A Chatty Glossary
Most glossaries just give definitions of terms, but I want to give a little more explanation – why I thought the form was appropriate for a particular subject, for instance, or some little fact I hope you find interesting, and I’ve included some examples from the book after the definitions to help your understanding. For readers who are particularly interested in writing poetry, I’ve shared some of what I learned during the three years I was working on this book. I hope you enjoy it.
Acrostic - a poem in which the first letter in each line taken together spells a word. (Condom, page143) Even though they seem pretty easy and a lot of kids learned to do them in elementary school, they’re a very old form of poetry and were even used in the Bible.
Sometimes there are double acrostics – where the last letter in each line spells a word, too. (I didn’t do that in my poem.) This is one of those formats I consider gimmicks – a little less poetic than other “real” poems. But I think gimmicks are fun and I wanted a lot of variety of forms in this book so I was glad to include it. I thought the fact that Molly was stuck on the idea of condoms – couldn’t stop from thinking about them – made the different forms I used for these poems appropriate. She kept approaching the idea from different angles and I wanted the different forms to represent that.
“after” - a word that indicates a poem was inspired or modeled on another poet’s work. Walking through School on a Winter Morning (page 171), was modeled after Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I used the same meter and the same rhymes at the ends of my lines. I was especially proud of using a different meaning for the word “snow” that fit the poem so well.
Alliteration - repetition of the initial consonant sound in several words of a line. If the words are right in a row, it can sound heavy-handed and almost comical, but when interspersed throughout the line, it becomes, to my ear, an emphatic beat.
Aubade - a song or verse about dawn, usually by a lover trying to hold back the dawn because that’s when he’ll have to leave his beloved. (Let the Darkness Stay, page 221) When I began this book, I didn’t know much about poetry, so I read several books on poetic forms. When I read about the aubade, I thought it would be perfect to use for Molly spending the night with her baby – not wanting it to end because that’s when she’ll have to give him up. I was careful to make the poem general enough that it could be a lover singing about her beloved rather than specific to a mother and her child. This is my favorite poem in the book.
Ballad - Traditionally, a ballad tells a story and is made up of four- line stanzas, with four beats in the first line, three in the second, four in the next and three in the last. (The Ballad of Molly B, page 183; My Dog Art, page 181) Mary Had a Little Lamb is an example of that rhythm. Many ballads tell chilling stories of relationships gone awry; mine are definitely lighter.
Biblical style – (English Assignment: Write a Poem in a Style Not Your Own. . .A Reading from the Book of Misery, page 88) The Bible is written by many writers in different formats. I chose the parallel construction used by many different writers, in which a phrase is repeated with a slight variation. The first line - “A Reading from the Book of Misery, chapter one, verses 1-9” is the first indication that this piece is styled after the Bible, even if the reader didn’t get the idea from the poem itself, since that’s how quotes from the Bible are referred to. In a kind of shorthand it could also be written Misery 1:1-9. I used biblical style because I think it captured the epic dimension of how miserable Molly was feeling when she thought Grady had lost interest in her.
Blank verse – unrhymed, ten-syllable lines (usually with five beats per line). (Missing My Period, page 146; Afterwards, page 219) I used to think that free verse and blank verse were the same thing, but have learned that blank verse is much more structured – generally in iambic pentameter (ten syllables with every other syllable stressed as in I miss the feel of blood between my legs) when people write about the stressed syllables in poetry they mark the syllable with a line or accent mark. I usually say the line out loud, tapping my fingers on the stresses to figure out ways to make it work.
Blues poem– a poem of three-line stanzas on a theme such as struggle or despair, but which ends in ultimate triumph or at least graceful acceptance; the second line is a variation of the first. (The “Where Is My Period?” Blues, page 150)
Free verse – lines of unrhymed verse written without a regular meter (or beat). What makes it a poem, then? The poet may use other poetic techniques, perhaps repetition, occasional or terminal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, metaphors and similes, and most importantly, the length of the line. Sometimes free verse can seem like it came directly from the writer’s mind to paper, without any effort or revision, (and maybe it did) but free verse can also require much effort to get to the particular point that particular poet imagined.
Grace – a prayer said before a meal. (Grace Before Lunch, page 36) Since Molly’s first real encounter with Grady would be at lunch, I used a litany-type poem to reflect how she was gathering her strength and trying to visualize how she hoped (and prayed) it would go. A litany is a prayer with a lot of repetition so this poem is written as a litany and called grace because it’s set right before lunch.
