A Supplement to
The Tilma and Other Poetry,
Some things to Consider in Writing Poetry
This supplement is offered as some background for a student of poetry. If one feels he or she could benefit from it, I invite the student to look the material over. There are differing kinds of poetry, mainly lyric and narrative, and in English, there's also free and bound verse, the latter being bound to a metrical pattern of a basic foot, meter, and rhyme scheme. This is the kind of poetry that will be the focus here.
In the 1960's I taught English and writing in my native Iowa. I used to save the best writings of my students, even if brief, and had them printed in a literary booklet called The Purple Plume. It was published not only to stimulate interest in writing but also as a creative outlet for the student. Some, if not all of these booklets, were printed by the prison system.
While I've no longer a classroom, I hope students of today will find this information helpful in understanding some of what's involved in the composition of poetry, and will also be encouraged to write with an eye to excellence and beauty.
Should one wish, one may use it to accompany The Tilma and Other Poems. The major work in this book is about the story of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the poor Indian Juan Diego, the events of which took place ten years and a few months after the fall of the Aztec empire. The story is based on an account originally written in Aztec and happens to have the elements of the Aztec concept of poetry in it, something that will be spoken of, in a fuller way, at the end of this supplement.
Comparing Poetry to Prose
Very often words are broken into units of sound called syllables. Some of these are stressed and others are not, so there is a rise and fall of sound, something like the sea, where there's a rise and fall of the surface of the water. Thus we have a kind of undulation of sound.
When words are strung together in ordinary sentences and paragraphs, they're called prose, our usual mode of expression, which includes such things as articles, stories, novels and conversation. Prose, it's said, comes from the Latin word prosa meaning "straightforward."
When it comes to poetry, it's more structured. Poetry is said to trace back to Medieval Latin poetria, from the Latin poeta, poet. The word for an individual piece of poetry, the poem, we're told is traced to the Greek poiēma which has "create" and "write poetry" among its several meanings
While we use the term "creative" in writing, we should humbly admit that we don't create the way that God does. He creates from nothing. When we "create" or write poetry, we use existing language standing for sounds and ideas. We use the mind and imagination God has endowed us with, and the abilities He's given us.
We can get an idea of the difference between prose and bound verse, by comparing two groups of people walking down the street. In one group each person walks at his or her own pace. In the other group we have soldiers marching in ranks down the street. They are more regimented, keeping the same step, and walk in lines having the same length. Metric poetry is more structured in stringing words, and their sounds together.
While we may strive to fashion poetic feet in a regular-occurring way, it doesn't mean that we can't have some variation. In working with language and ideas, you may find some words with their ideas may not always fall into a uniform pattern. The poetry in The Tilma and Other Poems has some variation.
Rhyme is quite associated with poetry. Rhyme is a way of speaking or writing that repeats a sound, usually at the end of a line, and the mind knows that the sounds go together. It's meant for the ear to catch these.
There are various kinds of rhyme: (1) perfect and imperfect rhyme, (2) masculine and feminine rhyme, and (3) internal and end rhyme.
In perfect rhyme, an accented vowel in one word agrees with an accented vowel in another word or more, and these vowels are followed by the same sound. The sounds before them, however, differ. Thus, in the words "spoken" and "broken," you have an "s" and a "b" differing in sound, but you have an "o" sound followed by a "ken" sound that agree.
In imperfect rhyme there's an element or more of the perfect rhyme lacking. It's somewhat of a sight thing. Thus, in "mother" and "father," the "ther" sounds are alike, but the vowels that precede them are not. However, "mother" and "brother" are not imperfect rhymes because the "o" sounds are alike. They are perfect rhymes.
There is masculine and feminine rhyme. The difference is where the emphasis is placed. In masculine rhyme, the emphasis is on the final syllable; thus, compose and repose. In feminine rhyme the final syllable is unstressed with the emphasis coming before it, as in beauty and duty.
