Poetry’s Bells and Whistles

I was doing some research this morning and came across a workshop session titled, Adding the Bells and Whistles to Your Novel.  There wasn’t a description of what the workshop would include, but I was fascinated by the Bells and Whistles.

My two year old electric car has lots of bells and whistles.  It has a rear view camera.  It can parallel park itself.  It signals me when cars approach on the left or right.  There is even cool purple interior lighting at night that outlines the door.

In doing a web search for the meaning and origin of Bells and Whistles, I’m more confused than satisfied.  The definition is something non-essential added to a product to make it more attractive to buyers.  Given this definition, I wonder if poetry should ever have bells and whistles since really good poetry boils the words down to only the bare essentials.

But, my web search attributed the origin of the term to shipping where bells and whistles are used to mark time and signal alerts.  It was suggested that it had something to do with carnival organs that have both bells and whistles and finally, I found several references to the term coming from trains.  Most of the references I checked did agree that the term came into usage during the 20th century in the US and now is recognized in most English speaking countries.

OK, so lets get back to my question of, What are the bells and whistles of poetry for you?

For me, one is the way a poem looks on the page.  I love when poets use caesuras to good effect.  Concrete poetry does this, too.  The reader not only gets the good words, but the lovely image on the page.  Years ago when Toi Derricotte pointed out to me that William Carlos Williams poem The Red Wheelbarrow is set up in stanzas of little wheelbarrow shapes, the poem took on a new life and energy for me.  For me, that is a bell and whistle.

I can remember spending months wrestling with a poem about the sunrise and I wanted the poem to read right to left to show how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  I struggled with this poem because I was writing it for children and having them read backwards was not a good thing to do since they were struggling with learning to read in the first place.  I finally solved my problem by writing the poem as a reverso, a poem that can be read top to bottom or bottom to top.  In my case the poem could be read left to right or right to left.  Now, there is a bell and whistle added to a poem.

Since poems are meant to be spoken aloud, I wonder what the bells and whistles of that are.  Is it onomatopoeia?  How about assonance,  consonance or alliteration? Would those all fall in the bells and whistles category?

I’m going to have to do some more research and thinking on this, but in the meantime, what are your ideas for Bells and Whistles in Poetry?

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