Poetics - the Study of Form and Content in Poetry

Before Jane Austen's time, or the end of the 18th Century, prose was not very common. Most of literature took the form of poetry and theatre, where characters often spoke in rhyme. Our own roots are very full of poetry. But why study it? Why not just appreciate it? Moderns have a scorn of rhyme, yet lyricists still rely heavily on rhyme and rhythm in their poetry that they set to music. We must remember that the ancient world was full of music.

Poetry was not just for entertainment. Poetry was a device by which people could memorize an amazing amount of lore. This is how it works.

Row, row, row your boat

How many of you automatically fill in the rest of the song in your head? Advertisers depend on this ability to remember in their jingles. Songwriters in their lyrics. Think of how much you have remembered that was straight prose. Anything? Think of how many songs you can sing. Hundreds? Thousands? Even in modern Hip Hop and Rap, the poem is everything. Some people can force a rhyme, others cannot. Most languages are easy to rhyme, English is not. Ask any good rapster how hard it is to do a good rhyme and you will get a lecture, mostly about how others force rhymes. Forcing a rhyme is trying to find a word that will rhyme and then contorting the lyric to fit the rhyme. A good song writer does not do this. Rhyming is both easy and extremely difficult in English. Most poets find it plebeian and comical and rely on rhythm instead.

My brother, Peter Shields, has written an amazing amount on the history of English and its Celtic underpinnings. Poetry, too has undergone some of these changes. There is Anglo-Saxon poetry of which I will give a couple of samples from the modern master of it, J.R.R. Tolkien. There is also what I call, the Latin Invasion, which is poetry in the form we know so well from sonnets, Shakespeare, and most of the Classical writers. In most languages, the forms fit the language. In China and Japan, poetry is syllabic, meaning that the word is its own song and the stringing of words together in a formal arrangement sounds very different than our versions of Haiku. We completely miss the subtleties of rising and falling tones and the way in which the poems they write sound aloud. That is what moderns have forgotten. Unless they are in the song business, which is still audio, not reading written poems and seeing written music. Can you imagine the Beatles on paper, no music?

The master poets of the West were the Celts. The Goths and Scandinavians had their poetry, but not the bardic traditions of the Celts, where a master poet had the same head price as a king, maybe more. Bards were lower poets, mostly repeating songs and performing. Master poets were those who composed, but also those who embedded knowledge into song and verse. So many of the old wives' rhymes we still know were a way of doing this that was picked up among the common people. When Wales knew that they were being invaded, the masters broke up all their lore into snippets, one for each family to remember. It was a history of codes shared by the entire population. Gives me the chills thinking of it. What was lost? What was saved?

Form in Poetry

There are many studies of poetry. Most of it boils down to what we call "metric" or rhythm, "sonic" which is the sound of the words, and the content. Modern poetry has some scorn for metric, but still relies on sonics to carry a rhythm forward. Most poetry that we hear is in a form made popular by Shakespeare and carried forward by other major poets after him. Poetry is made of "feet" put into "meters". Feet have names. A foot that sounds da DAH is called an "iamb" (think of how the word sounds: eye AMB); a foot that sounds DAH da is called a trochee (TROW chay). There are other names for three syllable forms, DAH DAH da (dactyl), da DAH DAH (anapest), da da (spondee), DAH DAH (pyrric), da DAH da (amphibrach), da da da (tribach), and da DAH da (amphimacer.) Most of our discussion will only concern the first two forms: iamb and trochee. Iambic forms are more Latinate, trochee forms are more Anglo-Saxon. The line of Shakespeare:

Now is the winter of our discontent
now IS the WIN ter OF our DIS con TENT

is written is a famous form called "iambic pentameter" or five feet of da DAH. He forces the small Anglo-Saxon words into the rhythm by the words "discontent" and "winter", one of which follows Latin rules of pronunciation and the other Anglo-Saxon rules. Latin rules dictate that the accent of the word is on the second to last syllable, Anglo-Saxon on the first. English seems to fall most often into an iambic form, but often seems jumbled and sounds awkward to foreign ears. Many of our poetic forms are for Greek poetry. The Greeks were the Classical people who were the last to rely on memorizing. They made the transistion to writing information down, as did the Latins, so when we study their poetry, we hear the old ways in which poetry was encoded for memory purpose. However, little approaches the complexity of form in the Celtic poetry, preserved for us in one of the schools that escaped demolition: the Welsh. Most of the forms are in that language. Before I introduce some of these forms, I wish to say a few words about Anglo-Saxon poetry.

J.R.R. Tolkien was an Oxford don who taught Anglo-Saxon. His translation of Beowulf is the best, hands down. He passed through translation and put his creative genius into his understanding of the Anglo-Saxon mind. He understood the sound of their poetry so well, that he was able to create his own in his Fantasy work.

We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,
the swords shining in the South-kingdom.
Steeds went striding to the Stoningland
as wind in the morning. War was kindled.

This is Professor Tolkien at his best, this is a modern poem in the Anglo-Saxon form. Anglo-Saxon is not as concerned with the rhyme as they are of alliteration, or words that start with the same sound. Heard, horns, hills/swords, singing, south/steed, striding, stoning/wind, war. What you also get in Anglo-Saxon is the caesura, or break in the middle of the sentence. This is extremely English. Tolkien calls our attention to it by taking the rhyme at the end of the first line internally at the caesura in the next three lines. You could even wrap the words differently:

We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,
the swords shining
in the South-kingdom. Steeds went striding
to the Stoningland as wind in the morning.
War was kindled.

