APPRECIATION OF POETRY
Poetry is a literary genre in which ideas and feelings are expressed in imaginative and musical language. Poems are meant to be recited or sung and words are arranged in such a way that they touch readers’ senses, emotions and mind. Poetry is different from other literary genres and thus it should be appreciated on its own merit.
Some common poetic terms are.
Poem is a metrical composition in which ideas emotions and feelings are presented using imaginative and creative language.
Poet is a person who composes poems.
Persona this is a person who is speaking in a poem. The persona can be the poet himself of may use another person to pass his ideas.
Stanza is a group of lines in a poem that form a paragraph.
Verse. This is just one line of a stanza in a poem.
Couplet –two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme.
Free verse – poetry that does not have regular meter or rhyme scheme.
Meter – this refers to general regular patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry. When we want to indicate the metrical pattern of a poem we mark the stressed syllable with the symbol ( ‘ ) and unstressed syllable with the symbol ( )
In appreciation of poems there are different things to be considered in order to grasp the meaning and the intention of the poet.
1. THE TITLE OF THE POEM.
The title of the poem may give a clue of what the poem is about or the subject of the poem. The subject of a literary work is its focus, or topic. Subject differs from theme in that theme is a deeper meaning usually inferred by the reader where the subject is the main situation or set of facts described by the text. Think of the titles like “Development”, ‘A freedom song”, Lost Beauty” etc. they give preliminary information of what you might find in the poem. The history of the poet may also provide a clue to the content of the poem. E.g. David Diop in “Africa”
Nevertheless, it is advised not to rely much on the titles or take them for granted. Some titles are ironical as they represent the opposite of what actually happens. Think of “Building the Nation” for instance. Were the two people building the nation?
2. THE TONE AND MOOD OF THE POEM.
i. Tone – refers to the writer’s attitude toward his or her subject, character or the audience (readers/listeners). The writer’s tone can be formal or informal, friendly or distant, personal or pompous, harsh, polite, scary, rude, happy lovely, romantic, humorous, serious, nostalgic, etc.
ii. Mood/atmosphere– this is the feeling/attitude that a literary work conveys to the readers/listeners. Descriptive words and phrases contribute to the mood of the poem. Understanding the poet’s mood is very important in poems analysis. Often the writer creates the mood at the beginning of a work and then sustains this mood throughout. Sometimes however the mood of the work changes dramatically. The mood can be serious, fearful, satirical, lovely, optimistic, pessimistic, sorrowful, gloomy, amused, angry, happy, sad, sympathetic, humorous, joyful, ironical friendly etc.
3. THE STRUCTURE OF THE POEM.
Here we look at the way the poem is structured by looking at the following;
i. Number and length of verses.
There is usually a considerable variation in the number and length of verses in every stanza especially in modern poems. Some stanzas may have relatively many verses (lines) than others. In fact one stanza may have one verse while another in the same poem has more than ten. The same applies to the length of the lines. Some lines contain only one word while others may be long enough. Consider the poem “Development” and “If we Must die”
ii. Number and length of stanzas
A stanza is a formal division of lines in a poem, considered as a unit. Many poems are made up of stanzas that are separated by spaces. Stanzas often function just like paragraphs in prose. Each stanza states and develops a single idea. Stanzas are commonly named according to the number of verses/lines found in them as follows.
- Couplet : two-line stanza
- Tercet: Three-line stanza.
- Quatrain: Four-line stanza
- Cinquain: Five-line stanza
- Sestet: Six-line stanza
- Heptastich: Seven-line stanza.
- Octave: Eight-line stanza
iii. Rhyme and Rhyming scheme/pattern.
Rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds at the end of words in a stanza. Rhyming can occur in different ways.
Perfect/exact rhyme. When the sounds match exactly mostly at the end. E.g. came and fame
Partial/imperfect rhyme/approximate/slant or near rhyme – when the sounds do not match exactly. E.g. hunger and plumber
Eye rhyme – when words seem to rhyme but they are not e.g. Enough and through
Internal rhyme – this is the rhyming that occurs within or in the middle of a line. E.g. They were singing, bringing the ring.
I need my kid to bed.
End rhyme – this occurs at the end of the lines.
Rhyme scheme– Is a regular pattern of rhyming words in a poem. Rhyme scheme can be represented by different letters to show each rhyming sound. E.g. in Shakespearean “Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds” and Claudie McKay “If we must Die” the scheme goes (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). It should be born in mind that in establishing the rhyme scheme, it’s not how the word is written that matters but it is how it is pronounced that counts. If the poem has a rhyming scheme that follows a particular consistent order we refer to it as a REGULAR RHYMING SCHEME. If the poem has no particular consistent order we say it has IRREGULAR RHYMING SCHEME.
How to establish the rhyming scheme in English poems.
The following are samples of regular rhyme scheme poems.