Haiku – a short three-lined poem based on a Japanese form that traditionally has a very concrete image, a reference to nature and a surprising emotional or spiritual point. (the untitled last poem, page 231) Most students learned that the first line has 5 syllables, the second has 7 and the last has 5, but most English haiku writers no longer strictly adhere to this. I originally titled the last poem of the book Leaving the Hospital, but I learned from Marilyn Hastert, an acclaimed haiku writer, that haiku usually don’t have titles, so I took it off and think it’s better without the title. It seems quieter and more still. Almost like I’m holding my breath when I read it.
Because the haiku is one form that most readers would be familiar with, I knew I wanted to include one. I used it as the last poem in the book because it seemed to be a point in the story when a lot of words weren’t necessary. I liked the way it conveyed the bittersweetness of the moment as well as hope for both Molly and her baby. The mention of the grass that keeps on growing recalled for me Molly’s wish for the grass to stop growing in the aubade, Let the Darkness Stay.
Iambic pentameter – a line with ten syllables where every other one is stressed. A poem written in iambic pentameter is blank verse. Some scholars think the ten-syllable line mimics the amount we can naturally say without stopping for a breath and that’s why poems written in it sound so natural. While I was working on this book I got a Chinese fortune cookie fortune that said The work will teach you how to do it, which I thought was pretty encouraging. But I misremembered it as The work will teach you what you need to know and later realized that I had transformed it into iambic pentameter (probably because I was spending so much time working with poetry). I have to admit, though, that I like my way better.
Line - The basic unit of the poem. The way the lines are arranged on the page is a tip-off that a piece is a poem, even before we’ve read a single word of it. Lines are very deliberate – even when they seem arbitrary as in free verse. Sometimes the poet breaks – or ends – the line in order to emphasize end rhymes (last words in lines that rhyme). Sometimes the poet breaks the line because the rhythm or meter demands it. Sometimes the poet breaks the line in order to emphasize a particular word (the reader naturally gives the last word in a line more attention because it’s held a split-second longer than the ones before the eye moves to the next line. It might seem like a small thing but poets pay attention to things like that; wise readers should, too).
Unlike prose that can be typeset for publication in any fashion just so it fits neatly on the page, poetry requires to be set the way the poet decided it should. It’s not arbitrary.
List poem – an itemized account of events or things. I like list poems and use them frequently: Grace Before Lunch, page 36; Carnal Knowledge But No Other, page 115; You Look at Me, page 192. I think the repetition of so many concrete details adds weight to any kind of writing and in a list poem, it helps concentrate the impact of a specific idea. The repetition of certain key words or phrases (When. . . Let. . .. You look at me. . . I don’t know. . .) provides the structure upon which all those concrete ideas hang.
Memorization – to commit something to memory; to know something by heart in order to be able to recite it at other times. Before the printing press, poems were memorized and recited for the entertainment and education of the people. History was preserved; legend, tradition and beliefs were passed on. Storytellers and poets were the television shows and movies of their day – people gathered around them to lose themselves in the delight and power of oral literature.
Why bother to memorize anything today when we can easily turn on the TV or pop in a DVD? Because there is still delight to be found in words carefully crafted, still comfort to be found in the words of a poem recalled in a difficult moment, still a proud sense of accomplishment in remembering the words of a poem first encountered long ago, still a keen sense of connection to poets who lived in other times and places whose words even now reach out and touch our minds and hearts. There will be moments in your life – when you’re stuck in traffic, or trying to fall asleep, or feeling sad and alone, or feeling full up with joy - when you’ll be glad to have a poem in your head to keep you company. But it will only be there if you put it there, so memorize a few of your favorite poems. You’ll thank me later.
Metaphor – a comparison of two things that lends new understanding to the thing compared. A simile also compares two things, but uses the word “like” or “as” in the description. Metaphors can be startling when comparing something to something unexpected. Aristotle considered the ability to create metaphors to be a sign of genius. I appreciate fresh, insightful metaphors when I come across them in other people’s work and wish I were better at them myself.
Meter – a means of measuring a line by counting the syllables or groups of syllables. Sometimes poets count only the number of syllables per line. Other times they count only the accented or stressed syllables. Still other times they count the stresses in a certain pattern (such as iambic pentameter).
