Try a trochee or two

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Jun 14, 2006 12:01 AM

If you aspire, dear reader, to write really good prose, first hone your skills by writing verse -- that is to say, by writing verse that scans and rhymes.

That sound advice is prompted by a story in The New York Times three weeks ago. It appears that two professional poets, Paul Muldoon and Thylias Moss, accepted a good-natured challenge from an Internet site. They would be given 15 minutes to compose a poem. The assigned topic would be: "Writing poetry is an unnatural act," but they didn't really have to stick to it. They could choose their own prosodic form. There would be no prizes, not even a certificate suitable for framing.

Both suckers chose to write in free verse. Mr. Muldoon, who holds a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, used his whole 15 minutes to write a poem he titled "Aim." If the Times quoted it exactly, his poem read, in full: "The sense of the poem as having always been,/as the redknot is bent on that selfsame patch/of tundra grass on which it was hatched."

Let us assume, generously, that as a matter of grammar the subject of Muldoon's epic was "sense." If that subject had a predicate, it flopped away in translation.

Ms. Moss, for her part, used only 13 minutes and 19 seconds. She is a professor at the University of Michigan; she has written 10 books. Her untitled poem read, in full: "my headache remains/a kind of proof of the seriousness/of what is locked in my brain, everything tucked in there, fusing there/into a feeling so tremendous it hurts."

Two other professional poets, Andrei Codrescu and Mark Strand, declined an invitation to join the affray. The former objected to improvisation "online." The latter responded in the fashion of Dr. Samuel Johnson, i.e., that only a blockhead writes except for money.

Now, the eggs laid by Mr. Muldoon and Ms. Moss are not at all what I'm suggesting for readers who want to improve their style. Those two eminent contestants were writing, arguably, poetry. I urge you to write verse. There's a difference.

Lexicologists have trouble in defining "poetry." The Oxford American Dictionary cops out: Poetry is "the art or work of a poet." Right on! Random House says only that poetry is a "literary work in metrical form," which ain't necessarily so. I will not embarrass the folks at Merriam-Webster by quoting their curdled cream. New World's definition is better, but not by much. The Encarta dictionary says, rightly, that poetry is distinguished from "verse" by its high quality, emotional sincerity or profound insight; Encarta defines "verse," wrongly, as no more than poetry that is "trivial in content or inferior in quality." American Heritage sniffs that verse is "metrical writing that lacks depth or artistic merit."

Well, pooh to Encarta and American Heritage! Verse is an art form not to be derided, but rather to be defended. Metaphorically, it may not be pheasant, but it can be excellent fried chicken. And the writing of rhymed verse -- jingles, limericks, couplets, quatrains, even sentimental sonnets -- is superb practice for anyone who aspires to become a better writer.

This is because the best prose writing falls trippingly on the ear. Poetic cadence surely can be overdone. If you're writing a bursar's report on accounts overdue, rhythm is not a concern, but listen! Even if you're assigned only to write a report on air-breathing arthropods, you can try your hand with your own duck-tailed dactyl or a triple-tongued trochee. Let's see ... An insect hymenopterous/has jaws that are simply prepopterous./His formidable mandibles/chew like so many cannibles/and his appetite is often unstopperous. And that won't take more than half an hour, either.