With regard to internal rhyme and end rhyme, it's not how the words are formed, but their position in the line. Internal rhyme is within the line, and end rhyme is of course at the end.
possible to formulate rhyme by putting two words together to rhyme
with another word. Thus, in the poem, A Sauk Comes to Visit:
If the cannon ball could speak, a
The Italian sonnet is composed of an eight-line stanza, followed by a six-line one. The rhyme scheme is abba abba, then often cde cde.
The typical English sonnet is organized with three four-line stanzas, followed by a two-line couplet. The rhyme scheme for the English version is abab cdcd efef gg
Rhythm, Feet, Lines and Uses
Rhythm is a recurring beat or accent. If we write bound poetry, and use rhythm, we write words so their sounds will have a beat. You look and listen for the accent or the natural stress of the words and arrange them in poetic lines. These lines are composed of units called poetic feet, a rhythmic unit of two or three syllables. While there are other kinds of feet, here are the basic ones
The Four Basic Feet
in English Verse
The Length of Lines
You can describe a line of poetry by an above length, e. g., pentameter. You can also describe it by the kind of foot and by the number of feet in a line. Thus, a line composed of five iambs or iambic feet is called iambic pentameter.
It might be helpful if
we look at the words for counting in Latin and Greek, which are here listed
after each English word for the numbers, up to ten:
One Unus, Uni Mono
One can see, for example, how the pentameter in iambic pentameter corresponds to penta meaning "five" in Greek. Once one sees this, things fall into place better and make more sense. To step for a moment into another area, to see how this works, take the months of the year. It used to be that the Roman year began in March and some of the months took their names from the Latin numbers of the Romans. Thus, seven through ten: septem, octo, novem, and decem are found in September, October, November, and December, the seventh through the tenth months of the Roman calendar.
Iamb comes from a word said to literally mean “to put
forth,” and the Greeks of old considered the iambic meter an approximation
of the rhythm natural to speech. An example of iambic poetry in tetrameter
is this stanza
from Lord Byron's, She Walks In Beauty:
And from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
westward he did go,
Sonnet on a TearNot all | the dar | kened clouds | with fal | ling rain,
And wa | ters, shed | from moun | tain side | and hill;
Nor all | the spread | ing floods | of low | land plain,
And falls | that plunge | from cliffs | and down | ward spill...
Not all | the ben |ding
brooks, | the sun | ny streams,
Not all | of these, | and seas | and o|ceans full,
If poured | into | the hot | and fie | ry pit...
Not all | these wa | ters drawn | by na | ture's pull,
Could drown | e'en one | infer | nal flame | of it!
To douse | the hope |
less place | that hell | is in,
In the poem, If It Could Speak..., the predominant foot is iambic and the predominant length is three feet, so the poem ismostly iambic trimeter. There are some variations mixed in.
If It Could Speak...
If the can | non ball |
Did it fall | on field |
Did a sol | dier before
Did it gouge | nearby,
Lo, whe | ther it
Or whe | ther it sim |
But loo | king at | this
And while | I do | not
Alas, | for threat | of
A bet | ter use | of
The opposite of the iamb, is the trochee, with the stress coming first.It's used in formal poetry, and by one account, is said to derive from the Greek trokhos, wheel, and khoros, dance. It's described as conveying a rolling rhythm. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the trochee in The Song of Hiawatha. After the introduction, the lines begin:
On the Mountains of the Prairie,
By the shore of Gitche Gumee
Shakespeare used it, as in this line, Double, double, toil andtrouble...And it's been used in nursery rhymes, like Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater.
Anapest is said to originate from the Latin anapaestus, and to literally mean “struck back” (Among meanings for the prefix ana is "back." ) It reverses the accent of the dactyl; (It puts the stress at the end of the poetic foot [to the back, in the sense it's opposite the front of the foot, but as it's read, it's quite forward from foot's beginning]). Here are two stanzas from a poem that uses this anapestic footage, and also uses several similes. They're from The Destruction of Sennacherib by George Gordon Byron:
The Assyr| ian came down | like a wolf | on the fold,
And his co | horts were glea | ming in pur | ple and gold;
And the sheen | of their spears| was like stars | on the sea,
When the blue | wave rolls night ly on deep | Galilee.