Pantoum – (Choices, page 153) a poem of no set length based on a form that first appeared in 15th century Malayan literature. It generally has 4-line stanzas with the 2nd and 4th lines on one stanza repeated as the 1st and 3rd lines of the next. Sometimes the final stanza also repeats the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza as the 4th and 2nd lines so the piece begins and ends with the same line. In this way every line is used twice. Luckily for me rhyme is not a requirement although some brave poets have managed it. In this diagram of the pantoum, the numbers refer to the entire line.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4
2 - 5 - 4 - 6
5 - 7 - 6 - 8
7 - 9 - 8 - 10
9 - 3 – 10 – 1
I thought the form of the pantoum worked well for this poem because it showed Molly’s mind going back and forth between two choices.
Pastiche – a poem made up of lines from other poets’ work. (Listen, page 57) This was fun to do. These lines come from wonderful poems. I hope you’ll look them up and read them for yourself. Knowing all the different poems will inform your understanding of this poem that is made up of all those parts.
“Well, son. . .” from Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
“so much depends. . .” from The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams
“the thing with feathers. . .” from poem #254 by Emily Dickinson
“slipped the surly bonds. . .” from High Flight by John Gillespie McGee, Jr.
“and danced by the light. . .” from The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear
“when the long trick’s. . . “ from Sea-Fever by John Masefield
“tread softly” from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats
“the next step. . . “ from How to Tell the Top of a Hill by John Ciardi
Performance Piece –a poem intended for be performed for an audience. (You Look at Me, page 192) Slam poetry contests pit performer-poets against each other to see who the best poet is – or at least whom the crowd likes best. All poetry was originally meant to be recited, but after the invention of the printing press, poetry became a more solitary activity between the reader and the poem on the page. Some poems – like concrete poems where the type makes a picture on the page – depend upon being read and not heard. An acrostic depends on being seen, too. I like reading poems, because I like to know how long the poem is (and I can see that right away if I’m reading it), where the lines break and how any unusual words are spelled (if I’m listening, I get distracted by that – not knowing how something’s spelled). But I also enjoy hearing poems recited, especially by the poet, because hearing the creator’s inflection helps me to understand the poem better.
Personification - when inanimate objects or abstract ideas are given human qualities. (Her Virginity Speaks, page 97; She Speaks to Her Virginity, page 117; Pregnancy: The Elephant in the Middle of My Room, page 148). But now that I think about it, I’m not sure if that last poem qualifies because the Pregnancy is given elephant qualities, not human. Well, it sort of fits, and I don’t think elephantication is a recognized poetic device, so I’m just going to let it slide.
Poetry retreat - a time apart from everyday life for the study and practice of poetry. My friend and award-winning author, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, used to organize a poetry retreat each January for a small group of children’s authors. When I attended my first one, I had not written very much poetry – none of it for young people. By the third retreat I was using the workshop to create new poems for The Best and Hardest Thing. It has been a joyful experience and I’ve learned and been inspired by the workshop leaders: Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Nancy Willard and Molly Peacock, and the other participants.
Prose poem – a slippery piece, difficult to define – not a story, not a poem, just a piece that captures a moment and perhaps uses some poetic devices. (Epiphany, page 159) Somebody might argue that Epiphany isn’t a prose poem and they could be right. But it’s certainly not a short story, so I didn’t know what else to call it, since I think it fits in this book of poems.
The word epiphany means a sudden moment of recognition or understanding. It’s the word used to describe the Three Kings encounter of the baby Jesus. And since this poem describes an event around Christmastime that involves recognizing a baby, it seemed appropriate.
Repetition - restating something in exact or similar words. I love how repetition creates structure for a piece (You Look at Me, page 192); adds emphasis (afterword: questions and answers, page 110); mimics the way people go over and over an idea trying to wrap their heads around it (That Night: Thoughts While Lying in Bed, page 120); builds expectations (Grady Dillon: Extrapolation, page 27), recognition (Carnal Knowledge But No Other, page 115 ) and tension (Grace Before Lunch, page 36). Oh, my gosh, I love repetition - I just love it!
Rhyme - when two words end with the same sound. Terminal or end rhymes are when the rhyming words are the last words in the lines. (If you can hear me, God,/ here’s what I pray:/ hold back the light/ and let the darkness stay.) This is also an example of an occasional rhyme – a rhyme that happens once in a while rather than on a regular basis - because it’s the only rhyme in the poem.
