Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ars Poetica: When a Poet's Fly is More Than a Fly

Visceral details and figurative language doesn't have to be pretty.  Take flies on a fly strip, for example.  The image isn't pretty; it's just the most apt.
Like a Fly, "Like a Little Rock"
Image by Maggie McCain
Ron Riekki's poem "Marquette Branch, Oct. 26, 2009" published in his poetry chapbook Leave Me Alone I'm Bleeding, is an exceptional example of Ars Poetica, a poem about how to write poetry.

What is Ars Poetica?  What Does Ars Poetica Mean?

The term Ars Poetica stems from Horace, who wrote a poem entitled "Ars Poetica" “sometime between 20 B.C.E. and 13 B.C.E.” (Academy of American Poets, 1997, para. 1). In the original, Horace offers advice to other writers about how to write good poetry. Over time, the term Ars Poetica has come to be used to describe any poem that offers advice about how to write poetry.

There are many famous examples of Ars Poetica, including poems by Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, and William Carlos Williams. However, none are better at explaining the poetic concepts of concrete diction and metaphor like Ron Riekki’s "Marquette Branch, Oct. 26, 2009." In this poem, he teaches the reader that in a poem, a fly can be much more than a fly.

Teaching is the Essence of Ars Poetica

In Riekki’s poem, the speaker of the poem is teaching prisoners how to write poetry. This situation makes the poem an obvious example of Ars Poetica. What makes it such an effective example is that the poet has seamlessly integrated his advice for the prisoner-poets into a dialogue form that allows for the prisoner-poets to learn from the speaker. Simultaneously, this allows the reader of the poem to learn from the poet.

The two specific elements of poetry this poem teaches are the concepts of concrete diction and metaphor. The lesson hinges upon a hinge device the poet uses in the final stanza. The final stanza of this poem contains an ironic hinge: The speaker has a realization about poetry while having a dialogue with one of the prisoners. That hinge device draws attention to the lesson presented to the readers, the lesson that concrete diction and metaphor are essential concepts in understanding poetry.

Seeing the Everyday Tangible is the Essence of Concrete Diction

Concrete diction is a literary term that refers to words and phrases that name material things, tangible items, things that can be touched (Shakel & Ridl, 2008, pg. 1612). 

By offering advice and examples, the speaker teaches the prisoners and readers the definition of concrete diction. The first piece of advice the speaker offers the prisoners about concrete diction is in the first three lines of the poem: “First, I tell them not to write the obvious./ Don’t say that they’re prisoners./ Show that they’re prisoners” (Riekki, 2010, pg. 14). The speaker encourages the prisoners, in very accessible language, to move beyond the stereotype or cliché of “prison” and to find new ways to present the life they lead every day. This “showing” the speaker advises requires the use of concrete diction, a tangible piece of their everyday lives.

In the second stanza, the speaker offers the concrete, tangible example of “this fly strip” that “looks like it hasn’t been changed/ in eight years” (lines 7-9). He goes on to describe “all these flies” (line 14), and a “hard” (line 17) fly that is “like a little rock” (line 18), which are all example of the type of concrete diction required for effective comparison.

The Surprising Comparison is the Essence of Metaphor

A metaphor is a direct comparison that surprises the reader, and perhaps makes the reader think of something in a new or surprising way. A poet uses metaphor when he or she finds points of comparison between two things that are often thought of as dissimilar (Shakel & Ridl, 2008, pg. 1618).

At the end of Riekki’s "Marquette Branch, Oct. 26, 2009," the idea of concrete diction that was established early in the poem is used to teach the prisoners and readers the effective use of metaphor when one of the prisoners compares all of the prisoners to the “rotting” (Riekki, 2010, pg. 14, line 15) flies on the fly strip.

With a simple, “That’s us” (line 19) and “We’re those flies” (line 21), the prisoner, Troy, teaches the real lesson about poetry to both the speaker and the reader. Riekki’s prisoner, Troy, doesn’t say the prisoners are “like” the flies. He opts for the more poignant use of the metaphorical direct comparison, thereby demonstrating for the reader the use of metaphor as an effective literary device. Alongside the speaker, the reader has his or her realization about the use of effective metaphor. Excited by the realization, the speaker replies to the line, “We’re those flies” (line 21) with “Right, I say,/ exactly,/ if you understand that, you understand poetry” (lines 22-24).

Ron Riekki’s "Marquette Branch, Oct. 26, 2009" is an exceptional example of Ars Poetica, a poem about how to write poetry. Through the careful use of dialogue, irony, concrete diction, and metaphor, the poet teaches not only the meaning of these devices, but offers poignant examples.

Want to read more about poetry?  Try

Create a Poetry Chapbook
Publish Your Own Poetry Chapbook
The Shoe as Image in the Poetry of Amy Lowell and Charles Simic


  • Academy of American Poets. (1997). Ars Poetica: Poems about Poetry. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20035
  • Riekki, R. (2010). Leave Me Alone I'm Bleeding. Tucker, GA: GypsyDaughter.
  • Shakel, P. & Ridl, J. (2008). Approaching Literature: Writing, Reading, Thinking. (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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