The Parts of a Poem

What Are All the Parts of a Poem That Make It a Poem?

This is a long excerpt from my MFA critical thesis, which was on the close reading of poetry; what it entails; and why it is helpful as a reader and a writer.

The Roots

The inspiration for this topic came after reading "The Flexible Lyric" (TFL) and being in awe of Ellen Bryant Voigt's meticulous examination of poems in the essays throughout the book. However, I first thought of this idea, the close reading of poetry, after I purchased Harold Bloom's "The Art of Reading Poetry" (ARP) for a dollar from the closing bookstore in the mall three years ago. It is a slim volume, just 78 pages long. The quote on the back of the is "The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves." A fitting quote considering the direction this paper has taken. I have read sections in fits and starts since I owned it. Upon reading Robert Duncan's "Fictive Certainties" (FC) I took a break from its density and ethereal quality and re-read the more sober Art of Reading Poetry in its entirety, for balance.

The Art of Reading Poetry

Bloom's "Art of Reading Poetry" is not as structured and does not break down the parts of a poem as Voigt's "The Flexible Lyric" essay does. He addresses the things to look for when reading a poem but the sections cover varying aspects without the compartmentalizing of Voigt's, as addressed in the previous section of this paper.

Texture and Figuration

First he examines figuration of language and classifies the four types, according to Kenneth Burke: irony, synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor. I sought further explanation of these terms in my mammoth copy of "The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics." They dispute Burke's assertion, saying that metonymy and synecdoche are both aspects of metaphor instead. However, I was able to grasp the meanings well enough. Essentially I take synecdoche to mean a more institutional allusion while metonymy is more occasional and contextual, a "romancing of the etonym to renew the 'finer edges' of words" (5). Regardless of the details, the section in ARP would be detailing what Voigt would classify as "texture" of a poem. The next section explains that language is concealed figuration while poetry is "aware of and exploits" the figuration (5). This is another aspect of texture.

Thought in Poetry & Duncan

The third section addresses the greatness of poetry depending on figurative language that works "cognitive power", citing the Emerson quote that poetry is "meter-making argument", that poetry "represents thought" (not to be confused with "thoughts"). It was at this section that helped me to see what was missing from Voigt's outlining of the parts of poetry "The Flexible Lyric." When I began reading "The Truth and Life of Myth" (TLM) I immediately realized that what I had read about the parts of poetry was incomplete. It was not until I was re-read this section of the Art of Reading Poetry that I began to articulate what it was because it echoed a section of "Ideas of the Meaning of Form" (IMF).

Something Missing

What first sent up a flag for me that there was something missing came was when I was unable to jump into the project with the gusto I thought I would, for fear that this topic was too sterile. Then I read a friend's blog about something Robert Duncan had written, which lead me to an essay about Duncan, and then to my next assigned book for this project, which was "Fictive Certainties.".(The accommodating nature of this low-residency program is one of its many appealing aspects.) And there, on page 16, in the essay "The Truth of Life and Myth" I found a passage. Upon reading it, I knew it was saying something that hadn't been fully said in the other essays I had read for this project. But it took a long time, weeks, for me to internalize and explain it.

Duncan's Concept of Form

First, this quote, "It has never seemed to me that the true form of a poem was a convention or an ideal of form, but, as in life, a form having its convention in the language of our human experience, as our bodies have their information in the life-code of the species, and our spirit in the creative will." This assertion is a radical shift in the idea of form. "[W]hen I speak of form I mean not something the poet gives to things but something he receives from things" (30). It is not something we impose on the work, but instead a life force that exists and we tap into. Duncan states:

in my poetics I let go of striving to claim some authenticity for the poem in itself and give its authority over into a universal authenticity that arises from the store of human experience acknowledged in the language that gives whatever depth to my own experience, a feel of form acknowledged in its inception to be no more than a feel (38).

This sentiment is addressed repeatedly in "Ideas of the Meaning of Form" as well.

Conventional Concept of Form

He quotes an academic of the time as saying, "'A metrical a convention, within which and against which, the poet orders his individual poetic movement.'" These are the people Duncan called "mentors of wit and taste"..."whose meters must perform according to rules...these phantasms of the convention triumphing..." This is "a magic that removes the reasonable thing from its swarming background of unreason" (91).

Thought and Poetry

Contrasting this thought is the idea that there is "a music in the heart of things that the poet sought." Duncan uses quotes from Thomas Carlyle to support this idea. "All deep things are Song...Poetry...we call musical thought...See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of Nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it" (92). As I said previously, a life force you tap into.

When I read in Bloom this echo of thought in poetry, I realized that in my original "formula" (a loose thing, sort of tongue-in-cheek) was missing parts.

