I realize that some of the sources and examples I mention in these poetry tips could be replaced with others with newer copyrights, but I choose to stay with these originals because they serve my purpose quite well. I’m not writing an article here where “newness” might be required. I’m offering tips about writing poems and because a poem was written more than a decade ago hardly makes it obsolete. An unfortunate result of today’s burgeoning market is the insatiable appetite for new titles at the expense of those that were themselves so recently new. So on we go.
In POETRY TIP #4 I want to point out some options a poet has to use visual presentation help convey his/her meaning. How we shape our poem may lend a visual dimension to how our reader experiences the words. In some cases the poet may arrange lines to create a spatial effect that provides the reader/viewer with clues to the mood or premise of the message. Georgia Heard helps us “see” the flight of her hummingbird in this poem from Creatures of Earth, Sea, and Sky (Boyds Mills Press, 1992). In the book, each line is arranged on the page to give the impression of flight. Alas, I can’t duplicate the arrangement here. You need to see the real thing.
from morning glories
from a straw
all day long.
In Paint Me a Poem (Boyds Mills Press, 2005), Justine Rowdon arranges her lines, screened colors, and even the sizes of her words to add a sense of galloping urgency to her poem about George Washington, which begins like this:
Why, of course, it’s George
Riding toward Valley forge.
faster, Faster, FASTER!
Trotting into surrounded towns,
faster, Faster, FASTER!
In more obvious cases of line arrangement and shapes (concrete poems), the poet intentionally forms a picture with his/her words in a recognizable shape. I lack the tools and skills to present samples here of concrete poems but there are plenty available if you search the Internet.
More commonly poets use line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization to add visual effects to what they write. Paul Muldoon is a Pulitzer winning poet and one-time professor of poetry at the University of Oxford. In his rhyming verse poem, “You Gotta Take Out Milt (Peotry, The Humor Issue; July/August 2006, pp 293-294) Muldoon divides 46 lines into five stanzas and three refrains without punctuation but for a single question mark and not even a period at the end. Why?
For one thing, it’s a funny poem and gets funnier if you read it aloud the way a guy might sound given his discovery that his wife’s out to get him. Who would break for commas under such circumstances?
On the other hand, each and every line begins with a capital letter, a reminder to the reader that this is indeed a poem and the poet is aware that he’s breaking rules at one end of the line but is observing traditional etiquette at the other. Somehow the effect of starting each line with a straight face enhances the surprising antics of the lines themselves.
In “An Earl Martyr,” (William Carlos Williams Selected Poems, A New Directions Book, 1985, page 89) the poet begins the first word in every other line with a capital letter whether it needs it or not and even though the poem is told in free verse, which normally doesn’t require capitals except to start a new sentence or stanza.
Rather than permit him
to testify in court
why he stole from
Why? In my case as a reader, this tactic makes me slow down in reading to examine each line and consider why the poet chose to alternate capitalization while ignoring most punctuation.
You can find many other examples of poets who choose to punctuate, arrange, and capitalize their work to gain a certain desired effect. Here’s Constance Levy in A Crack in the Clouds (McElderry Books, 1998) with her poem, “Seagull Tricks.”
You may think
he’s not thinking
about your sandwich
because he is looking
the other way.
You may think
he’s not scheming
because he is dreaming
and stands like an innocent
statue in gray.
Notice how Connie arranges her lines and chooses her capitalization. These stanzas end in rhyme: way/gray, yet her lines all run over into the next (enjambment lines) so she begins them all with lower case letters to allow the reader freedom to keep moving.
In Music of their Hooves (Boyds Mills Press, 1994), Nancy Springer’s title poem is told in two 4-line stanzas. She chooses iambic and anapestic meters to echo the thundering hooves of galloping horses but also omits punctuation, capitalization, and even standard borders to free our spirits to run with the horse:
The earth is a drum
their hooves pound the beat
the cantering cantering
rhythm of their feet
My heart is a drum
every beat of it loves
the galloping galloping
music of their hooves
I hope these tips and reminders are useful to some of you. Please let me know if you have questions, comments, or suggestions.