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Unleash Your Inner Poet!

By Sharlee Glenn

At Segullah, we are always on the lookout for good poetry to publish. So, what exactly is good poetry? I think most of us are better at enjoying it than defining it, but here are three of my favorite attempts, all from the poet, Carl Sandburg:

“Poetry is the opening and closing of a door.”

“Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance.”

“Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.”

(Don’t you love poets? You never can get a straight answer from them.)

Here are a couple of other definitions that, while not as poetic, might be more useful for our purposes:

“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” –Edgar Allen Poe

This definition tells us a lot. First, poetry is rhythmical. Always. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does have to be rhythmical. Poetry is an act of creation. Its aim is beauty. And its medium is language (words).

Here’s one from Laurence Perrine:

“Poetry might be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language.”

Perrine goes on to say that poetry draws “more fully and more consistently than does ordinary language on a number of language resources [such as] connotation, imagery, metaphor, symbol, paradox, irony, allusion, sound repetition, rhythm, and pattern.”

Poetry, then, uses language poetically–artfully, metaphorically, subtly, beautifully. It communicates, not so much information, but experience. An informational article on winter might say something like: “Winter is one of the four seasons of temperate zones. It is the season with the coldest days and the lowest temperatures” (Wikipedia). A poem about winter, on the other hand, presents us with the experience of winter: When icicles hang by the wall/And Dick the shepherd blows his nail/And Tom bears logs into the hall/And milk comes frozen home in pail/When blood is nipped and ways be foul/Then nightly sings the staring owl/”Tu-whit, tu-who”/A merry note/While greasy Joan doth keel the pot” (William Shakespeare).

But back to the question of what we’re looking for at Segullah. It might be helpful if we start by telling you what we don’t want.

We Don’t Want Sing-Songy Verse

Good poetry has rhythm, but it’s a natural, instinctive rhythm, and it sometimes has rhyme, but, if employed, it’s an artful rhyme. Simplistic sing-songy verse tends to trivialize its subject and patronize its reader.

Here’s an example of sing-songy verse:

Today the birds are singing and
The grass and leaves are green,
And all the gentle earth presents
A bright and sunny scene

(“Pray in May,” James J. Metcalfe)

While this might work well as the text for a children’s song, at Segullah we’re looking for more sophisticated treatments of ideas, images, and/or experiences.

We Don’t Want Sentimental Poetry

Perrine defines sentimentality as “indulgence in emotion for its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants.”

Sentimental poetry aims primarily at evoking an emotional response (often through manipulation or exploitation) rather than at communicating experience honestly and freshly.

Here is an overtly sentimental poem. I wrote this myself one day when I was preparing a lecture on sentimentality for my writing class at BYU and couldn’t find a good enough (or, rather, bad enough) example in any of my books right off hand. I was, of course, purposely trying to be as sentimental and emotionally manipulative as possible.

My life was black and full of tears
Joyless, damp, devoid of light
Then you were born—a star so bright
My laughing, rosy-cheeked Angel.

You grew and filled my heart with joy
You romped and sang and showed me love
You were my gift from heaven above
My laughing, rosy-cheeked Angel.

Then one spring day, I rose at dawn
And skipped to your crib just to gaze at you
But you were still—your cheeks were white . . .

I shook you and cried
Then my cries turned to screams

But I couldn’t awake you,
And now I’m alone.
But each night I pray
For my laughing, rosy-cheeked Angel.

Emotion in poetry is not necessarily bad, but it must be honest, controlled emotion. A good poem is never maudlin or excessively sentimental.

We Don’t Want Rhetorical Poetry

Rhetorical poetry, according to Perrine, “uses a language more glittering and high flown than its substance warrants . . . It is oratorical, over-elegant, artificially eloquent.”

Again, I will personally provide the bad example, drawing from my own cache of poems. The problem is, this one was written in earnest. Of course, I was only sixteen—and just beginning to test my poetic wings. Still . . . *blush*

Oh! Wicked World, entreat me not
For I have seen the better part
And cannot but there at peace reside
Oh! Wicked World, I scorn thy ways
Thy lusts and passions wither cold . . .

(And there it ends. I mean, how could I top “wither cold”?)

We Don’t Want Didactic Poetry

Didactic poetry preaches and moralizes. While good poetry often uplifts and teaches on some level, when “the didactic purpose supersedes the poetic purpose” (Perrine, again), then it ceases to be poetry and becomes a sermon in verse.

Here’s an example:

Be strong!
We are not here to play, –to dream, to drift.
We have hard work to do and loads to lift.

(“Be Strong,” Maltbie D. Babcock)

We want to be inspired when we read poetry, but we don’t want to be preached at.

