Tag Archives: poetry

Rolling For Metaphors: Lessons from Taylor Mali

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Taylor Mali, American poet and English teacher, has come up with this fun little exercise. I’m on a bit of a poetry bent at the moment, so this appealed to me. He goes into a little too much detail in his video (thanks, Mr. Mali, I know how to fold cardboard into a cube with sellotape), but it’s worth watching. Let me know what metaphors you guys come up with!

Chiastic Structure: Nice To See You, To See You Nice

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Chiastic structure, or ring structure to give its less formal name, is the prose equivalent of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Which, for those of you less interested in poetic form, is, I grant you, not much of a clarification. Okay, let’s start again.

Rhyming Scheme

The first half (the octave) of a Petrarchan Sonnet has a very simple rhyming scheme: A B B A. Example, courtesy of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Chiastic structure is usually drawn in a cross like this

Chiastic structure is often drawn like this

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Now, obviously you can’t make your story structure rhyme. In prose, this is about ideas, scene themes (or, if you want to really play it down to the granular level, actual sentences) being repeated in reverse order to bring the audience back to the same point as they started from but with hopefully a new angle or appreciation for that starting point. Think of the heroic journey – that is, in itself, a basic example of chiastic structure. From a plot structure perspective, one of the simplest examples is Milton’s Paradise Lost:

A: Satan’s sinful actions

B: Entry into Paradise

C: War in heaven (destruction)
C: Creation of the world

B: Loss of paradise

A: Humankind’s sinful actions

So, sin – paradise – destruction/creation – paradise – sin. Which, actually, is a point to note: you can go way beyond A B B A. Milton has A B C; the story of Noah’s Ark has A – J:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20 )

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)
J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H: Animals (9:2,3)

G: Food (9:3,4)

F: All living creatures (9:10a)

E: Ark (9:10b)

D: No flood in future (9:11)

C: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Purpose in Prose

Chiastic structure has its origins in oral poetry, with a dual purpose of 1) reminding the poet where he was supposed to be getting back to (no, seriously) and 2) making parts of the poem self-contained so they could be recited as stand-alone sections. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are riddled with chiastic structured sections, as is the Old Testament, the Qu’ran, the Torah, and pieces like Beowulf.

220px-Heroesjourney.svgIn more modern literature, it’s much more about fulfilling audience expectations. We like symmetry, whether we consciously notice its presence or not. The symmetry of chiastic structure therefore provides a very satisfying sense of closure to a story. The reader remembers this scene or idea from the opening and therefore recognises it as an acceptable ending. Like the hero, the reader has travelled on a circular journey and arrived home with a new understanding of that same old idea. This links very strongly into the causal chains stuff that I talked about last year.

JK Rowling deliberately used chiastic structure in the Harry Potter series. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead. But it’s been, y’know, a while so I figure I’m allowed.) Lupin and Tonks die to mirror the death of James and Lily Potter, as casualties and consequences of war. At the beginning, Hagrid carries Harry away from where Voldemort killed his parents and delivers him to his new home at Privet Drive; at the end, Hagrid carries Harry from the Forbidden Forest where Voldemort ‘killed’ him and delivers him to his friends at Hogwarts.

One potential pitfall (I’m all about the p-based alliteration today, apparently) to be aware of is balancing the demands of chiastic structure against the actual story. If your characters want to do something that breaks the ring cycle, do you let them? Or do you stick to the plan? Rowling is on record as having said that Voldemort should have killed Hagrid, but she needed him alive to carry Harry out of the forest. There isn’t a right or a wrong approach to this, but bear in mind that readers will see and think about character actions. They won’t necessarily even notice your carefully crafted symmetry.

Why Do We Tell Stories?

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This is a question that I’m constantly drawn back to. In fact, I’m currently putting together a research proposal looking at exactly that – why the same old mythical figures and monsters continue to fascinate us down the ages and changing cultures. What is it in our imaginations that is so comprehensively hooked by the fantastical?

I can’t answer that for the species (at least, not until I’ve done the years of research). For myself, though, it’s always been a place that I could go which promised brighter, better things. Challenges that I could equate with my own humdrum difficulties, and heroes I could learn from to conquer them. More than that, though, it showed worlds where anything was possible.

I’m lucky. I don’t have a serious physical disability, or a broken home, or any of the really tragic common problems. I was ill throughout my teens and for some time after, but it didn’t stop me from doing anything beyond feeling self-conscious, outside the social norm. Like many creative people with over-active imaginations, I fight a war of attrition with depression but it isn’t crippling. I function. For the majority of the time, I even function happily. Mostly because of stories.