DEATH THE LEVELLER
by James Shirley (England)
The glories of our blood and state a
Are shadows, not substantial things; b
There if no armour against Fate; a
Death lays his icy hand on Kings. b
Scepter and Crown c
Must tumble down, c
And in the dust be equal made d
With the poor crooked scythe and spade. d
Some men with sword may reap the field, e
And plant laurels where they kill: f
But their strong nerves at last must yield; e
They tame but one another still: f
Early or late a
They stoop to fate, a
And must give up the murmuring breath g
When they, pale captive, creep to death. g
The garlands wither on your brow; h
Then boast no more your might deeds! i
Upon Death’s purple alter now h
See whether the victor-victim bleeds. i
Your head must come, j
To the cold tomb. j
Only the actions of the just k
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust. k
Rhyming scheme abab ccdd efef aagg hihi jjkk
The rhyming scheme is REGULAR
by Denys Lefebvre (S. Africa)
Heat, all – pervading, crinkles up the soil, a
A deathly silence numbs the molten air, b
On beds of rivers, islands scorched and bare, b
Warm scavengers of wind heap up the spoil, a
And wide eyed oxen, gaunt and spent with toil, a
Huddled together near some shrunken pool… c
Pant for the shade of trees and pastures cool, c
Lashing their tails at flies they cannot foil. a
Whilst overhead, the sun-god drives his way d
Through halting hours of blinding, blazing light, e
Until his shining steeds a moment stay d
And disappear behind the gates of night. e
And still, no rain. A cloudless, strarlit sky f
Watches the veld, and all things droop and die. f
Rhyming scheme abba acca dede ff
The rhyming scheme is REGULAR
THE SERF by Roy Campbell (S. Africa)
His naked skin clothed in the torrid mist a
That puffs in smoke around the patient hooves, b
The ploughman drives, a slow somnambulist, a
And through the green his crimson furrow grooves. b
His heart, more deeply than he wounds the plain, c
Long by the rasping share of insult torn, d
Red clod, the which the war-cry once was rain c
And tribal spears the fatal sheaves of corn, d
Lies fallow now. But as the turf divides e
I see in the slow progress of his strides e
Over the toppled clouds and falling flowers, f
The timeless, surly patience of the serf g
That moves the nearest to the naked earth h
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones, and towers. f
Rhyming scheme abab cdcd ee fghf
The rhyming scheme is largely Regular but there is one line that does not rhyme with others
4. THE TYPE OF THE POEM
Broadly the poems are categorized into two types.
i. Traditional/closed /fixed poems – these are the poems that follow the ancient strict poetic principles. These include the balance in the number of words in each stanza, rhyming scheme, rhythm etc. E.g. “Drought” by Denys Lefebvre
ii. Modern/free verse/ open poems – these are poems that follow only some poetic principles and ignore others. Poets writing in free verse try to capture the natural rhythm of ordinary speech. To create its music free verse may use internal rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia, refrain, and parallel structures. E.g. “Development” by Kundi Faraja
It should be remembered that what makes a poem traditional or modern is never the time it was/is written but the adherence to the strict poetic rules/canons. So even today poets can still compose traditional poems.
Further classification of poems.
i. Narrative poem. This is a poem that tells a story. This is like prose fiction because it contains similar elements, a setting, characters, and a plot. The plot contains rising actions or the event that develop a conflict; a climax or a turning point and falling action when the conflict is resolved. Three traditional types of narrative poems are ballads, epics, and metrical romances. E.g. Marjorie’s “A freedom song” or P’Bitek’s “Song of Lawino” Double beating, Our Husbands, Once Upon A Time.
ii. Lyric poem. This is a poem that does not tell a story but usually expresses the personal thoughts, observations, emotions, and feelings of a single speaker. The name comes from the ancient musical instrument –the lyre. Most lyrics are short and they usually imply rather than state a single strong emotion. Elegy, ode and sonnets are examples of lyric poems. E.g. Mwaikusa’s “When I Say I Love You” or Joe Corrie’s “ Eat More”
iii. Didactic poem. This is a poem that instructs the reader. It gives lessons to the reader. They are mainly on political and social matters. E.g. Guebuza’s “Your Pain” it advises the reader to take part in the struggle.
iv. Epic poem. This refers to a long poem that presents heroic actions of great men and women in history of a nation. E.g. “The Epic of Sundiata” It has more than 3080 lines
v. Ode poem. This is a poem that addresses a person or a thing or cerebrates an event like wedding, birthday, independence etc. e.g. “I took my son by the hand” by Micere Mugo
vi. Elegy. Is a poem that expresses sorrow about someone who has died. E.g. Ewe’s “Lament for the dead mother” and “Christine” by Barbara Buford.
vii. Pastoral – is a poem that celebrates the beauty and pleasure of country (village)life.
