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Poetry basics in a nutshell

by Suzette Richards


Let us look at the following word, and break it down into consonants and vowels: car.

How many consonants and vowels do you see?

Answer: 2 consonants = c and r & 1 vowel = a

How many three-letter words do you know that contains –ar, by changing only the first consonant?

Answer: bar, far, jar, (on) par, tar, war.

The first 5 words rhyme with car.

NB: the word war looks the same as the pattern we had set, but it is pronounced differently—we call this eye-rhyme.



Using the same word, car, as an example, how many syllables do you hear?

Answer: One syllable

Now, if we should add more vowels, we are changing the sound and the meaning of the word, for example: care.

How many consonants and vowels do you see?

Answer: 2 consonants = c and r & 2 vowels = a and e

How many units of pronunciation do you hear?

Answer: One syllable.

Syllables affect the meter found in poetry; meters are regularised rhythms. The metrical foot in literary terms refers to two or more syllables that together make up a unit. The smallest unit of rhythm in a poem is the iamb and written in poetry notations as: */.



Using the above example, care, how many words can we make by keeping to the core sound, but changing only one consonant at the beginning of the word?

Answer: bear, bare, dare, fair, fare, hare, hair, lair, mare, pair, rare, tear, wear.

We call these words perfect rhyme. Note that the word tear, meaning to rip something apart; may also mean to cry tears. I.e., the sentence will determine how we pronounce the word and, therefore, it's meaning.



A number of lines grouped together in a set pattern in poetry are called a stanza or, also a verse. A poem may consist of a single stanza or many stanzas.



Poetry forms are the designs of particular poems—it is the set instructions of how you should write a poem, for example, sonnet, quintella,  quatrain, etc, using, for example, different meters (stressed and unstressed syllables), and rhyme, as guidelines. The pattern of rhyme is referred to as the rhyme scheme. The traditional way to mark these patterns of rhyme is to assign a letter of the alphabet to each rhyming sound at the end of the line, e.g. a sonnet: end-rhyme abab, cdcd, efef, gg.



Not all poetry rhymes and not all rhymes constitute poetry!

When no obvious poetry form is used, we call it open form or free verse. However, it is not a sentence chopped up into bits and pieces; it has a discernible flavor of a poem about it. A good poem will evoke emotion, whether agreeable or not. Poets use poetic devices in order to achieve a pleasant composition. In the following poem by the American poet, Langston Hughes, he used the poetic device anaphora:

Brass Spittoons

Clean the spittoon, boy.



Atlantic City,

Palm Beach.

Clean the spittoons.

The steam in the hotel kitchens,

And the smoke in the hotel lobbies,

And the slime in hotel spittoons:

Part of my life.

Hey, boy!

A nickel,

A dime,

A dollar,

Two dollars a day.

Hey, boy!

A nickel,

A dime,

A dollar,

Two dollars.

Buy shoes for the baby.

House rent to pay.

Gin on Saturday,

Church on Sunday.

My God!

Babies and gin and church

And women and Sunday

And mixed with dimes and

Dollars and clean spittoons

And house rent to pay.

Hey, boy!

A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord.

Bright polished brass like the cymbals

Of King David’s dancers,

Like the wine cups of Solomon.

Hey, boy!

A clean spittoon on the altar of the Lord.

A clean bright spittoon all newly polished—

At least I can offer that.

Com’mere, boy!