Like the leaves| of the for | est when Sum | mer is green,
That host | with their ban | ners at sun | set were seen:
Like the leaves | of the for | est when Au |tumn hath blown,
That host | on the mor | row lay wi | thered and strown.
If the word dactylic in dactylic foot looks strange, remember in Greek that daktylos meant finger, thus the name of the flying reptile, pterodactyl, was derived from petron (wing), and daktylos (finger). The pterodactyl was a smaller variety of the pterosaur (winged lizard) which had a leathery membrane stretched out to the end of a very large fourth finger, the other fingers being smaller and free.
Now look at the dactylic foot. The greater sound or stress is on the first part with two lesser-sounding syllables following it. Then look at the finger you point with, from the knuckle to the tip. You have a longer finger bone between the knuckle and the next joint, followed by two shorter ones. In other words, a greater one followed by two lesser ones. It fits the dactylic foot. You may remember it, if you will, as a "finger foot."
The following poem, Charge
of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, uses the dactylic foot.
It was written to memorialize the charge by the British light cavalry in the
Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War (1854-56). Of the 637 in the charge,
247 were killed or wounded, a terrible loss. (See if you feel a momentum
as you read it)
|Charge for the| guns he said:|
|Into the | valley of | Death |
|Rode the six | hundred.|
|'Forward, the | Light Brigade!' |
|Was there a | man dismay'd? |
|Not tho' the | soldier knew |
|Someone had |blunder'd: |
|Theirs not to | make reply, |
|Theirs not to | reason why, |
|Theirs but to | do & die,|
|Into the | valley of | Death|
|Rode the six | hundred.|
|Cannon to | the right | of them,|
|Cannon to | the left | of them,|
|Cannon in | front of them|
|Volley'd & | thunder'd|
|Storm'd at with |shot and shell,|
|Boldly they | rode and well,|
|Into the | jaws of Death,|
|Into the |mouth of Hell|
|Rode the six | hundred.|
Terza rima in Italian means "third rhyme." It is an arrangement of stanzas of three lines, that rhyme in this pattern: aba bcb cdc ded, etc. Its first known use was in the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, the very first stanzas of which follow, with a translation:Inferno . Canto I Hell . Canto I (Longfellow translation*)
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vitaMidway upon the journey of our life
mie ritrovai per una selva oscura, I found myself within a forest dark,
che mi diritta via era smarrita. For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ahi quanto a dir qual e cosa duraAh me! how hard a thing it is to say
esta selva selvaaggia e aspra e forte What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
che nel pensier rinova la paura! Which in the very thought renews the fear.
*Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Two stanzas from Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley (described as being in terza rima.):
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
Another poetic effort at terza rima:
o'er the hill,
Fromup aloft some flew on by,
―The wind pursuing, as on they sped..
While others fell, to where they lie.
The flakes grew fewer..then none
(Written mostly in iambic tetrameter. Note the comparison of snow to cotton and the suggestions to bed linen in "fluffing a pillow" and a blanket referred to as a spread. Note as well these descriptions: implied moundings of snow treated as pillows and the ground overlain with snow compared to a bed spread. Note as well the metaphoric treatment of clouds as ducklike in shedding down
Rather than trying to fit everything in the iambic foot, one may allow a little variation, like using the anapestic foot as was done in the above poetry about snow. In Shelleys' poem, you see an amphibrach foot of three syllables ending a couple lines, with the stress on the middle syllable, as in:| thou breath | of Au | tumn's being.)
*An ode is a lyric poem, often addressed to a person or thing.