viii. Ballad. Is a song-like narrative poem that tells a story, often one dealing with adventure and romance. Most ballads are written in four – six-line stanzas and have regular rhythms and rhyme scheme. A ballad often features a refrain – a regularly repeated line or group of lines as in “A freedom Song by M. O Macgoye”. Atieno yo! Originally ballads were not written down. They were composed orally and then sung. As these early folk ballads passed from singer to singer they often changed dramatically. E.g. Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord”
ix. Sonnet. Is a lyric poem that contains 14 lines (verses) in one stanza. Sonnets are very difficult to write because they require order and discipline. They have a fixed rhythm and rhyme scheme that must be followed precisely. Some sonnets are divided into two parts; the first 8 lines are called octet. They present a problem or question, and the final 6 lines are called sestet. They offer a solution or a reaction to the first part. Other sonnets have four parts. Three parts express ideas about a subject. The last two lines offer a conclusion. E.g.“If we must die” by Claudie McKay, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” by Shakespeare and “Death be not proud” by John Donne.
5. THE POETIC DICTION/CHOICE OF WORDS
Ø Choice of words. This refers to the selection and arrangement of words in a poem. This is also done for economy. Very few words may be selected to convey a very strong and powerful message. E.g. “Development” there are words like; corrupt, egoism, exploited, cheated, disregarded, privileged few, etc. these help to get the themes and the message across.
Literary devices/figures of speech.
We also look at the literary devices (figures of speech) such as simile, metaphor, imagery, personification, euphemism, paradox, symbolism, irony, hyperbole, anadiplosis etc.
Poetic devices. We also consider the poetic devices which include;
Poetic license. This is the freedom/privilege by which the poet is allowed to violate/break certain grammatical rules to achieve a poetic effect. E.g. “Forward the go” instead of they go forward in “Sunrise” by J. Mwaikusa, and “I too am America” instead of I am an American too in “I too sing America” by L. Hughes.
Sound /musical devices. All the sound devices are looked at under the general term repetition. These are;
Refrain – this is the repetition of words, phrases or lines at the end of every stanza in a poem. It acts as a chorus in the poem. E.g. Atieno yo. In Oludhe’s “A freedom song”
Alliteration – this is the repetition of the initial consonants sounds of two or more words which are nearby in a line of poetry. Etymologically the word Alliteration is derived from the Latin word “Latira’ which means “letters of alphabet” so it is a literary device in which a number of words having the same first consonant occur close together in a series. E.g.
Darling Derrick died dearly
Feel free friend Fredy.
Your beautiful black blood in “Africa”
Bare breast bouncing vigour and energy in “Lost beauty”
Delicate diplomatic duties you know in “Building the Nation”
Assonance – is the repetition of similar vowel sounds within words close to one another with different consonant sounds. Or is a repetition of similar vowel sounds that are followed by different consonant sounds especially in words next to each other in a poem. E.g. They sell the wedding bells, base and fade, young and love
Consonance – this is the repetition of consonant sounds at the end of words in stressed syllables. Or is a sound device identified by the repetition of identical or similar consonant sounds in neighbouring words whose vowels sounds are different. E.g. take it back,
I need my kid to bed,
You hurt my heart.
Reiteration – this is the repetition of the same word for emphasis. E.g
Africa my Africa, in “Africa”
My eyes oh my eyes in “Lost Beauty”
Rhyme – is the repetition of similar sounds at the end of words in a stanza.
Samwitason the artist,
The son of Christ
The real Adventist
The pure revolutionist
I’ve been chosen,
To represent Mara region,
When my sermon you listen,
Your heart is shaken
In the first stanza the rhyme is ‘st’ while in the second it is ‘n’
6. THEMES IN THE POEM
These are the general main ideas of the poem. The common themes in most poems include; classes, poverty, unemployment, oppression, exploitation, corruption, marginalization, hypocrisy, love, identity, betrayal, racial segregation / discrimination, effects of colonialism/ neo-colonialism, humiliation, HIV/AIDS, superstitious beliefs. Etc.
7. MESSAGES FROM THE POEM.
These are lessons we learn from different poems. They show what the reader has to do after reading the poem. They show the way forward or give solutions to problems discussed in the poem. Mostly we get messages from themes. E.g.
Corrupt leaders are obstacles to development they should be uprooted.
We should be aware and proud of our African identity.
True love is not based on money or material things.
8. RELEVANCE OF THE POEM.
This is the applicability of the poem’s message in contemporary societies. We assess whether or not the poet has been successful in addressing the issues that are relevant to our lives currently. That is why we believe that poems do not develop in a vacuum but they usually address issues found in societies they evolve.
It is interesting however to note that the poem may not necessarily be relevant across time and across space. In one case, a poem might be relevant in one society but may be irrelevant in another. E.g. issues related to FGM, wife battering, and bride price; are not universally relevant. etc
In another case, a poem that was once relevant in one society might be irrelevant in the same society as time passes by. E.g. most poems that were about struggle for independence in Africa have now fallen out of favour.