Poetry Tip #2, The Line: Arrangement

Hi everyone,

In 2010 I posted a series of eight poetry tips. Visitors to my blog still refer to them from time to time. For anyone who might be interested, I’ve decided to repost the tips, one each Thursday (unless I need to reschedule for a good reason). For some, these will be helpful as you continue to explore poetry and develop your skills as a poet. For others, the tips will be basics you already know well and use automatically in your work. If you fall into that category, feel free to argue, clarify, expand, or add examples as we go. Many thanks in advance.


Poetry, whether verse or free verse, is constructed in lines and a great deal depends upon how the poet arranges them. Pulitzer winning poet Karl Shapiro said, “The line provides the greatest possible concentration of meaning and feeling in the most controlled manner possible.”

Free verse provides the poet with more flexibility (and more decisions) about the best arrangement for conveying meaning and feeling. Generally, positions of greatest emphasis fall near the end or the beginning of a poetic line. Read some poems by another Pulitzer winner and 2007-2008 U. S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic, for good examples of how a single sentence can be crafted into a powerful stanza of free verse. Here’s the opening to “Evening Walk” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M. (Harcourt, 2003, page 61).

You give the appearance of listening
To my thoughts, O trees,
Bent over the road I am walking
On a late summer evening
When every one of you is a steep staircase
The night is slowly descending.

Would you have arranged any of Simic’s lines differently? It would be as simple as moving furniture around a room.

You give the appearance
Of listening to my thoughts, O trees
Bent over the road
I am walking on a late summer evening . . .”

. . . is still a poem, but in the first line the emphasis has changed from what the trees appear to be doing –listening – to how they look, which is less important at this point. In the third line we have traded off walking along the road for a stronger emphasis on the road itself, another poor exchange. The road isn’t what’s important; walking along it is.

In certain fixed forms of verse, the poet has less flexibility. A short ballad stanza must be phrased in four lines with three beats (usually iambic) in lines 1, 2, and 4 and four beats in line 3. Change the basic recipe and you bake something else.

A limerick is told in five lines with lines 1, 2, and 5 three anapestic beats long and lines 3 and 4 two anapestic beats long. A lot of limericks fall somewhat short of the goal, but they all have five lines that approximate the basic definition for that kind of Cinquain (or Quintet if you prefer).

However the poem is told, the line establishes at once the rules for reading it. Here’s “Giraffe” (from Snowman Sniffles and Other Verse, by N. M. Bodecker, Atheneum, 1983, page 18).

I like giraffe and hope that he
In his own way is fond of me
Despite the fact that he and I
Did never quite see eye to eye.

That’s known as a long ballad stanza (4, 4, 4, and 4 beats respectively) told in two couplets and it’s typically Bodecker-clever. But the poet didn’t choose to break the lines the way I’ve written them. Since no one could see eye to eye with a giraffe, Bodecker obligingly arranged his lines into something more appropriate.

I like
the giraffe
and hope that he
in his
own way
is fond of me,

the fact
that he and I
did never
see eye to eye.

The poet chose to emphasize the imposing height of his subject by breaking four traditional lines into twelve and further dividing them into two stanzas. The new lines, some now as brief as one or two words, urge us to read a bit slower and think a bit longer about the tall star of the poem.

Next Thursday – Poetry Tip #3, The Line: Lengths and Endings — will include similarly brief discussions about other aspects of poetic lines, including number of beats, end-stopped, enjambment, punctuation, capitalization, syllabic, and accentual.

A word about this blog

Hi everyone,

If my frustration showed over the rejection, I apologize. There have been many turn downs in the past and many others will follow. It’s part of the process of looking for the right editor at the right time for your idea, assuming you’ve sent a well written, polished piece of work. Every salesman know this principal. You have to knock on a lot of doors to find someone who’s interested in your wares. Writers sell ideas so we, too, must knock on a lot of doors.

As followers of this blog have noticed over the years, I keep this spot focused on my life as a writer of books for children and teachers, including ideas and events that interest me along the way and, sometimes, reports on what’s going on around me. I avoid religion. I avoid politics. I avoid, in general, anything and everything that stirs strong emotions about which people choose sides. In short, I avoid getting off the narrowly defined path that was established in 2009 when Kathy Temean designed my website and set up the blog. Of course I have opinions about other matters besides the creation of books for kids. This just isn’t the place to air them.

