Bent steak knives and poetry.
While preparing dinner the other day I noticed the tips of two steak knives were bent. I asked my son about it and he owned up to using them unsuccessfully as a screw driver. Just for research purposes, I asked if he got the screw out. No, it didn’t work. I showed him where the miniature Philips screw drivers were in my tool box. I explained that the design and metal used in steak knives do not lend themselves for use as screw drivers. Though I had to admit I’ve used them for such myself on occasion, when I was too lazy to walk out to the garage and find the Philips, I found they didn’t work either.
After the bent steak knife episode, I began to think that whatever your profession, even poetry, it is essential to use the right tool for the job and regardless of age, the novice and the apprentice need instruction on tool use. You don’t want a metaphor when a simile will do.
So, what do poets, mechanics, carpenters, electricians, surveyors, and opticians have in common?
They all use tools to make their jobs easier and achieve the results they desire. Any skilled artisan has a variety of tools at their disposal and they need competency to use them. Neglect these tools and the work suffers.
What tools does the poet use?
Here is a short list: symbols, similes, rhyme schemes, end stops, alliteration, and various forms (sonnet, haiku, ballad) are some of the tools in the poets tool belt. They are employed to bring the poem to life. When disregarded or used without understanding, they short-circuit the poem’s impact or worse, kill it.
Sound mechanics amplify visual images
No matter how titillating or interesting a poem’s subject might be, it won’t mean squat if the music the words make are tortured. A poet stands a better chance of keeping their reader’s attention when they practice sound mechanics — diction, internal rhyme, a sprinkling of assonance, a peppering of long or short vowel sounds, end stop and run on lines. Contrary too much popular practice, poems are not simply visual creatures, they also growl and snarl, coo and woo. Without some attention to sound mechanics to help carry and enhance the visual elements of the poem, the poem may read like a dry treatise on chemical theory in a scientific journal — even when shouted out in a Slam event. A lot could be said but basically you don’t use a sledge-hammer to pound in a finishing nail.
Poets and carpenters need skill.
Poets also need skill in handling the tools they use. If a poet uses a strong a metaphor instead of a softer simile to express a delicate mood the reader will be distracted and the experience of the poem will be interrupted or destroyed. Robert Frost wrote, “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” This was hyperbole but the truth is we can easily underestimate the impact of our tool of choice.