Poetry tip #4

REMINDER: This is your last day to vote for the March Hall of Fame Poets and Young Poets. Go the boxes posted on March 25, scroll down the list to the poet of your choice, click on the circle beside his or her name, go to the bottom of the ballot and click on VOTE. That’s all there is to it. Cutoff is tonight at 10:00 CST and tomorrow I’ll announce the month’s winning poets.Headed inito our final day of voting, Laura Purdie Salas leads the way among adult poets with Jackie Huppenthal in second and Fahad in third. Among young poets, Josh and Colin are tied and Sophie is close behind. Good wishes to all!

POETRY TIP #4: VISUAL ELEMENTS

A poem’s shape may lend a visual dimension to how we experience 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) by staggering the lines on the page the way a hummingbird hovers and zigzags through a garden. I can’t get the lines to do that here but believe me, in the book they do indeed zig and zag!

HUMMINGBIRD

Ruby-throated hummingbird

zig-zags

from morning glories

to honeysuckle

sipping

honey

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. Again I cannot duplicate the layout here but the lines, which begin like this, rush forward as the words grow in size and intensity.

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
Giving reasons
why he stole from
Exclusive stores

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 horses:

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

Let me know if these occasional poetry tips are of interest to you and/or helpful. I don’t want to bore readers with information you don’t care to receive. Thanks.
David

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