Techniques — Ellis Campbell, 10. The Important First Stanza & 11. Metaphor & Simile

Ellis Campbell’s Writing Techniques — 10. Importance of the First Stanza
The first stanza of a poem is actually an introduction and very important. It should be attention grabbing, or at least interesting enough to urge readers to read on. If the first stanza is boring or awkward to read the chances are the reader might abandon that poem and search for something more interesting. A pity because he/she could be missing what is otherwise a good poem.
Also, very importantly, the first stanza sets the rhyming and metre pattern of your poem. It is there that you decide how many lines are to be in the stanzas, if your rhyming pattern is to be AABBCC — ABABCDCD — AABCCB or whatever else you might choose.
Are you going to have 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15 syllables in each line? Are your lines going to be identical or alternate lines be of different length? Is your stress pattern going to be Iambus or Trochee, or are you going to use both by alternating each line. If so the rhyming pattern is usually ABABCDCD and the Iambic lines should rhyme with each other, likewise the Trochiac lines.

I’d advise anyone to take great care with that first stanza. Are you having trouble with your rhymes? Does the metre seem awkward and hard to maintain? Suitable descriptive words hard to find? I can assure you that if your first stanza gives trouble, there’s heaps more trouble ahead!

Take plenty of time with the first stanza — it will save you time and problems later in the poem. Keep at it until you are happy with the rhymes and the metre flows comfortably. Don’t choose a rhyme and rhythm pattern that is too difficult to maintain. As I have said many times: keep it simple and make it sound natural. You might get a buzz by writing a highly flamboyant stanza with fancy rhymes and complicated stress pattern. But by the end of the poem you will be a nervous wreck trying to stick to it. What you thought was going to be something special will turn out a bloody mess and you will have shown that you are way out of your depth.

Ellis Campbell’s Writing Techniques — 11. Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and Similes are handy tools a poet regularly uses. The idea is to look for fresh ones, rather than use those that are growing ragged through over use.

A simile says something is “like” something else. “The track was like a winding snake.” “The house looked like a palace.” “The horse’s coat was as black as ink.” “The lambs were as white as snow.”

In contrast a metaphor says something “is” another thing. “The sun was a hazy fire-ball.” “The centre-back is a prowling tiger.” “The cockatoo is king of the mountain.” “The train is a silver bullet.” “The sea is a raging monster.”

Some poets occasionally write a poem with an Extended Metaphor. For example eleven year old Tommy, in a fantasy poem, might be the Flying Crusader. Throughout the poem he would not return to ordinary little Tommy, but would always be referred to as some kind of superior being. I think this would be quite difficult to do and cannot recall trying it myself.

Cliches are phrases that have been popular for a long time and get over worked. “As black as coal.” “Cunning as a fox.” “Like the driven snow.” “Wild as a march hare.” “Game as Ned Kelly.” Many of these are extremely clever if we stop to think about them. “As mad as a cut snake.” Can you imagine anything quite as angry as a castrated taipan? “Every little bit helps” said the old woman as she did a wee in the sea. The effect would be rather minimal, wouldn’t it?

Popular cliches are used so regularly that we say them without thinking and they therefore lose impact. In short these are so popular that we have worn them out. Competition judges and publishers frown quite heavily on cliches, so it is best to avoid them. But some of these are so clever that its hard to find a replacement. But we may as well try — as I’ve often said, “Don’t handicap yourself.”