by Renée M. LaTulippe
We all know that writing – any kind of writing – must be tight and engaging. No extra words. No tangents. Every syllable must push push push that poem or story forward toward its inevitable end. And those syllables have to sing.
A good way to become familiar with the economy and choice of words necessary for such writing is to read and write free verse. As rhymers, we can learn so much by stripping away our rhyme schemes and meter and letting our stories or poems stand there as naked as jaybirds. Without all the fancy plumes, do they still hold up?
The three free verse poems below illustrate how much can be done with character development, rhythm, and story structure in just a few well-chosen words. Read them and try the quick exercises to see how you can apply the techniques to hone your rhyming poems and stories.
Points to ponder:
- In two tercets and a total of twenty-five words, poet Janet Wong creates an entire relationship with an emotional backstory.
- The poem feels both effortless and sincere because the poet has reproduced the natural rhythms of spoken language – something that is often lost in rhyming texts. There is nothing forced about the language.
- Careful word choice supports the image of the narrator as a girl who is “soft” – just like all those F sounds in tofu, soft, falling, tough, full of fire.
- Although this is free verse, the poet makes use of slant rhyme and other sound devices, as in tofu/soft/tough and ginger/her.
- The first two lines and the use of tofu and soft at first give a sense that perhaps the narrator is merely plump, while the clever third line, easily falling apart, adds another meaning to the word soft, as in emotionally fragile (or at least more fragile than the tougher sister).
- The second tercet succinctly reveals both the narrator’s desire and her view of her sister.
Write a short free verse poem that encapsulates your main character and includes clues to his/her personality, problem, and emotional state, and/or relationship to another character. Then rewrite it as a rhyming stanza.
Rhythm and Sound
Points to ponder:
- Although it is free verse, Marilyn Singer’s poem contains rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and repetition.
- Form and sound work really well together in This stick here / That stick there. The repeated stick is a short, staccato word that recalls the precision of a beaver’s work, while the space in the line forces the reader to pause and emphasizes the deliberate actions of the beaver in placing the sticks just so.
- The same can be said for the repetition of mud, more mud, add mud, good mud, which creates a single-minded, assembly-line image of very focused beavers and mimics their staccato movements.
- The heavy D, G, and short U sounds in that repeated line put us right in the mud with the beavers, while the alliterated M sound creates a subtle, monotonous hum that underscores the assembly line focus.
- The lack of punctuation throughout further enhances the idea that these beavers don’t take a break and will continue working in their dam factory long after we’ve finished the poem.
Choose a short section of your manuscript or poem and rewrite it as a free verse poem that captures the desired rhythm of your story/character. Is it fast-paced and bouncy or slow and lyrical? Consider the properties of the sounds you choose.
Points to ponder:
- This poem by David L. Harrison is a succinct illustration of story structure and story elements. With sparse but evocative language, the poem:
- establishes the main character and his emotional state (further helped by cowboy dialect)
- introduces the problem (conflicted about signing up for the cattle drive)
- illustrates reasons that gave rise to problem (those durn flies!)
- ups the stakes (busted leg, stampedes, etc.)
- falling action moving toward resolution (don’t know what else I’d do)
- shows transformation of character’s emotional state (lookin’ at stars ain’t so bad)
- resolution (sign me up)
Write your whole rhyming story or poem in free verse. What did you leave out that was in the rhyming version? Do you really need it?
Remember that when trying these exercises, the idea is not to merely write your whole rhyming story or poem down the page instead of across it – that’s not what free verse is. Rather, the idea is to distill your work into one or a series of short free verse poems with the goal of seeing
- where you can tighten your writing
- how you can use sound, rhythm, and word choice to enhance your story
- how you can bring more of the natural rhythms of spoken language into your verse
- how your structure holds up without all the bells and whistles of rhyme
Getting to the essence of your story through free verse can help you approach your work with a more critical eye and refine it into a tight, engaging, and musical piece of writing.
Now fly! Be free!
(C) 2014 Renee M. LaTulippe. This article is partially excerpted from a lesson in the online course The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry. All rights reserved.