Meeting the Bar.
Those of you who attend or have attended Christian church services are, consciously or not, familiar with common meter found so abundantly in church hymnals. This seemingly simplistic form consists of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, usually rhyming abcb. iambic tetrameter consists of 4 iambs, while iambic trimeter, of 3 iambs.
Here’s an example, taken from Hymn 103 by Isaac Watts:
Nor eye |hath seen, |nor ear |hath heard,
Nor sense |nor rea|son known,
What joys |the Fa|ther hath |prepared
For those |that love |the Son.
It’s really easy to write common meter…badly. Think: Edgar Guest.
So, how did Emily succeed? What techniques did she employ that made her work so enduring?
• She used dashes instead of punctuation marks. The dashes represent a pause when the poem is read aloud, and aloud is the best way to appreciate her poetry.
• She capitalized words for emphasis, much as we might use italics.
• She played with syntax and grammar. This makes her poetry dense and imagistic.
• She chose subjects that are anything but banal: life, death, emotionally intense interpretations of nature.
• She remained ambiguous in concluding her poems.
• She used slant rhyme to avoid a sing-song effect.
These techniques complicate the meaning of her poetry, creating an open-endedness and raising questions.
For today’s prompt, I’m asking you to write a poem in common meter, taking care to add texture by using one or more of the tools chosen by Dickinson. Here is one of her poems to help you understand where she takes the common meter form to make it not-so-common:
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
If you are new to dVerse, or need a reminder, here’s how to join in:
• Write your poem;
• Post it on your blog or website;
• Click on Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post and enter your name and the direct URL of your post.
• Come to the pub and visit other poets’ work. Take time to comment and while you’re at it, order up something to soothe your spirit.
• Have fun and spread the word to your poet friends.