From the Writer's Desk: Poetry for Engineers
Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 00:09
The first thing I have to do in this article is apologize, because its title is somewhat misleading. This is not an article written solely for engineers. However, it is written for people that I think the concept of the engineer rather aptly describes – that is, people who are perplexed by the idea of poetry, see no value in it and/or are daunted by the prospect of reading or writing it. In a nutshell, how does someone more comfortable with quantifiable certainties approach the admittedly whimsical and ethereal nature of poetry?
The simplest way to describe poetry is this: a piece of writing that emphasizes emotion through the use of rhythm and style, for example, meter and rhyme scheme. But poetry is so much more than that. It is an expression of feeling, a written intensity meant to expose the aches, the laughter and the diverse sentiments of the human condition. How else could we talk about the exquisite sorrow of life and death, if not with poetry? How else to talk about the clear blue of a tropical ocean, or the cruel, life-giving heat of the sun? How else to talk about love lost? What better way is there to deal with our existential crises?
In poetry, we find the strength and inspiration to take the road less traveled. Poetry helps us woo the people who, to quote Shakespeare, make us “scorn to change [our] state with kings.” What more, in good conscience, could we ask of it?
Now, on to a more practical line of thought: how to read and write poetry, for those of you who are in a class that requires you to do so in order to satisfy a general education requirement. Reading and writing poetry does not have to be an extraordinarily difficult or frustrating endeavor. There are a few tricks that I find dramatically simplify the ordeal.
First, remember that “form supports function.” If a poem has a traditional form, things like rhyme scheme, meter and how the stanzas are arranged can be very telling of the poem’s meaning. For instance, a sonnet is almost certain to be a love poem of some kind. Picking a format for a poem is like using a formula: as long as you stick to it, you will have something at least decent at the end.
Second, when reading, discern what is literally happening in the poem, and then ask yourself what it all symbolizes. A poem is not generally a story, but it will make use of story elements to express its meaning. Metaphor is a good example of this. Think about what that old and withered tree in line 16 is really about.
Finally, think about the tone of the poem. Is it joyful? Angry? Melancholy? Tone can color or even change the meaning of a poem, and I consider it to be the most telling part of poetry.
At the end of the day, I cannot persuade you to read or write poetry for fun. What I hope I have done is made a compelling case for its value, and perhaps gotten you in the mindset needed to succeed in that general education poetry class you are taking this semester.