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Pattern and Variation in Poetry

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Pattern and Variation, Generally Considered

There are two factors battling for poets' attention when they sit down to write a poem: chaos and control. Classically, these factors are attributed to Dionysus (the Dionysian or chaotic aspects) and Apollo (the Apollonian or formal aspect of poetry.) Just as the two Greek gods of poetry were Apollo and Dionysus, any great poem has elements of both chaos and control.

A poem uses the formal (sound and visual) aspects of language to control the chaotic (meaningful and expressive) aspects of language. Like the lead bars used to control a nuclear reaction on the verge of exploding, form is used to control and curb language to make it digestible, more powerful and contained for the reader. Since, as everyday language users, we are probably more familiar with the Dionysian frustrations of language (who has not uttered the phrase, "I don't know; it's hard to put into words"?) our focus will be on the Apollonian or formal aspects of a poem.

This doesn't mean that we should not let some chaos into the poem, of course (both Apollo and Dionysus have to have their say, after all), but since a poem is a structured thing and we can't "control" the chaotic aspect, per se by any means than by imposing structure on it, then it makes sense that we should talk largely about the structural, formal aspects, as those are the parts that we can control. And although we are talking about form and structure, it should be said that too much control (Apollo having too much say) risks forcing the poem into shape, and the poem created in such circumstances will very often be stilted and the structure will weigh the poem down. It's a risk we have to take, but being aware that a heavy-handed structure can ruin a poem just as fast as a lack of structure will hopefully keep our writing balanced and in that delicate middle ground where the best poetry happens.

In the making of a poem, pattern is one of the most important ways of building form and structure, and one of the most difficult to master. In classical verse, pattern was established by using a traditional form and meter, where lines had set numbers of beats and rhymes and alliteration came at predictable places within the line (typically at the end in the case of rhyme, within the line in the case of alliteration in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry). Nowadays, as most readers and writers of poetry know, most poetry written in English is free verse, rather than in traditional forms, and this presents a unique set of problems.

The Unique Problem of Free Verse

Since free verse poets cannot rely on the authority of an accepted "classical" form, they must develop an authority through consistency and pattern and variance. The word "authority" may prick the ears of many poets, as it seems too definitive and demanding. All it means here is that the poem is a made thing, a built thing, if you will, and its "authority" is its commanding presence or ability to accurately relay itself to the reader.

A standard reader feels authority in a good poem more than thinks about it, and a writer builds a poem to the needs of itself—its authority comes through when the poet has found the poem's form. If we "read like writers" then we must think a lot about how a poem derives its authority, as we set out to do something similar in our own work. What this all means is that a solid study of pattern and variation in a poem is necessary if a poet intends to make a poem that is sturdy in its structure without relying on an overtly consistent (read: strictly metered and rhymed) form. This is especially true for free verse poets who can't rely on conventions to derive their authority. The poet should always be asking "what is the best vehicle to relay this poem?"

When talking about pattern, there is a lot of crossover to a discussion of classical form and meter. Pattern and variation are general categories that include the more traditional subjects of scansion, sound and prosody that deal with the sound of the poem (what we'll call aural pattern) but also the matters of how the poem looks on the page (what we'll call visual pattern).

So two kinds of pattern will be evaluated, and both give the poet and opportunity to assert Apollo's hand onto a poem at an opportune time. But before getting into specifics, we must define what we mean by pattern, generally, and how variation effects a poem once a pattern is established.