We Don’t Want Poetry That’s So Obscure That Not Even the Poet Knows What It Means

Here’s an example of an overly obscure poem:

fritinancy of fetid growth
floating, fawning, frustling–
sepulchral phantom of gossamer
piteous blepharon rise
rise! while yet
the muses gloat

I made this one up right here, on the spot (with a little help from my trusty thesaurus), just for you. What does it mean? I haven’t got a clue.

Good poetry should be intelligent, it should require something of the reader, but it should not be so obscure as to be unintelligible. I love what Reginald Shepherd has to say about this: “There is a difference between difficult poetry and obscure poetry. All obscure poetry is difficult, but (contrary to popular opinion) not all difficult poetry is obscure. Obscurity is a lack of clarity; it is a flaw. Difficulty is not a virtue in and of itself, but obscurity is always a defect.” (http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/01/some-thoughts-on-difficulty-in-poetry.html)
Hopefully you now have a pretty clear idea of what we don’t want at Segullah. So, what do we want? We want good poetry, pure and simple–poetry that is thoughtful, intelligent, carefully-crafted, honest, fresh, and artful. Here’s a good example (for a change! whew!). This lovely poem by Darlene Young was published in the Spring 2006 issue of Segullah.

Okay, so now that you know what we’re looking for, get writing, ladies! Call down those Muses! Unleash that inner poet! Open the door! Dance with that shadow! Begin your search for those syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.

* * * *

*You may submit poems to Segullah by following the guidelines outlined here:

*Be sure to watch for our upcoming Patchwork issue of Segullah (Summer 2007) which will feature the winners of our 2006 Poetry contest.

About Sharlee Glenn

(Editorial Board) has an MA in humanities from Brigham Young University. She taught at BYU for a number of years before giving up academia for the writing life. She has published essays, short stories, articles, and poetry in The Southern Literary Journal, Women's Studies, Irreantum, Wasatch Review International, and BYU Studies. She has also published a novel and three picture books for young readers. Sharlee lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah with her husband, their five children, a very literary dog named Kipling, an escape-artist cat named Houdini, and a stuck-up beta fish named Flame.

26 thoughts on “Unleash Your Inner Poet!”

  1. Actually, a well-wrought, humorous limerick would be great! Just as long as it's not sentimental, didactic, rhetorical, obscure . . . 🙂

    In fact, let's issue a challenge. Who wants to enter the first ever Well-Wrought Limerick contest, right here on the Segullah blog? The prize will be 50 cents (funded by the ever-generous Me) and an autographed copy of my fetid growth poem. And fame and glory, of course.

    Post your entries here. Deadline will be, appropriately, March 17 (St. Patrick's Day).

    Let the contest begin!

  2. Here, I'll get things started.

    There once was an eager young poet
    Who worried she really might blow it
    If she waited too long
    To enter her song
    That poet is you, and you know it!

    How's that for setting the bar low? 🙂

  3. There once was an devil named Christian
    whose temptations didn't work a smidgeon
    on all of his tries
    to cause the Mormons demise
    he now is baptized and is a fireman

    Okay, so the meter doesn't work, but its an attempt.
    Did I win?

  4. bwahahaha!

    Thanks ladies.

    And Bren… it's true that nixing these categories will preempt many poets from submitting… but there ARE endless possibilities for fabulous poems under these guidelins –just read the stuff we've printed!

  5. Here are two:

    A limerick's very strict form
    Never will stray from the norm.
    Break rules, you can not,
    Or else you'll be shot,
    For it's a sin and a crime to diverge from the mandated rhyme and meter.


    Bow wow bow wow wow bow wow wow,

    Bow wow bow wow wow bow wow wow,

    Bow wow bow wow wow,

    Bow wow bow wow wow,

    Bow wow bow wow wow bow wow wow.

    (It's very profound, meaningful and funny, if you speak dog.)

  6. I'll have you all know that I received a personal invitation to enter this Limerick contest. 😉 (The brilliant author of "Oh! Wicked World!" just happens to be my mother!) Since my friend Kati is visiting me for the week, we decided to combine our collective wit and intelligence and produce some formidible masterpieces:

    Oh! Wicked World! Don't entreat me
    For goodness and truth shall defeat thee!
    Wither thou cold;
    Grow weary and old
    I never shall stoop, World, to meet thee.

    (Plagiarism? Yup!)

    And this, in honor of the upcoming holiday:

    There once was a bright Irish lass
    Who loved lolling around in the grass
    One day as she lolled
    A leprechaun called
    And stole all her silver and brass
    (Or gold!)

    And, finally, our magnum opus:

    There once was a woman named Sharlee
    Who secretly longed for a Harley
    In her free time she dreamt
    She was cool and unkempt
    And spouting new words like "gnarly!"