Tolkien has modeled perfectly the Anglo-Saxon mind. What I can see is the poet, a man of deep and resonant voice calling out above the fires and the noise of the feast, accompanied maybe by a drum. He would pause, his mouth shaping the words like a battle horn himself. Yet, you should notice something else, Tolkien has not used a single Latin word. Because of this all his words have an attack on the first syllable.

We HEARD of the HORNS in the HILLS RINGing,
the SWORDS SHINing in the SOUTH-KINGdom.
STEEDS went STRIDing to the STONingLAND
as WIND in the MORNing. WAR was KINdled.

This is not Latin poetry, nor is it Greek. It is a poetry of a fierce, strong people, who loved war and song, feast and fighting. It was Tolkien's mission to extract a story that was truly English. He uses his Riders of Rohan as his example of the young English, or the Anglo-Saxon. His other example is of the old British, who, in his books, were the men of Westernesse. He spoke Welsh and used Welsh forms to give believability to his Dunedain or People of the West.

Beneath the Moon and under star
he wandered far from northern strands,
bewildered on enchanted ways
beyond the days of mortal lands.
From gnashing of the Narrow Ice
where shadow lies on frozen hills
from nether hearts and burning waste.

This piece is from a poem that Bilbo composed published in The Lord of Rings. I put it forth as one of the finest English examples of Welsh form that I have come across. I looks a bit like iambic pentameter, but look more closely. It resembles somewhat the awdl gywydd but is obviously an Anglo-Welsh poem with internal rhyming.

Beneath the Moon and under STAR
he wandered FAR from northern strands,
bewildered on enchanted WAYS
beyond the DAYS of mortal lands.
From gnashing of the Narrow ICE
where shadow LIES on frozen hills
from nether hearts and burning waste.

As I said above the forms of Celtic poetry are vast, complex and almost impossible to reproduce in English. Part of this is that the Celtic tongues are what Pete calls, "murmuring languages" or languages in which the endings and some of the beginnings of words are swallowed. English is articulated, not as much so as German, but the word "talk" is not supposed to rhyme with the word "duck" or "small". Alliteration, the rhyming of the front end of a word, is all over Celtic poetry. The other element so common in Celtic poetry is what is called "consonance" also called off-rhyme or slant-rhyme, like these words: bridge/hedge, tell/tale, hand/bend. I have tried my hand at some Celtic forms in English:

Rowan in Autumn

Blood-red turns the lustrous leaf
Luscious bloom, brief-gowned now fled
Fall grown flood, a quickened weft,
Tree, bereft, leaves blazed in blood

This is called a rannaigheacht mhór. The definition is: "a quatrain stanza of seven-syllable lines consonating, not rhyming, a-b-a-b. There are at least two cross-rhymes in each couplet, and the final word of line 3 rhymes with a word in the interior of line 4. Two words alliterate in each line, the final world of line 4 alliterating with the preceding stressed word. The final syllable, word or line must duplicate the beginning first syllable, word or line." This is a small example of how complex these poetic rules became. What began as a way to memorize knowledge ended in dazzling displays of sheer form. Take it apart. Here is the first rule (consonate switching out vowels with the same end consonant sounds):

Blood-red showed the lustrous LEAF
Luscious bloom, brief-gowned then FLED
Fall grown flood, a quickened WEFT
Tree, bereft, ends blazed in BLOOD

Now for the second rule, cross rhymes.

Blood-red showed the lustrous LEAF
Lucious bloom, BRIEF-gowned then fled
Fall grown FLOOD, a quickENED weft
Tree, bereft, ENDs blazed in BLOOD

and the final rules: the final word of line 3 rhymes with a word in the interior of line 4. Two words alliterate in each line, the final world of line 4 alliterating with the preceding stressed word. The final syllable, word or line must duplicate the beginning first syllable, word or line.

BLood-red showed the Lustrous Leaf
Luscious BLoom, brief-gowned then fled
Fall grown Flood, the quickened WEFT,
Tree, beREFT, ends, BLazed in BLood

Here is another, a rionnaird tri n-ard."A quatrain stanza of hexasyllabic lines with disyllabic endings. Lines 2 and 4 rhyme, and line 3 consonates with them. There are two cross-rhymes in the second couplet, none in the first. There is alliteration in each line, and the last syllable of line 1 alliterates with the first accented word of line 2. The final syllable, word or line must duplicate the beginning first syllable, word or line." (Which, if you note, makes the non-existent cross-rhyme in the first, impossible!) Well, here's the attempt:


Shunning night, mares hurried
reined back by drear vision
dark done by; Dawn, ransom
dream herd from vile 'suasion!

This is just a little introduction to poetics, showing a little variety over that which you may learn in school with limericks, sonnets and free verse. I like to think of all these druids having poetry contests. As much fun as these were, the ancient art of poety to carry forward the stories and songs of a people cannot be lightly dismissed. In Anieth, students like Stan and Teig, and all the Kings and Queens had to memorize thousands of lines of math, history, law, genealogies, even maps and ways to melt metal and build bridges. Songs were not merely for entertainment, they taught the people, kept knowledge safe and passed it on from one generation to the next. Poetry and song was not just about clever rhyming, but about keeping a verbal library in tact. Much of the knowledge that we have of our own past is because of the survival of some of these songs.

© 2016, A.R. Stone

Background books Background page Making page Art page Poetics page Stonework