So for anyone who likes to dodge in from the storm for a few minutes now and then long enough to read what’s on my mind, I appreciate it and welcome you. Most visitors don’t leave messages so I can’t thank you personally, but the reason I start each day with a new post is because I hope this is a day when you’ll be out there reading what I have to say and, maybe, finding some merit in it. Thank you.

And that, folks, was some party!

Hi everyone,

My thanks to one and all who came by yesterday. It was some party. Don Barrett arrived shortly before 6:00 a.m. and we never looked back. When I went to bed, Jane Heitman Healy had come back by for a nightcap after putting in a long day and was visiting quietly with Janine Clark-Barry. Matt Forrest Esenwine recited a neat poem he wrote for the occasion and said his goodbyes. Carol Varsalona showed up with a cake still warm from the oven. Tina Hacker got there bleary-eyed from binge watching episodes of a favorite program and I remember Su Hutchens worrying about Sandy having to clean up. I tucked myself into bed with the murmur of friendly voices in the living room lulling me to sleep. Long after I dozed off Joy Acey showed up from Hawaii where, as she reminded anyone who was still up, it was much earlier where she lives now.

From Don’s arrival at 5:46 a.m. the 24th to Joy’s at 2:16 a.m. the 25th our party was visited 547 times by people in 12 countries. Not everyone stayed to chat but 130 guests left 170 comments. Meanwhile over on Facebook 78 people left 58 comments, so even though there were some duplicates we logged a total of 625 visits and 228 comments from party goers. I haven’t checked back to previous parties but I’m sure this was our biggest and best ever.

As we go about the coming weeks managing in our own ways to amuse ourselves in isolation, I hope yesterday’s break from the routine will be a pleasant memory for many. I know it will be for me.

Other ways of reaching kids?

Hi everyone,

With all the cancellations of children’s literature festivals, we might want to think about alternative ways to reach kids when they cannot attend an event in person. In 2007 I had written CAVE DETECTIVES, UNRAVELING THE MYSTERIES OF AN ICE AGE CAVE, and was looking for ways to introduce young people to the world of caves — Riverbluff Cave in Springfield specifically.

Thanks to my visionary friend, Annie Busch, who was then head of the Springfield-Greene County Library District, I was introduced to Bill Giddings, at MOREnet, the state’s provider of Internet connectivity to educational organizations. A collaboration was formed to get a fiber optic cable system run into the cave. It involved the cooperation of the library district, Ozarks Technical Community College, Missouri State University, Greene County Commission, the City of Springfield, and the Springfield-Greene County Parks Department.

The evening of the event Matt Forir, the paleontologist who led the explorations of Riverbluff Cave, was positioned inside the cave. These pictures show a group of us after spending eight hours in the cave. I moderated the program from an auditorium in The Library Center. Viewers could see and hear us both as we visited back and forth and Matt answered questions I passed along to him as they were emailed in.

That evening we had viewers in North Dakota, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota over 200 separate video-streaming connections. I’ve forgotten how many students were involved but it was a big number. As the library’s Community Relations Director Jeanne Duffey reported in her column afterward, “Students were able to ask questions and experience the excitement of getting as close as you can to being there without placing a foot in the fragile cave.”

Technology may have moved a few light years beyond what it was in 2007. So how now, when the chips are down, do we reach out to kids wherever they may be and involve them in fun activities like the one we had in 2007?

I have a feeling I’m about to get an education from some of you. So bring it on.

Let’s talk about you

Hi everyone,

(Photo by Nathan Papes, Springfield News-Leader)

Lately all I’ve done is talk about myself. Today let’s talk about you. What are you up to, writing-wise and otherwise. Please share with me how you are spending your time these days. Are you working on an article? A story? Reading anything you recommend? Painting? I know many of you are writers and/or illustrators. Others are librarians, teachers, parents/grandparents, and friends. Some of you are passionate about the causes you serve, the children you are raising, the trips you take, the pets you adore, the recipes you’ve tried, the awards you’ve received, questions you have.

So what’s up with you? I hope you’ll let me know.