    I'm strongly tempted to set these to music! 🙂

  7. There once was a place called "Segullah"
    Can't say it's name? Then I'll school ya:
    Twist your tongue into knots
    And think Hebrew thoughts
    And try not to look like a fool–ya?

  8. Oh, these are better than I'd even hoped! Gnarly, man, gnarly.

    Keep 'em coming. Tomorrow's the deadline. I have my panel of distinguished judges standing by.

    By the way, you're welcome to post more serious comments and/or questions as well. Do you think we're being too narrow or elitist in our definition of good poetry? Is poetry a dying art form? Why or why not? What are some of your favorite poems and why do you love them?

  9. Hi Sharlee, here's mine:

    My novel, these days, is my quest.
    You might even say I’m obsessed.
    The dishes aren’t done.
    Dirty laundry? A ton.
    and I’ve written one chapter at best.

  10. There once was a girl named Tallulah,
    Who saw a poetry challenge at Segullah,
    She started to write
    Limericks, day and night,
    And ended up winning big moolah.

    (My grandchild calls a fifty cent piece "Big Money", OK?)

  11. "Struggle Within"

    The sharp dentures of our teeth
    Nash at things that do not bleed.
    Rushing wind at the gate,
    How like a flying circus
    We see our lofty fates.

    Chimes the sound within our hair,
    blowing sofly while others stare;
    Moonbeams with Sunscapes near.

    If they keep me from all I see,
    Nice views of summer green;
    Pushing out is my hate.
    Outside of simple fussing,
    I shall forgive my heart.

  12. "What does it mean?"

    It is all about writer's block. You try hard to bring something to the surface, but in the end are frustrated. It seems as if creativity is at a mocking distance.

  13. My official entry for St. Patricks Day Limerick
    Oh Maybelline, my maybelline
    I've been so mean to my pink and green.
    I do not know what made me stray
    when you take so little of my pay.
    I stayed with pink and dropped the green
    Mary Kay's the "other woman" with whom I've been
    I am not gay, don't get me wrong
    The line just fit better in this song.
    My lashes have changed and the older I git
    The shorter they are, no more are they "it".
    They use to reach clear up to my brow
    People would say to me, "Tell me now, HOW?"
    They couldn't believe 'twasn't Clinique or Laud-er
    But it's definitely you dear, that I still prefer.
    So, I'm coming back from my wandering ways
    To you drug store mascara, for the rest of my days.
    When I see other women with fakes or extensions
    Some look like spiders or Tammy Faye or ANS (God rest her soul) a few just to mention(s).
    I'm glad I got you babe……..just like Sonny and Cher
    I think you and me make a fabulous pair.
    As my tribute to you and this poem comes to an end
    I hope that somebody at your corporate office will read this and send me a years (make that two years) supply or maybe a big fat endorsement check or an honorable mention letter or something like that because I'm your friend.

  14. A poetess from the midwest
    Thinks rhyming and meter's a jest.
    She'll stretch out a vow-el
    'Til dogs start to howwww-el
    If it makes the line fit with the rest!

    May the luck o' the Irish be with ye all!
    Linda HK

  15. After hours of deliberation, my panel of distinguished judges (my three teenage sons) have made their decision. First, however, they had to remove their sister (and by extension, her friend Kati) from the running. "We can't sully the reputation of this first annual contest by opening ourselves up to accusations of nepotism," they said. (Sorry, darlin'. I'll send you 50 cents anyway. Would you like that in pennies, dimes, or quarters?)

    "It was very difficult to narrow it down to just one winner," said the judges. "We were overwhelmed by the quality of the entries."

    However, narrow it down they did.

    And the winner of the 2007 Well-Wrought Limerick Challenge is . . .

    (drum roll)

    "A Doggie Limerick" by Rick Walton! "Profound, meaningful, and funny," said the judges.

    Rick, your cash award and signed copy of "Fetid Growth" is in the mail.

  16. I am touched and honored. And on behalf of dogs everywhere, I say, "Arf!"

    Rick (whose real genius lies in loku, i.e., really bad haiku)

  17. I found this while looking for something else and I've been waiting for a chance to share it: (sorry it's not a limerik, and I didn't write it)

    To Play Pianissimo

    Does not mean silence.
    The absence ofmoon in the day sky
    for example.

    Does not mean barely to speak,
    the way a child's whisper
    makes only warm air
    on his mother's right ear.

    To play pianissimo
    is to carry sweet words
    to the old woman in the last dark row
    who cannot hear anything else,
    and to lay them across her lap like a shawl.

    by Lola Haskins

    Isn't that just so cool?

  18. Nepotism? Humph. I'll take my consolation prize in dimes, please. (And I no longer feel inspired to set my entries to music.)


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