Internal rhymes are when rhyming words are within the lines, rather than at the end; internal rhymes aren’t as obvious and don’t call as much attention to themselves. (But, Lord, be kind and let me find the bleeding has begun.)
Scansion – analyzing a line of poetry for the number and placement of the stressed syllables. When you scan a line of poetry, the order of the stresses, or accents, and the unstressed syllables around them, create patterns and are called feet. A foot generally has two or three syllables in it. A foot is described as trochaic if it has two-syllables and the first is accented, as in TRAV el. It’s described as iambic if it’s two syllables and the second is accented, as in be LIEF. It’s called dactylic if it’s three syllables and the first is accented, as in DEL e gate. And it’s anapestic if it’s three syllables and the last syllable is accented, as in amp u TEE.
I came up with examples to help remember the name and I repeated them until I connected them in my mind: anapestic amputee. This way I just look at the example (amputee – 3 syllables, last is accented) and it tells me what the name means. I always look for tricks to help me remember the hard stuff. It would drive me crazy otherwise.
The number of stressed, or accented, syllables – feet - is expressed as monometer (one stressed syllable), dimeter (two stressed syllables), trimeter (three), tetrameter (four- used in ballads, hymns), pentameter (five – used by Shakespeare and many others), hexameter (six), heptameter (seven) and octameter (eight). You can go higher, but these are the most common.
Then you put the two things together: iambic pentameter (each foot is two syllables with the second stressed and there are five feet in each line). If you don’t remember anything else about scansion, remember iambic pentameter, because it’s the one you’ll hear referred to most often. The rest might be more than you’ll ever need to know, unless you’re really interested in studying poetry.
Sonnet – a fourteen-line poem in the English or Italian style. The Italian - also called Petrarchan - is composed of an octave and a sestet (that’s eight lines with one rhyme scheme followed by six lines with another); the English – also called Shakespearean – is three quatrains followed by a couplet (three four-liners and one two-line stanza). (In the Girls’ Room: A Sonnet, page 38) Mine is in the English style and the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. I kept the rhyme scheme but put some different stanza breaks in my poem to designate change in speaker. Sometimes you just have to do your own thing.
Tetrameter – four measures or beats to the line. (Magic Moments, page 37) Most poetry is written in pentameter – five beats to the line – and I’ve read that the reason might be because that’s how much most people can read before having to stop for a breath. Tetrameter, therefore, seems a little rushed and it was this quality I wanted to get across in this poem – how Molly’s taking faster breaths because of her nervousness.
I had some fun with the first words of this poem: “I scan all the lines” because the act of counting the beats of stressed and unstressed syllables to determine the rhythm of the poem is called scansion. I was scanning the lines of my poem and Molly was scanning the lines in the cafeteria.
Triolet - an eight-line poem with the first – and most significant - line repeated three times (hence the “tri” in the name). The second line is also repeated once, so there are only five different lines in the poem. The rhyme scheme looks like this
A B a A a b A B (Notice how the A line is used three times and lines 3 and 5 rhyme with it. The B line is repeated at the end and one other line – the sixth – rhymes with it). (The Try On, page 160) I had a little fun with the title of this poem. (Or did the name of the form give me the idea for the poem? Who knows where ideas come from?)
Villanelle - a poem of five three-line stanzas (which are also called tercets) and a final stanza of four lines (also called a quatrain). The first and third line of stanza one are used alternately as the third line of the next four stanzas and are used as the final two lines of the last stanza. The rhyme scheme is a – b – a. (The Best and Hardest Thing, page 224) Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night is a famous example of the villanelle.
The phrase “The best and hardest thing” was the first line I wrote for this book (although not in the form that finally appeared). It guided all my efforts.
Writers’ group - a beloved assortment of fellow writers who meet regularly to critique each other’s work with expertise and love. I am so lucky to have the friends I do! They have encouraged me and cajoled me along, praising and critiquing my work, showing me what to cut, where to expand, suggesting ideas to explore, holding me to a high standard and inspiring me by their own example. I love them dearly and thank them with all my heart: Wendy Pfeffer, Kay Winters, Joyce McDonald, Sally Keehn, Pamela Curtis Swallow, Elvira Woodruff, Martha Hewson, Susan Korman, Deborah Heiligman and Trinka Hakes Noble.