Your retro, old-skool little song enshrines

Your retro, old-skool little song enshrines
The unrelenting jackboot five-stress beat
Of heel-toe thumping heel-toe bumping feet
In fourteen rigid rhyming goose-step lines.
What talent’s there? I’ll never march; I swarm!
I curse your foolish rules, your chains that bind,
That dare to organize my off-beat mind;
For truly I don’t need no steenkin’ form.
Why pack and prune, revise, rework, rephrase
My unproof’d laundry list of angst or hate?
In beatless bliss I’ll blurt and bloviate
And vent my emo vices in cafés.
From boxy vises freed, such verse as mine
Shall flow like so much screw-top Wal-Mart wine.
Dennis G. Jerz (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I don’t think of myself as a poet, but I do teach a basic prosody unit in my Intro to Literary Study class, which includes many creative writing majors. So I write poetry from time to time just to sweep the cobwebs out of that part of my brain.

So far nobody has ever stepped forward and claimed to prefer writing anything but free verse, but students have a hard time analyzing poetry critically (beyond “I liked it” or “it was boring”) if they don’t understand the raw materials of poetry — the rhyme, assonance, meter, metaphor, and all those other good things that must work together to make a poem. (The root word of “poem” means “to make”.)

When students write first-person short stories, it often seems to me that they are describing a movie in which the narrator is the main character. The story contains references to the protagonist’s facial expression (“A big smile spread across my face”), which implies an external vantage point that a first-person narrator shouldn’t be able to access.

A short story author can’t rely on a camera showing a picture of character’s faces, but the solution is not to explain facial expressions in more detail. Movies are a much better medium for conveying emotion through facial expressions, but short stories have other advantages — they are cheap to produce and distribute (so just about anyone can do it); it’s not possible for bad casting or horrible incidental music or the shadow of a boom microphone to ruin a short story (all the technical errors that threaten to derail a short story are fully within the responsibility of the author to fix); and narrative can communicate both the spoken words and the internal thoughts of the characters with equal fluidity.

I suspect that students who follow the model of song lyrics when they think of poetry are similarly thrown off. In a song, it’s possible to get away with adding extra beats into a line by substituting, say, two eighth notes for one quarter note. The verses of a song, therefore, don’t have to follow the same metrical pattern in order to sound regular. And a pop song generally has a refrain that’s repeated with increasing musical intensity, so that the music and the visuals that go along with the official video contribute to the emotional power of the song.

Back in ye olde days, before technology brought mechanically identical copies of professional performances to the mass audience, the easiest way to hear a song was to sing it yourself.