Development of Ideas

Development of Ideas

A Lesson by William Liston

I describe how to arrange ideas in a poem.


When constructing a poem, a poet must give the development of ideas the utmost attention. The development of ideas (or in other words, the way and order in which concepts are introduced in a poem) should be of chief value to a poet, for it determines not just the construction of the poem itself, but also the way a poem impacts the reader, or in other words, the way the poem intends to progress the reader's emotion throughout the writing. From a broad perspective, I have identified three methods that poets use to express ideas, and along with one or a combination of these methods, a poet always uses rhetorical skills to enhance the effect, for even if a poem has a logical flow of ideas, it means nothing if the work is not "poetic"-- if it does not entrance the reader with masterful eloquence.

I identified the three methods by the following terms: constant-flow, build-up, and "out of the blue" or ironic. It must be noted that many poems combine these methods and that the predominant method is ultimately determined by the poem's ending. It must also be noted that each method is self-identified, so these terms are not recognized in the literary world. There are examples and explanations of each method below.

Constant-flow poems usually have an unchanging emotional impact; therefore, they keep the same mood and tone throughout. Thus, the poem resolves with what has already been introduced. No new concepts, ideas, or emotions are conveyed, but rather, previous statements are reinforced. Paul Laurence Dunbar's masterpiece "We Wear the Mask" is an example:

We wear the mask that grins and lies, 

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— 

This debt we pay to human guile; 

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 

And mouth with myriad subtleties. 

Why should the world be over-wise, 

In counting all our tears and sighs? 

Nay, let them only see us, while 

       We wear the mask. 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries 

To thee from tortured souls arise. 

We sing, but oh the clay is vile 

Beneath our feet, and long the mile; 

But let the world dream otherwise, 

       We wear the mask!

Like Dunbar's poem, most constant-flow poems are short in order to maintain an impact. As Edgar Allan Poe expressed in "The Philosophy of Composition," the "elevations of the soul" that poetry produces or in other words, the pinnacle of emotion in man's heart, is ultimately brief. Therefore, a constant-flow poem is usually short so the reader is guaranteed to feel one effect throughout and to ensure that the unvarying emotion expressed in the poem never becomes monotonous. That does not mean, however, that all constant-flow poems must be short, for even though I have not seen it done, I'm almost certain that a poet with masterful rhetorical and imagery skills could make a great 100-line-long constant-flow poem.

In a build-up poem, a particular element (usually a mysterious one) is described in increasingly significant (or revealing) detail; the poem thus resolves with a final revelation of the element's significance. In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (which is a very good example of a build-up poem) the word "nevermore" is the mysterious element, and its significance is finally revealed in the last two lines. Unlike a constant-flow poem, build-up poems have an almost climatic effect at the end--one that strikes the reader with a final revelation of a topic, whereas constant flow poems usually resolve with a "fade away" effect. Paul Laurence Dunbar's "A Lost Dream" is an example of a build-up poem:

Ah, I have changed, I do not know

Why lonely hours affect me so.

In days of yore, this were not wont,

No loneliness my soul could daunt.

For me too serious for my age,

The weighty tome of hoary sage,

Until with puzzled heart astir,

One God–giv’n night, I dreamed of her.

I loved no woman, hardly knew

More of the sex that strong men woo

Than cloistered monk within his cell;

But now the dream is lost, and hell

Holds me her captive tight and fast

Who prays and struggles for the past.

No living maid has charmed my eyes,

But now, my soul is wonder–wise.

For I have dreamed of her and seen

Her red–brown tresses’ ruddy sheen,

Have known her sweetness, lip to lip,

The joy of her companionship.

When days were bleak and winds were rude,

She shared my smiling solitude,

And all the bare hills walked with me

To hearken winter’s melody.

And when the spring came o’er the land

We fared together hand in hand

Beneath the linden’s leafy screen

That waved above us faintly green.

In summer, by the river–side,

Our souls were kindred with the tide

That floated onward to the sea

As we swept toward Eternity.

The bird’s call and the water’s drone

Were all for us and us alone.

The water–fall that sang all night

Was her companion, my delight,

And e’en the squirrel, as he sped

Along the branches overhead,

Half kindly and half envious,

Would chatter at the joy of us.

Twas but a dream, her face, her hair,

The spring–time sweet, the winter bare,

The summer when the woods we ranged,—

Twas but a dream, but all is changed.

Yes, all is changed and all has fled,

The dream is broken, shattered, dead.

And yet, sometimes, I pray to know

How just a dream could hold me so.