Additional Feet and a Few Uses
A pyrrhic foot
has two unstressed syllables, whereas the spondaic foot has two
stressed syllables, "great woods" in the following lines :
An amphimacer is a three-syllabled foot, with an unstressed syllable in the middle: (e.g., forest fast ), whereas an amphibrach is a three-syllabled foot with the stressed syllable in the middle (e.g., ennobling).
An anacrucis is an unexpected unstressed syllable at the beginning of a trochaic or dactylic line.
An initial truncation is the omitting of an expected unstressed syllable at the beginning of an iambic or anapestic line.
A pause sometimes takes the place of an unstressed syllable:
A caesura is a natural break in a line according to the sense or punctuation. It may be within or at the end of the line.
Substitution is using iambic and anapestic feet together which have a rising rhythm, or using trochaic or dactylic feet together which have a falling rhythm. If you substitute, say, an anapestic foot for an iambic feet, you'll note the stress still falls on the last syllable.
Figures of Speech and Sound Patterns
In writing poetry it useful to know about figures of speech, which use words in a nonliteral way. "Figures of speech," according to the World Book, "are the flowers of rhetoric.” Here we'll consider three of these figures: the simile, the metaphor and personification. We'll also consider three sound patterns: alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia.
A simile is a
comparison between two different things, with a word to signal the comparison,
such as like or as. It is a clear and open comparison showing that one thing
is similar to another, in some way or ways. For
example, take a crescent moon and compare it to the hand tool for harvesting, the sickle (as in the image of a
hammer and sickle), and write the simile: The moon rose like a sickle above the
A metaphor is an implied comparison between two such things: a suggested similarity. You do not say one thing is like another, as in the simile, you say one thing is another. They sort of come together. Instead of saying the moon is like a sickle, you say it is a sickle (but are still comparing the one to the other). For example you could say, poetically, The moon is a sickle, trying to harvest the field of stars.
Metaphor comes from the Greek meta (beyond, after) + pherein (to carry). You might think of it as one thing carried beyond itself to another thing and taking its place.
Again, using the sickle idea, you could use it as an adjective, and basically express the same image. Thus, the sickle moon.
metaphor in the following passage, gleaned from Mary O'Hara's My Friend Flicka:
is something like a metaphor, in that one thing becomes another. You take an
inanimate thing and treat it like it has a human quality. While the moon is
an inanimate object in the sky, you can treat it as if it were human.
Another personified expression: The snow that night gently laid a soft blanket across the
sleeping land. This not only personifies snow but it also uses a
metaphor of a blanket to describe the layer of snow on top of the
ground...and it does so at night, a time when we sleep, so the idea of when
it happens, fits even better.
It seems to me, however,
that an alliteration could be overdone if the sound is repeated too many
times in close order. I suggest it would be safer to limit it. If
you said: The rain poured down upon
the puddled prairie, as we rode home, ask whether that alliterative word, puddled, sounds overmuch. If you want
to use it, you might try spreading the words out a little, and see how it
sounds then. Maybe by saying something like this: The rain poured down upon
prairie, as we rode home, sloshing through the puddles that
lay in our way.
(I might mention that sloshing through puddles, in itself, is quite descriptive).
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan (Four "ah's" but the repetition seems to work okay here)
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Onomatopoeia is the forming of a word that imitates the natural sound associated with something, like the tinkling sound of a little bell, the roar or rumble of thunder, the sharp crack of lightning, or the buzzing of the bee.
In one of the passages from My Friend
Flicka, above, you have the word "rustling," as
example of onomatopoeia. In If It Could Speak, you
have a "thudding" sound and a "boom."
Words are naturally made up of the property of sound which the eye can see and the tongue can speak, and we should not neglect the effect of poetry on the ear.
Here's what the English Professor Robert Pinsky had to
say on the subject. He was three times the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to
2000, and was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Pinsky replied, "The medium is the reader’s voice. At tonight’s reading, I hope to give a hint of what I worked to achieve in the vowels, consonants, intonations, rhythms, trying to make them like gestures that refine and focus the meanings."
