A Poet’s Perspective on the Use of Structure

Ron Hayes is a poet and fiction writer from Erie, PA. He teaches English at East High School where he also coaches football, keeps stats for girls’ basketball, and continues to try to start a lacrosse team. A graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte, Ron was named Erie County’s third Poet Laureate in September of last year.  His poems have found homes in such places as Fjords Review, Rosebud Magazine, Frac/tions, and Gutter Eloquence. He lives in Erie, PA along with 3 Chocolate Labs, two teenage sons, a one very patient wife.


A Poet’s Perspective on the Use of Structure

Just as Alexander Pope once famously asserted that a poem’s “sound must seem an echo to its sense,” I believe that a poem’s structure should similarly inform a poem’s meaning. For poets, working with structure is different and, I daresay, more dangerous than it is for playwrights or fiction writers. Because the structure of a poem can be viewed and appreciated at a glance, readers can immediately respond to a poem’s shape on the page, rejecting or accepting it without nibbling at it for too long. If you’re a poet and you aren’t taking structure into account when you write, try working with forms to start. Forms like sonnets and villanelles establish a good working facility with structure and will certainly help you improve your poems.

For example, as much as I enjoy writing sonnets, I enjoy stretching the boundaries of sonnets even more. Generally adhering to the conventional 14-lines of iambic pentameter, I often play by experimenting with unconventional rhyme schemes: ABCCBA ABCCBA DD goes one sonnet. Another, ABBBBA CC DDEEFF. Nothing earth shattering, nothing revolutionary, just fun riffs on an old form resulting in neat little poems with uncommon—though recognizable—structures.

In “The Rothko Progression,” an ekphrastic piece inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko, I decided that I would best serve the poem and its subject matter by emulating the color block paintings for which Rothko is so well known. I made sure that the lines of every stanza were comparatively equal while varying the number of lines in each stanza. In doing so, the poem’s structure calls to mind Rothko’s paintings, and goes far in establishing how structure can echo sense.

Finally, because I love using allusion and burying meaning in subtext, I wrote “The Boatman’s Wife” in such a way that an understanding of its complex structure will unlock deeper, hidden meanings, and, I hope, greater satisfaction for the reader. Written from the perspective of Charon, mythology’s famous ferryman, “The Boatman’s Wife” is a blazon that borrows ideas from Dante Alighieri and James Joyce to flesh out its structure. From Dante’s concept of Hell and its nine circles comes my poem’s nine stanzas. To mimic the idea of descent, I began with a single line and increased each stanza by one line, structurally deepening the reader’s progression. To flavor the poem as Joyce did his chapters of Ulysses, the language of each stanza alludes to a specific body part as well as to the sin and/or punishment found in the corresponding circles of Dante’s hell.

Is the poem successful? Up to the reader to decide, I guess. I think the idea works, but as I continue revising I know that there are still places where I can tighten things up. But that’s poetry. What’s important is that I’m taking structure into account when I compose a poem, knowing that things like enjambment and line integrity, white space, and caesura, and line length matter. In this way formal structures inform, but don’t define, my work.

Link to poem’s referenced in this post: http://www.ronhayes.net/ronhayes/5writers.html

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