Verse Patterns is a system that uses graphic design to identify rhetorical figures in poetry, verse, and song lyrics. Rhetorical figures (also called figures of speech) are a stylistic subgenre of rhetoric that depart from ordinary language; they enhance meaning while also ornamenting a poem. They consist of hundreds of devices under the umbrella of schemes and tropes. Schemes alter word order while tropes alter word meaning.
I assigned patterns to a series of specific terms; these patterns provide a means of examining literary language while illuminating its intricacies. The simple patterns are elemental enough to overlap and create super-patterns where multiple rhetorical devices are in play. Applicable to any poem, Verse Patterns seeks to reveal poetic universality across time, oceans, and genres. Below: a few of the patterns are listed with their respective figures, and an example of how they are used in a line of verse.
A select list of rhetorical figures that occur in classic and contemporary verse is the basis of my pattern system. I started with my favorite figures, derived from a long-time fascination with poetic devices in Latin literature (like allegory in Ovid's Metamorphoses or litotes in Vergil's Aeneid, among many others). I then added to the list the figures that are prevalent and entertaining, like alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme. In the end I narrowed the list down to thirty rhetorical devices matched with thirty patterns.
I considered the options and risks of how I brought design to bear on displays of poetry. The patterns employ simple structures of dots and stripes to enable layering. A variety of colors, as well as two different dot sizes and stripe thicknesses, form a coded significance within otherwise uniform shapes. I chose the colors of the patterns while keeping in mind their frequency and dramatic power. For example, I adorned the often-used internal rhyme device (rhymes within a line of poetry instead of at the end) with thin gray stripes, while assigning the rare yet exciting feature of antanaclasis (the repetition of one word in two different senses) thicker stripes of green. The color assignments are not meant to favor any particular rhetorical figure, but to allow for the prevalent figures to work well with the patterns that would inevitably be overlaid on them.
Formally, the dot and stripe patterns add dimensionality to otherwise flat words. I typeset large, light gray, super-bold verses to provide a subtle, yet substantial base for the layering. From the beginning of the process, again derived from old Latin class habits, I incorporated metrical scansion, or symbols that represent syllabic emphasis, into the typeset poetry. The scansion adds another layer of information and interest to the system, and shows a poet's careful rhythmic considerations in a pleasing way.
Applied to Verse
Verse Patterns uses color and pattern to reveal connections, strategies, and themes in poetry. The system not only identifies literary terms and rhetorical strategies in a single verse, but also compares and contrasts the elements and strategies of separate verses. For the Verse Patterns exhibition examples, I chose two very different, but well-known poets for the sake of comparison, education, and irony: Geoffrey Chaucer (14th Century English poet), and Jay-Z (21st Century American rapper).
One of the goals of Verse Patterns is to use accessible beauty to ease the heavy divide that accompanies lofty, obscure poetic language. In Geoffrey Chaucer's day, the density of rhetorical elements marked the strength of the poet. "Chaucer lived in an age of especially conscious elaboration of figures of speech. This rhetorical tradition implies a highly sophisticated, subtle, and technical attitude to the art of poetry" (D.S. Brewer, Parliament of Foules, 1960). Below: Verse Patterns applied to an excerpt from Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale.
Above: Verses from Chaucer and Jay-Z employ similar strategies, like anaphora and alliteration, to talk about money (or cheese, or cheddar, or cake). Complex yet casual, humorous yet insightful, and bawdy yet polished, Chaucer’s poetry was pun-filled, rhythmic, and forward thinking: an archetype of rhetorical verse. After many shifts in the popularity of rhetorical figures over time, contemporary poets and lyricists today return to the Chaucer-esque traditions of poetry, overlapping and intersecting these classic formulas. Jay-Z, like Chaucer, is a metrical poet whose words, rife with figures of speech, flow with syllabic emphasis and culminate in pleasing end rhymes.
Critics are so adverse to certain content in hip-hop music that they fail to recognize complex vernacular poetry with similar rhetorical devices and rhythmic stylings of its Middle English predecessor. Not only does a parallel analysis of Chaucer and Jay-Z make sense in terms of structure and style, but also in terms of motifs. The recurring themes of sex, drugs, misogyny, storytelling, pop culture, lyrical prowess, politics, social issues, and money permeate both bodies of work. At a closer look, new-school rap resembles old-school poetry performed over a beat, and verse patterns accumulate where the poets consider multiple rhetorical devices at once.
Verse Patterns uncovers the hidden relationship between wildly different styles of verse and treats both as complicated poetic form. No, Chaucer did not perform the Canterbury Tales to a beat, but he did use assonance on top of personification on top of allusion, just like Jay-Z. Jay-Z does not craft intricate frame narratives (story within a story) in iambic pentameter, but he does consider verbal scansion and pronunciation to create puns that ornament his socially-progressive storytelling, like Chaucer did in his time.
Verse patterns is not just a means of comparison; it is a means of illuminating. By themselves or in a series, the system applied to any snippet of poetry could reveal what is not always evident, or obviously pleasing. As delightful as paronomasia, or pun, is in any classic poem or rap lyric, is becomes even more outstanding when overlaid with magenta stripes.