There’s a reason I’m sharing this. It’s come to my attention more and more that people just encountering these sorts of problems for themselves don’t realise how many others are in the same boat. So, to all of you just succumbing to the tentacles of depression or anxiety, or dealing with a malfunction in your bodies, please remember this. You aren’t alone. I know it feels like it but you aren’t. And, if nothing else, stories can help you believe that.

I’m going to leave you with a final piece of self-indulgence. There was a competition last year to tell a real-life story in six verses, with each verse in a different format that stood alone, but where the whole gave a greater meaning. This is my rather crooked attempt to explain why I tell stories.


1. HE TAUGHT ME TO FEAR

The breakfast crumbs make patterns on the wood.
The doctor’s here to tell me I am ill.

A house call in this day and age. Not good.
I watch the toast crumb patterns on the wood.

2. YOU TAUGHT ME TO DREAM

We sit by the fire,
Talking dungeons and dragons.
You make me believe.

3. THEY TAUGHT ME TO STAND

The soldier falls in battle, wounded sore,
Eyes closed against the final stroke. None lands.
The lord is there defending, kills the foe,
And then the hurt is checked by gentle hands.
“‘Tis nothing but a scratch. Come, up you get,
And forward march. We shall prevail yet.”

4. SHE TAUGHT ME TO DANCE

Golden skinned from a sunny life on the road
Young head on old shoulders, as open minded as a field
Permanently curious without restraint or fear
Smile that never dimmed, heart that never closed
You loved her. Everybody did.

5. WORDS TAUGHT ME TO FLY

Follow the dark-blue ink road down the rabbit hole;
Sit in the corner and send out your waking soul.
Hans Christian Anderson, Tolkien and Dunsany –
Building the worlds that will always be part of me.

Building the worlds that will let me be free.

6. I TAUGHT ME TO LIVE

by mapping
corners of
myself I
am made whole

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Times Are Tidy – The Modern Role of Fantasy

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Passe Fantasy

At the World Fantasy Convention last October there was a panel discussion on whether there were any new ideas still coming out of genre writing. I didn’t even go to that session – the idea that writers are all out of ideas was actually offensive to me. Even if Mark Twain is right and there are no completely new ideas, the skill of the writer is to present old ones in fresh clothes in such a way that the audience is still entranced.

But genres – and readers – evolve. The ground-breaking stuff of original fantasy is now, by its very nature, clichéd. Goblin raiders and elven archers became the norm. Quests to find/destroy the holy or magical artefact became so common they might as well have written a Tourist Guide to Questing – in fact, Dianna Wynne Jones pretty much did. Readers were entirely on board with the idea of good vs evil, and wanted more social commentary. And this, I think, is the key to the evolution of fantasy.

Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.   ~ G.K. Chesterton

People will always need escapism, and fantasy/sci-fi is a pretty exemplary form of it. But running away doesn’t solve your problems. If your escapism lets you come back with answers, it instantly becomes more valuable. Fantasy is an excellent way to explore social issues in a safe environment that is sufficiently abstracted from reality that you can do so without upsetting people or (hopefully) letting them be blinded by their prejudices. This isn’t a new idea but it’s an important one. I actually think it’s a major factor behind the rise in urban fantasy over the last couple of years – things like Mortal Instruments, the Dresden Files, the Matthew Swift series, Rivers of London, etc. They all bring the world of fantasy to meet our world, and explore problems in a safe but more relatable environment.

There’s nothing wrong with goblin barbarians and elven archers. They were the tools of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. But they need to change as the reader has changed, and reflect what the audience needs. An elven archer suffering from RSI and is living on benefits; a goblin barbarian who has to deal with racism. Extreme examples, maybe, but you get the gist. The timeless stories are timeless because of the people, and the issues those people are facing. Not because of dragons.

I want to end with the poem that largely inspired this post. We live in an age where there are no dragons or magic rings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need heroes – we have our own problems, and they are many. Genre literature is an excellent way of remembering, and providing the tools to deal with, that.

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The Times Are Tidy – Sylvia Plath

Unlucky the hero born
In this province of the stuck record
Where the most watchful cooks go jobless
And the mayor’s rôtisserie turns
Round of its own accord.

There’s no career in the venture
Of riding against the lizard,
Himself withered these latter-days
To leaf-size from lack of action:
History’s beaten the hazard.

