Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

by Frances Donovan

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail. Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme”

Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

by Frances Donovan

One usually hears about point of view as a craft technique in the context of prose. Students of poetry tend to focus on the speaker – “the eye of the poem,” as Frances Mayes puts it. But the two are linked. The mode of narration (first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient) informs the kind of “I” from which the poem unfurls. All poems have a speaker; it may be a strong presence that affects the whole tone of the poem, or it may be unobtrusive, a hidden narrator presenting facts without editorializing.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry”

Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

by Frances Donovan

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place.

Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Continue reading “Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure”

River, by Denise Levertov, Stripped of Proper Spacing by the Web

A singular consequence of the modern age of font-elasticity and many-sized screens is its effect on the ability of poets to reliably communicate how their lines are meant to indent and break. I taught myself how to type by writing poetry on an Apple IIe computer, before Steve Jobs stole the idea of GUIs and computer mice from a Xerox research lab in Palo Alto, California. Levertov (and e.e. cummings before her) most likely relied on a typewriter for idiosyncratic line spacing — spacing which is often intrinsic to the meaning of the poem. Neither Levertov nor cummings face the particular challenge of a poet caught in the crux of the major technological shifts of the late 20th and early 21st century. On the whole though, I find the ways in which form and content affect one another fascinating and try not to complain too bitterly when my pocket-sized computer can’t accurately reflect the line spacing of a poem designed to be read on the printed page.

In other words, Levertov’s poem looks completely different when you see it printed on the page. The lines are broken and indented in way that affect their meaning, and which don’t translate in straight-up HTML unless I cheat and use the PRE tag. And if I do that, the poem becomes unreadable on smaller screens. Levertov and cummings never had to worry about responsive design.

Levertov’s poem captured me in part because I glossed over the title on initial reading. Without the word “river” in mind, the more human — and perhaps spiritual — elements of the poem spring to the fore. Plus, I’m a sucker for water imagery. As with many modern poets, Levertov’s spare use of language can be deceptively hard to replicate. Think of this poem like a zen garden, artful in its minimalism.

I recommend seeking out Levertov’s book Evening Train, where you can find the poem in its original incarnation.


Dreaming the sea that
lies beyond me
I have enough depth
to know I am shallow.

I have my bowls, my pools
of rock I flow
into and fill, but I must
brim my own banks, persist,
vanish at last in greater flood
yet still within it
follow my task,
dreaming towards
the calling sea.

– Denise Levertov
From Evening Train
New Directions, New York:1992