In most (or perhaps all) build-up poems, there is a suggested meaning and a revealed meaning. The suggested meaning is something that can be implied by the reader--something that the poet, through the use of tone, diction, mood, imagery, etc... hopes to instill in the reader without actually saying it. In "A Lost Dream," the suggested meaning is conveyed through the romantic mood and elegant imagery. The reader then knows that Dunbar's dream has a loveliness to it, and in the last line, this loveliness is expressed in a more specific manner: How just a dream could hold me so. The last line is the revealed meaning, or in other words, the meaning that tells (usually more specifically) the significance of the suggested meaning. Think of it this way: from Dunbar's description, we know that his dream possesses sentimental value, and in the last line, the significance of this value is revealed; we then know, that the dream's "loveliness" is not merely one of Dunbar's delights, but something that "holds him so." Such logic can be applied to all build-up poems. In "The Raven," for example, the melancholy suggested by the raven uttering "nevermore" is, in the end, revealed as something that leaves Poe's hopes "floating on the floor."

In short poems, the line between a constant-flow poem and a build-up poem can become blurred, but remember, the type of poem is ultimately dependent on the ending. My poem, "The Power of Poetry" is a build-up poem. It does maintain the same impact throughout, and it does have an ending that seems to "fade away," but remember, the "uniformity of impact" and the "fade-away ending" are just characteristics that apply to the majority of constant-flow poems. The poem's ending still utilizes a revealed meaning to describe the suggested meaning, and thus, despite its similarities with constant-flow poems, "The Power of Poetry" is a build-up poem.

An "out of the blue" or ironic poem is one where the revealed meaning (or the ending if there is no revealed meaning) is not implied by the suggested meaning. Since the suggested meaning can vary depending on the reader's interpretation, the distinction between ironic poems and build-up poems is not very clear-cut. Take the following poem for example:

Behind Her Beauty

by William Liston

Those eyes of yours disguise the pours

--the weltering rains of hurt...

Your radiant face and brimming grace...

in deepest dark divert.

Dulcet whispers, comely smiles...

--how could you feel so weak?"

The lonesome whiles...You do beguile

all of those who see.

That lilting voice, such eloquent speech...

in truth they wish to tell,

of searing pain--its piercing peak living life's been hell.

The scaring tears upon your cheek

reflect dire feelings blue.

Yet all the gloom that life can bring

has never dimmed your hue!

I consider the above poem to be ironic because the agony of life suggested by the poet's description of a woman's hardship contrasts with the idea that the pain "has never dimmed her hue."In other words, the description suggests that the woman is heavily burdened or "weighed down" by her troubles, while the ending reveals that she is still beautiful, regardless of what she's endured. Another reader may consider it a build-up poem because the description of the woman's pain and beauty could suggest that she's beautiful regardless of what she endures, which is in accordance with the revealed meaning. Though I do consider the aforementioned interpretation to disregard the poet's way of relating her beauty to her pain, the logic behind it is, at least, plausible. For that reason, I've yet to find a clear-cut example of an ironic poem.

Here's another example of what I consider an ironic poem:

In The Depths

by M. L. Franchello

In the depths of her womb grew a darkening tomb

While the earth crashed around her eclipsing her moon

And the mother, so far along, reeled in great shock

When the little heart no longer thump as it ought

 And the soul of the angel whom heaven had sought

Soared upwards to heaven without a sad thought

But except for his mother asleep in her bed

He stopped first to hover there over her head

Watching her sleep, he laid hand on her heart

And whispered, “In heaven, we never shall part”

I elaborate more on this wonderful poem in the "imagery" section of this course, but in short, I consider this an ironic poem because the optimistic ending contrasts with the longing throughout the rest of the poem. This is the best example of an ironic poem that I've read.

When writing a poem, use whatever mode of development best suits your purpose, but remember, rhetorical skills are vital to making a good poem. Along with developing ideas, a poet must know how to how to write effectively. Good writing skills have no "1, 2, 3" formula; instead, it is something developed over time through reading, revising, and learning. Still, there are some terms and concepts that poets can become familiar with to help speed up the process:

Diction is an author's choice and use of words and phrases. Diction can help set the pace of a poem. While short phrases and sentences can make a poem feel "dissonant," long, elaborate lines/sentences can cause a smooth flow.

Tone is an author's attitude towards a topic. It can be used to develop the atmosphere of a poem.

Mood is the "feel" of a poem. It is developed through tone, imagery, figurative language, etc...

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William Liston
William Liston


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