He was going to read that evening from his book, Selected Poems. O'Rourke asked him: "What do you hope readers take away from Selected Poems?
Pinsky responded, "Pleasure. A great feeling from hearing the sounds of meaning in the lines fitted to the tunes of the sentences." (from a website called BU Today, the site IDed Boston University).
If one is beginning to write poetry from scratch, one might approach it by selecting a poetic foot to start with. To illustrate this, we'll use the iambic foot of two syllables or sound units. You might begin by composing just a couple lines (or just a few), and end the lines with rhymes.
Here's an example of a simple iambic couplet. Since there are four
feet to a line that'll make it iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme
is shown in italicized letters following the lines.
Note the alliteration of "l's" in line one.
|Upon | her
| there grows,|
You might add to it and expand the poem, and play upon the rose idea:
|A tear| from eyes| of blue, | a Option: insert an anapest: ...tear | from her eyes | of blue
|Doth there | appear | like dew. | a
It runs | on down | her cheek | b
|Onto | her face | and flow'r... | b
It leaves | a mois | ture streak, | c
To mark | the sad | den'd hour. | c
A four-lined poem mainly in the iambic foot, with an anapestic foot in the last line:
A lustrous moon shone down a
|A lus | trous moon | shone down |
Some commentary on the Aztec mind and language
The Tilma is the first listed and the major work of the book The Tilma and Other Poems. A tilma is the name of the outer garment worn by Juan Diego. The events of the poem are based on a history written in the Aztec language (also known as Nahuatl), ten years and some months after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. It was located where Mexico City is today. It was islanded out on a lake, and connected to the mainland by causeways. Cortes didn't find it easy to conquer the Aztec in Tenochtitlan. While I've tried to learn some their Indian language, I do not find Aztec easy to conquer either, and am quite limited in what I know. You might say, a step or two at the beginning of the linguistic causeway.
One of the things that shows up early in the historical account called the Nican Mopohua, is a linguistic feature called a difrasismo. In El Mundo de Juan Diego (The World of Juan Diego) by Francisco J. Perea, it says the difrasismo is common to Aztec literature, and consists of the placement of two words next to one another, to express an idea, generally rich and profound, one term being considered insufficient. Early in the Nican Mopohua, you find these two difrasismos mentioned: in atl in tepetl (the water, the hill or mountain) standing for city, and in mitl in chimalli (the arrow point, the shield), standing for war.
The difrasismo in xochitl in cuicatl (the flower, the song) stands for poetry. In the book La Morenita - Evangelizer of the Americas by Virgil Elizondo, it quotes one Leon-Portilla from his dictionary of ancient words and expressions: “Concretamente se afirma tambien que “flores y cantos” el unico camino para decir lo verdadero en la tierra. (Concretely it also affirms that “flower and song” is the only road to say the truth on earth.) He goes on to say that to know the poetic is to “venido del interior de cielo,” to come to the interior of heaven, and “la clave para penetrar el ambito de la verdad,” the key to penetrate the field of truth. (Verdad was in all caps.)
I didn't find the difrasismo in xochitl in cuicatl, as such, in the Nican Mopohua but I did find the flower and song in the story, placed like bookends around an important part of the narrative. Early on in the story, Juan Diego hears singing which draws his attention to the hill where the Blessed Virgin appears to him (the cuicatl). Later on she'll tell him to gather flowers from atop the same hill in a time of frost and cold, and take them to the bishop as a sign (the xochitl). Flowers are very central to the happenings.* The story embodies the concept of in xochitl in cuicatl.
However this difrasismo of was played
out in the thought and actions of the Aztecs prior to
Christianity — and
certainly human sacrifice was not a truth to live by — this concept of in
xochitl in cuicatl of theirs, is worth
recalling for us:
we should follow the road of truth on earth, and live to
"come to the interior of heaven."
We should keep in mind the One, Who's "The Way, the Truth and the Life."
sign of His coming into world, is seen on the Tilma.
Copyright © 2005 - John Riedell - All