Poetry and Prose part 1 – Structure, #amwriting

In my previous post, I discussed how language and poetry were fundamental to how our human species survived and passed knowledge forward to future generations. Today, we’re going to look at two aspects of poetic structure.

Poets must convey an entire story in as few words as possible, and so must authors of other stripes.

An obvious trope of poets that we who write novels must make good use of are (what I think of as) power words. If we choose words that both carry emotions and have visual impact, we don’t have to use as many to show the story.

Rhymes are foundational poetry. I Have Seen the Stars is a short poem written as a class exercise in a seminar on the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

  1. We were limited to two stanzas of four lines each.
  2. We were to use both hard and soft syllables.
  3. We had to establish a rhythmic beat and stick to it.
  4. We were to use words that could be found in his poems but that might have fallen out of fashion.
  5. We had fifteen minutes to write it.

My poetic offering detailed an experience I’d had of being away from the city lights and seeing the night sky for what felt like the first time.

I have seen the stars hung bright

Across the inky dark of night

Such beauty there displayed for me

I scarce can know their mystery.


Heaven’s vault with diamonds flung

Summer’s sky with beauty hung

Bursting forth, the joy in me

Humbled by the majesty.

What are the power words/phrases in that poem?

  • Hung bright
  • Inky dark
  • Mystery
  • Diamonds flung
  • Beauty hung
  • Bursting, joy
  • Humbled, majesty

The poem was written in a traditional form and is end-stopped—that is, it has a pause at the end of each line. It is made up almost entirely of words meant to convey powerful images, and the fact I was constrained to find ways to rhyme forced me to think creatively.

When you are forced to rhyme and given a set of parameters, you develop an understanding of syllabic cadence, or how the sounds of syllables and their combination affect the flow of a sentence.

But while the impact of all poetry depends on the hard or soft sound of syllables and their number and repetition, not all poetry rhymes and not all is end-stopped. Sometimes authors use enjambment, the continuation of a sentence or clause across a line break.

So, if poetry doesn’t rhyme, how is it poetic? I can only use work here that I have the right to publish, or that is in the public domain, so I am sharing some of  my own work, for good or ill. Consider this poem, which is really a short story about my cat:

In February the House is Smaller employs both enjambment and end-stopped sentences.

In February the house is smaller,

Shrinking to my office, nearer the furnace.

The Room of Shame, decorated with

Files and dusty computers, books, and cat fur,

From Yum Yum, the Cat, dead these seven years.

She was old, even in cat years, and

This was her domain.


Like Jacob Marley and Scrooge’s knocker,

Her ghost inhabits this room,

Lurking behind boxes filled with books

And lit by the glow of the computer’s screen.

Little tufts of white fur hiding in places

The vacuum can’t reach,

A dusty memory keeping me company as I

Write novels that may or may not be read.


Four inches of snow fell last night, wet and heavy with water

And then froze, solid.

An iceberg enshrouded my bungalow, overtook my mini-van

And weighs heavily on the rosemary shrubs.

And I am safe and warm inside this much smaller house

With my books and my computer,

And the ghost of my feline, past.


The power words and phrases are:

  • smaller
  • shrinking, nearer
  • shame, decorated
  • dusty
  • dead
  • ghost inhabits
  • lurking
  • lit by the glow
  • dusty memory keeping me company
  • iceberg enshrouded
  • weighs heavily
  • safe and warm

In that poem, I used contrasting words that contained both hard syllables and soft to convey the atmosphere. I had trouble getting the rhythm right.

Contrast lends power to ordinary words.

In the previous poem, the structure is mixed. The opening lines are end-stopped, and most of the rest are enjambed. Many classical poets and playwrights, as early as John Donne, frequently employed enjambment mixed with end-stopped phrasing.

In The Good Morrow, Donne opens with enjambment:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?

Born on 22 January 1572, Donne’s life and work still influence modern literature. One of his poems that modern authors reference and frequently borrow lines from is the one that follows, which is the fourth stanza of a larger work, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (17th devotion, Meditation XVII). It was translated to reflect modern spellings by Wikisource:

“No Man Is an Island” by John Donne

No man is an island, entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were,

as well as if a manor of thy friend’s

or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind;

and therefore never send to know

for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.

This is a powerful poem, resonating down the centuries and expressing the connectedness of mankind as a whole.

Donne employs symbols and contrasts, as well as references to things people all knew. In his time, when someone died, churches tolled their bells with special clappers on. The particular sound of those bells told the town that someone had died.

By writing these lines, Donne expressed his belief in these ways:

  1. No man is an island, entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

This means that we are all part of something larger, the continent referenced here is humanity as a whole.

  1. If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were,

as well as if a manor of thy friend’s

or of thine own were.

This tells us that if one bit of dirt is washed away, the land is reduced. If one clod of dirt is as important as a chunk of land or a house, then even the least of human beings is as essential as our friends or we are.

  1. Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind;

and therefore never send to know

for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.

Donne tells us that we are not solitary, islands apart, that when one person dies, we are all affected by the loss and that a part of us has died with them.

By using 81 words carefully chosen for the imagery and information they present, Donne expressed his belief in the cosmic connection, the divine thread that binds the disparate factions of humanity together into a whole.

That condensing of ideas into powerful words and imagery is what poetry is all about. This is why an author who wants to write memorable narratives should consider reading the creations of poets who are also novelists to see how they use their words.

I’ve mentioned the works of Patrick Rothfuss and Neil Gaiman in other posts, but here is a list found on Lit Hub. If you choose to take up this challenge, consider it part of your education.

Seven Great Novels Written by Poets

Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of the English poet and cleric John Donne (1572–1631), by an unknown English artist, National Portrait Gallery / Public domain. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:John Donne BBC News.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:John_Donne_BBC_News.jpg&oldid=335924688 (accessed 12 May 2020).

No Man is an Island by John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (17th devotion, Meditation XVII), published 1624, England. Public Domain. Wikisource contributors, “Meditation XVII,” Wikisource , https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Meditation_XVII&oldid=3748254 (accessed May 12, 2020).

I have seen the Stars, by Connie J. Jasperson © 2016, published 03-June-2016 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, https://conniejjasperson.com/2016/06/03/flashfictionfriday-short-poetry-i-have-seen-the-stars/

In February the House is Smaller, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2017, published 10 February 2017 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, https://conniejjasperson.com/2017/02/10/flashfictionfriday-in-february-the-house-is-smaller/


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8 responses to “Poetry and Prose part 1 – Structure, #amwriting

  1. Great post! I’m currently translating a novella by a 19th German lyrical poetess – recognising and recasting this kind of imagistic language has been a real challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another interesting and informative post. I remember, many hundreds of years ago, when I was teaching English, I used to use some sort of aid when teaching poetry and got the children ( secondary) to write down what their thoughts and feelings were without stopping to analyze them. I used pictures, soap bubbles, music etc. ( I remember using Holzt’s Planet’s suite.) Because they weren’t doing anything to show me as a finished piece of work, they were honest. They then chose to use those words in poetry. Often they needed to add little to make a poem.
    I did have to stress that it needn’t rhyme, and used D.H. Lawrence’s Snake as an example. It was an interesting experience for both them and me.

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