First, I will present the diagram then I will explain the meaning.

Interior of a Poem - what the poet creates } Energy [Texture (Structure + Form)]

I have previously defined texture, substance and form and I still agree with those definitions, including form as "the arrangement of the materials to create harmony, pattern, symmetry, recurrence and unity." What changed was the concept of form and the energy behind the harmony, pattern, symmetry, etc. Was the energy from an imposition of the poet's intellect on the words or was it from something more organic, more authentic? Thus the additional interior element added to the equation.

Energy Defined

This also goes along with the fifth and sixth section of ARP, in which Bloom talks about individual voice. While there may be allusion or echoes of one style or poet or another, there is something individual in the poem. Something that makes it distinct from all the poems of the past. I equate voice with energy because voice is an element of energy, as is freshness, surprise, assuredness and confidence. Throughout all of my reading, I have noticed that when a poet is confident about what the poem is to be, the poem is successful, regardless of the "type" of poetry it is (Language, lyric, narrative, Projective, etc.). Energy is the most difficult thing to pick apart in a poem, but it is the thing that makes it the most successful. A poem could have adequate substance or form or texture but without energy, it is unfulfilling.

This point is made by Duncan in IMF when he analyzes the work of Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, saying "some personal necessity rather than social opportunity gives substance and meaning to their conventional verse. The rigorously counted syllables, the certainty of end rimes, the conformation of stanzas arise along lines not of self-imposed necessity but of a psychic need" (95). That quote speaks to form and structure but he also has this to say about the texture of much of Moore's work, "Her metaphor is never a device but a meaningful disclosure," (95).

During his close examination of the work of Moore, he states, "the tension, the reality of the verse, depends upon its being sufficiently haunted by the thought of its energy as a violence and the thought of its form as a repose for the poet to take her stance," (97). When I re-read this passage while trying to put all the parts of this paper together, I realized that it was that section that had seeped in to my brain and finally allowed me this articulation of the "formula."

Expansion of the parts of a poem

The fourth section of ARP discusses use of allusion in poetry and the apprehension of the allusion. "At issue is how to determine the appropriateness of an allusion, and since great poetry is very nearly as allusive as it is figurative, the question of accuracy in tracing allusiveness is crucial" (13). The use of allusion is a textural thing, but it is also dependent on something outside of the poem in order for it to be fully apprehended.

Duncan's essay "The Truth and Life of Myth" expands the idea of allusiveness into a more general echo; all the myths -- and myth is an inclusive term that refers to poems, plays, and stories -- are a version of the truth. He says, "the meaning and form of any poem is momentous, yes; but has its motive beyond the conscious and personal intent or realization of the poet." Myths in general have a lineage of truth popping up from Truth's suppression in various places and forms. Duncan refers to H.D.'s tracing of the "transmission of the cult of Love" from the heretical Provencal church, troubadours, part of the Roman Catholic Church (elsewhere he talks about Francis of Assissi, John of the Cross and others) then transferred to the theatre after the looting of the churches under Henry, so it goes to Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare to Dante to the Modernists (42-44).

This lineage brought to my attention a whole realm of parts to poems that I had not included in the first section, though I was aware of some of them from reading "The Flexible Lyric." In that essay, Voigt said that she was focusing on the substance of a poem, in contrast to its function, as the New Critics had done (FL 124). In my notes, I wrote about the definition of substance and function underneath my definition of texture, form and structure, but didn't explore those things. When I made my algebraic formula, I didn't mention substance or function in the equation. However, after digesting everything that I read in Fictive Certainties and the peripheral books and essays, I was able to outline the parts I had not previously considered.

Earlier I had this "formula"

Interior of a Poem- what the poet creates } Energy [Texture (Structure + Form)]

And now, I would like to add this

Exterior of a Poem - what comes from reading the poem } (Substance) (Function) (Spirit)

Substance I define as "what is in a poem." Function is "how a poem works as art" (this was Voigt's focus in FL). Spirit is "why the poem exists" or "the consciousness" in or of the poem. The definitions of substance and function are taken from "The Flexible Lyric." The third part, the spirit, is something I added after reading Fictive Certainties. Specifically from the beginning of TLM, "Like the poet, the child dwells not in the literal meanings of words but in the spirit that moves behind them...He hears not what his parents mean to say but what that saying is telling about them" (7). It is not the substance of the poem but what the substance is speaking to in a larger sense.

The trouble with substance and spirit is that they are very subjective things. They spawn all the literary theories that abound. For the purpose of this paper, I will only briefly speak to those parts. Otherwise the paper quintuples in size. 

With all these things to consider, I developed my "parts of a poem" from a linear image to a more interdependent web, which I get into in the next section.