7. “A POEM IS AS GOOD AS IT IS DRAMATIC.” --Robert Frost
What did Frost mean by that word “dramatic”? He could’ve meant many things, but I would think that he had in mind something dynamic and with some tension, rather than something static. Poems—and Frost said this too—employ words in such a way that they act up. Poetry is a performance in words. I say it this way: poets are word athletes.
Watch a cat dozing, but with its eyes still half open. Notice how anything that’s static, not moving, doesn’t get its attention. But the second it sees something moving, it perks up, and is ready to move (or pounce) because of that movement. Get your poem moving—somehow—and your reader’s eye, and mind, will follow it.
One way to do this is to put something or someone in motion at the beginning of your poem, with, say, one good verb—or, try to create a context or atmosphere of words in which drama can take place. That’s why opening lines are so important: they either draw the reader in or they don’t. Consider the following opening lines of poems, some of which you may already know. Do they strike you as dramatic in any way? Do they make you want to read further? Do they, in your estimation, create momentum, or action—something dynamic as opposed to static?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright...
Go, soul, the body's guest,
upon a thankless errand...
One two, buckle my shoe,
Three four, shut the door...
Great A, little A, bouncing bee...
Hinx, minx, the old witch winks...
Iron thoughts sail out at evening on iron ships . . .
When serpents bargain for the right to squirm . . .
Go to the Western Gate, Luke Havergal.
go where the vines cling crimson to the wall . . .
I caught a tremendous fish . . .
I must go down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky . . .
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
It was my thirtieth year to Heaven . . .
Because I could not stop for Death,
he kindly stopped for me . . .
Over Sir John’s hill,
The hawk on fire hangs still . . .
Oh I leap up to my God, who pulls me down!
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River Road . . .
Let us go then, you and I,
when the evening is spread against the sky. . .
[Here are a few openings by James Dickey,
a poet who was as dramatic as any poet I could
All wheels, a man breathed fire
Exhaling like a blowtorch down the road
And burnt the stripper’s gown
Above her moving-barely feet.
A condemned train climbed from the earth
Up stilted nightlights zooming in a track.
I ambled along in that crowd . . .
Bums, on waking . . .
I have just come down from my father . . .
And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees . . .
Here and there in the searing beam
Of my hand going through a night meadow
They are all grazing
With pins of human light in their eyes . . .
I’ve always enjoyed both reading and writing poems about physical action, including poems about sports: athletes in motion. The subject of sports, for me, is inherently dramatic: for instance, a pole vaulter rising up and over a crossbar, a sprinter running the 100-meter dash, a gymnast doing a gymnastics routine. (What an understatement, I’ve always thought: that word “routine!”)
I’ve always spoken of two basic kinds of “action” or “sports poems”: the participatory kind, in which the speaker is performing some sort of physical activity that he or she is, in the poem, engaged in; and the non-participatory kind, in which the speaker is observing someone performing. For decades I wrote the first kind mostly—why? Probably because I was familiar with athletic competition and physical action, as an athlete. But more and more, no longer a competitive athlete, I tend to write the other kind of poem. Obviously, it doesn’t matter which kind you write; what matters is how you write it!
Describing dramatic moments and humans or animals in motion, of course, won’t automatically guarantee that you’ll have a good poem; but again, the human eye, like the cat eye, is more interested in motion and drama than in something that’s standing or sitting still. Is there anything inherently exciting about, say, someone sitting in a chair reading a book? It all depends, of course, on how the poet sees what’s going on, and what words and phrases are used. It can be dramatic, depending on the poet’s sense of drama in this specific situation. For instance, something going on inside the head of the person in the chair.
Here’s a poem by X.J. Kennedy to look at in light of what Frost said about drama in poetry.
For a child who skipped rope
Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.
Earth whose circles round us skim,
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.
A few things to think about: when you say the poem out loud, what do you hear? Perhaps a jump rope song? “Johnny over the ocean, Johnnie over the sea . . .” there are hundreds of these songs, which have come down to us from a long time ago. That little song in our memory is dramatic—it conveys images and sounds of kids skipping rope, in a steady, animated rhythm.
The poem’s rhythm, then, emulates and dramatizes that regular, fixed, jump-rope rhythm, with its trochaic tetrameter meter, and it also has rimes:
HERE lies REST ing, OUT of BREATH,
OUT of TURNS, e LIZ a BETH,
WHOSE quick SIL ver TOES not QUITE . . .
And yet the rhythm/meter breaks down at the end of the poem’s last line. (The poem is an elegy, which means it’s about someone’s death.) And the breakdown, ironically, is both metrical/literal, and symbolic. That is, the rhythm is interrupted in the last stanza with those three, final, stressed syllables, or beats, “TRIP UP DEATH” (instead of TRIP up DEATH, which would be the expected trochaic meter of the rest of the poem, except that you don’t read it aloud that way). And so the meaning comes through: the girl has been literally “tripped up” by the rope, but also by death. We don’t know what caused the death, and that is not necessary to know in this poem.
Note too, how “breath,” at the end of the first line, ironically rimes with “death,” at the very end of the poem. And of course the phrase “out of breath” is another irony in this dramatic poem. (Poets are known for their fondness for irony and paradox.)
It’s a very physical, active poem, isn’t it? Dramatic for sure. After all, it’s about skipping rope, about youth and vigor, and about kids having a good time doing something they love to do—giving themselves to the total pleasure of play. The great Greek poet Pindar said it well: “The season of youth is brief.” And of course this is especially true when it comes to the death of a child. The poet—and all of us reading—would hope that, for the sake of Elizabeth, who skipped rope, death could be tripped up, not an innocent little girl. But of course we mortal humans are not in charge of such things.
Why not try writing a poem in which you imitate, with its rhythm and/or repetition, something you’ve heard or seen and felt. Try to find some correlation between the words and phrases and images you use, and what you are speaking of. What about going for a walk, or listening to a song? Or taking your dog for a walk? Or even reading a book to a child or grandchild?
Or, why not write a poem about swimming, or baseball, or some other sport—be the swimmer or the ball player, or write from the point of view of a spectator. Emphasize verbs and nouns. Emphasize action, drama.
[NOTE: Correction. In my 5th blog article (POETRY TENDS TO BE PLAIN-SPOKEN AND PERSONAL) I said, referring to a poem by James Wright, that the person spoken of had jumped off a bridge and drowned. Not true. Actually, in Wright’s poem, “To the Muse,” the speaker is thinking of a childhood friend who drowned. And in fact, I misquoted slightly from those last lines of the poem (I was quoting from memory in this case). So for the record, here is my correction for my 5th article:
There’s a poem by James Wright in which the speaker is looking down into a river, thinking of a childhood friend who drowned. Here are the last lines:
Come up to me, love,
out of the river, or I will
come down to you.]