Wild River Review art by Christopher McCauley


Fire and Blood of Poetry


The fire and blood of poetry live in the poet’s imagination. This imagination, shaped by past and current experiences, is what gives a poet’s work its special flavor, its uniqueness. Form, imagery, the sounds a poet gives a poem all reflect the poet’s energy, personality, and spirit.

In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, Stevens uses a multiplicity of imaginative viewpoints to describe the same subject – the blackbird or perhaps a reflection on life/death. The title sets the tone for superstition and shrouded mystery. Each of the thirteen stanzas has a different tone, a different rhythm, a different way of looking at the same thing. Each verse is as believable, as valid, and as full as the next. The imagination of this poet has created or perhaps his genius has reflected the various ways of “beholding” the light/the dark or the known/mysterious,

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

— Wallace Stevens
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Poets have always created designs or forms in which their imaginations can best dance. Traditionally in English we have tended to use the pentameter line most often because its length is closest to the breath capacity of English speaking lungs. The iambic pentameter has been the most popular line in English metrical verse. An iambic foot is one light stress followed by one heavy stress. Five iambic feet strung together create an iambic pentameter line. This is the sonnet line:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

— William Shakespeare
Sonnet XVIII

In his plays Shakespeare also used iambic pentameter:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

— William Shakespeare

Each culture has always formalized its popular verse. The French wrote great lyrical poetry in the form of a villanelle which has nineteen lines with only two rhymes throughout. The sestina was originally an Italian poem consisting of six stanzas with six lines and a final triplet, all having the same six words at the line ends. The Persians wrote erotic poetry in the form of a ghazal, which has five to twelve couplets with a repeating refrain throughout and a rhyming phrase just before it. Although we tend not to write metrical verse anymore or adhere to strict forms, the free verse that we do write has borrowed heavily from these traditions. In some cases we have adopted them but at the very least, there are strong echoes of these various foundations in contemporary poetry.

Robert Frost said, “For my part I should be as satisfied to play tennis with the net down as to write verse with no verse form set to stay with me.” Wallace Stevens wrote, “A free form does not assure freedom”.

For those of us, then, who do write free verse and are mindful of the great masters, word choice becomes all-important in conveying our imaginative thoughts.

So much of a poet’s imagination is poured into the sound of the poem, into the carefully chosen words that create the rhythm. The repetition of beginning consonants in a word (alliteration) can create a powerful sound:

The bear’s tongue, pink as a baby’s, out-crisps to the curled tip,
It bleeds the black blood of the blueberry.

— Robert Penn Warren
Audubon: A Vision

Assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds inside words in a line, can create near-rhyme. In Robert Frost’s Home Burial there are three different sets of assonance used at the end of the poem:

And land so lightly
And roll back down the mound inside the hole.

The first set is the short “a” sound in: and,land, back. Then there is the long “o” sound in: so, roll, hole, followed by the long “i” sound in: lightly, beside.

Onomatopoeia, the use of a word that sounds like what it represents – a bee buzzing – can make a poem resonate and the reader feel it on a visceral level. We take pleasure in sound repetitions, in the music they create; no matter how subtle they are, we can experience them on a very deep level. The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe shows a famous example of onomatopoeia:

Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells, …

The word tintinnabulation resonates with the very sound of bells.

Poetry can also make visible to us that which is invisible:

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,
not the inside of a stone.
Not anything.

— Mary Oliver
Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds
I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks

Through the use of fresh imagery a poet can compare an unknown thing to a known thing. Through specific details a poet can anchor the unknown into a familiar setting and so shed light on part of the mystery or ambiguity that is ever present in life and in poetry – the ambiguity that is integral to the imaginative or emotional meaning of a poem.

Clever use of simile, metaphor, personification, and allusion can further capture the essence of an emotion or experience the poet is trying to reveal. Note how T.S. Eliot uses the image of a cat to describe a foggy night:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once more about the house, and fell asleep.

— T.S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Poetry then can elevate the human experience through its rich imagery, through its rhythm, and through its sound. It can create a magical experience by transporting us into other places and characters we might otherwise not know. It can illuminate a particular experience. It can touch us viscerally, palpably. It is the fire and blood of the poet’s realized imagination.

Wendy Steginsky

Wendy Steginsky

Bio: Wendy Fulton Steginsky was born and raised in Bermuda. She found her way to the U.S. via Europe in the late 70’s. She was a special education teacher for many years and worked most recently as program director at the Writers Room of Bucks County. She is Managing Editor of the Wild River Review. Poetry is her passion and she writes the column, The Fire and Blood of Poetry.