The last crone got burnt up
More than eight decades back
With the love-hot herb, the talking cat,
But the children are better for it,
The cow milks cream an inch thick.

National Poetry Day

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Today was National Poetry Day in the UK, and I almost missed it. I haven’t subjected you to any poetry for a while, so this seems like a good excuse. This was one of my favourites as a child, which may explain why I now find writing happy endings a challenge. It’s a good story too. In fact, it’s best you think of it as a story rather than a poem, because people tend to be more tolerant of short stories than of long poems, and this is both.

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THE HIGHWAYMAN by Alfred Noyes

PART ONE

I

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
……Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

II

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
……His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

III

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
……Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

IV

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
……The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

V

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
……Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

VI

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i’ the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
……(Oh, sweet, black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonliglt, and galloped away to the West.

PART TWO

I

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
……Marching—marching—
King George’s men came matching, up to the old inn-door.

II

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
……And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

III

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her.
She heard the dead man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
……Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

IV

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
……Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

V

The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
……Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain.

VI

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
……Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!

VII

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
……Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

VIII

He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
……The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

IX

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
……Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

X

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
……Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

XI

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
……Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

This. Exactly Like This.

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I was going to talk to you about character arcs today, but that will have to wait until next week because I just read something that needs to be shared.

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IT WAS A DAY (by Ursula Vernon)

It was a day a little bit like today
the way the clouds threw shadows over the hill
the day you realized that you weren’t going to find your future.

You were never going to go to Mars
or Pern
or Krynn
You were never going to open the door that led, inexorably, to Narnia
(or even Telmar, you weren’t picky, and you were confident of your ability
to lead the revolution.)

Inigo Montoya was not going to slap you on the back
and invite you to take up the mantle of the Dread Pirate Roberts.
There would be no sardonic Vulcans or Andorians;
you would never be handed an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

That was a strange day.

It ranked up there with the day that you realized that everybody else saw the you in the mirror, not the you inside your head. Not the you that was lean and tough and clever, not the you with perfect hair and a resonant voice that never said “Um….?”

Not that you.

No, they got the one that was fat and wobbly and stiff inside with terror, the one who was a little scared of eye makeup, the one who wore black because it was better to be freaky than pathetic.

You were never terribly fond of that you.

It was a day not at all like today
a day where the sun shone very brightly around the edges
that you realized that you could write that future.

You could blot out all those old arguments in your head by asking each character “What happens next?”
“And what do you say?”
“And are there ninjas?”

It wasn’t the old future, but it was close.
(Besides, by that point, you’d realized that Inigo probably bathed once a month and that when people stuck you with swords, you’d fall down and shriek, and also that your feet hurt. And writers get indoor plumbing
and birth control pills if they can get them.)

It was a rather odd day
though not entirely unexpected
when you met the people who were angry with you.

It took awhile to figure out. Much more than a day, in fact.
Eventually, it came to you that those people had a future, too,
but they hadn’t quite realized they weren’t going to find it
and they blamed you for the fact it wasn’t here.

You were not the sort of person that lived in their future.
You were still too fat and too wobbly and much too weird, and you laughed too loudly
like a good-natured hyena
and you were not supportive of their high and lonely destiny.

And if you were here and their future wasn’t
it was probably your fault
and if you went away
maybe they’d get to go to Mars after all
pal around with Tars Tarkas
have phone-sex with the Pierson’s Puppeteers.

They got very mad about it.
You pictured them hopping,
arms and legs going up and down
like angry puppets
when somebody pulled the string coming out of their crotch.

It was all very strange.

It was a day sort of like last Tuesday
or maybe the Friday before last
when somebody came up
with a copy of your book
it was dog-eared and they looked like they might cry
and they said “Thank you.”

It was a day.

Minimalism

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As mentioned previously, I’m quite a fan of minimalist writing. Choosing the right words – and only the right ones – is, I think, the best way to give the reader a clear picture of what’s happening without confusing detail or excessive information. It also allows your audience to put their own details to the story, which both makes it more relatable to them and involves them in the act of storytelling.

Poets have to be even more rigorous than writers in making sure they have selected exactly the right words, and that’s a discipline writers should attempt to emulate. I haven’t subjected you to any poetry for a while, and Wendy Cope is a great minimalist poet when she wants to be. See what you make of this, and what story you can extrapolate from it without needing any further detail.

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FIREWORKS (from If I Don’t Know)

Faster and faster,

They vanish into darkness:

Our years together.

Write it in fire across the night:

Some men are more or less all right.