Friday, June 3, 2011

Poetry Revision 101, Lesson Three: Arranging the Words on the Page

One of the surest markers of amateur poetry is a series of centered lines. Though I’m sure a clever poet could find a way of making such an arrangement meaningful (perhaps sarcastically?), most likely such poems are written by people whose only experience of poetry is Hallmark cards.

Before you get all cocky because you abandoned the centered lines format in your early teens, consider this: perfect iambic pentameter and/or perfectly symmetrical (not to mention left-justified) quatrains, tercets, or couplets can be just as inappropriate. That’s because the true mark of amateur poetry is not any one particular amateur format, but, rather, an inattention to format. The unskilled poet arbitrarily decides on an arrangement that seems “poetic” but does nothing else to present the content in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, the experienced poet agonizes over the arrangement of words on the page. Each poem has its own set of demands. Some poems work with short lines, some with long. Some with regular stanzas, some irregular, some with no stanza breaks at all. Some poems are left justified, some right, some even centered, and some have all types of margins. Some have metered lines, specific syllable counts, and some don’t. Some have rhyme, and some don’t. Some have punctuation, and some don’t. Some have wacky symbols, and some don’t. In some, all the lines are capitalized, and in some, none. Or all.

The careful poet makes informed choices about all of these options with each poem she writes. Understand that poetry has a visual as well as an auditory and cognitive component. Most poetry, excepting that which you hear at a reading, enters first through your eyes. Before you read each individual word, you perceive the poem as a figure on the page. The visual arrangement of words is the first impression you get of the poem, and, like all first impressions, it sets the tone for how you will interact with that poem. For example, if you see a poem arranged in symmetrical quatrains on the page, you are likely to bring a whole series of expectations to its reading associated with that classic format. The careful poet knows this and uses these expectations to create a desired effect, not a random one. If the poem, like the presentation, is traditional, the form is likely to blend in with the content and purpose of the poem, and if that is what the poet wants (for the sake of uniformity, of tradition, for whatever reason), then that is an informed choice. Another way to go with it is to use the expectations against the readerthe poem looks like a traditional sonnet, for example, but it’s really a wacky, anti-traditional poem that challenges the reader’s expectations of what formal poetry should be, like Billy Collins’s “Sonnet,” which you can read here.

Similarly, if the poem has a ragged, confusing appearance on the page, it also sets up expectations. Compare Collins’s sonnet to Adam Strauss’s “True Love,” which you can read here (Fence is freaking greatthey specialize in wacky, risk-taking poetry that really works the spacea wonderful place to learn all about this issue!). What are we to make of Strauss’s odd gaps in this poem? Immediately, you read the poem with a questioning stanceyou want to “figure it out.” Ironically, the subject of this poem is the traditional subject of the sonnet, i.e., love. But Strauss is asking us to think about being in love in the realistic sense of not being able to make sense of it, of feeling disoriented, overwhelmed, confused. He gets us on the way to this thought before we even read the first word of the poem, however, by disorienting us visually, confounding our expectations of what a poem looks like.

Moreover, lineation, stanza breaks, and any other use of white space affect not only our initial visual impression of a poem, but also its emotional climate. The spaces in Strauss’s poem disturb our traditional reading of the fairly grammatically arranged words. The sentence “John Donne probably wouldn't like me were we to meet” is fairly straightforward, but the way Strauss has arranged it on the page makes us hesitate to make sense of it in a way that a traditional arrangement would not. We feel confused, pensive, which is what Strauss wants. The sentence itself is rather ordinary, but Strauss accomplishes with placement what he can’t with words. The empty spacesbetween words, between lines, between stanzasbecome words themselves, invisible words packed with meaning and emotional charge. This is really cool!
The Art of the Poetic Line
A must-read for anyone
working on lineation.

What Strauss is doing is called annotating the line. To annotate something is to explain it. Normally, we read words in preestablished ways. If we pause in a sequence of words, we usually also do it in preestablished ways, such as at a punctuation mark like a comma or period, or between grammatical units like phrases and subordinate clauses or between subjects and verbs. A poem that follows these preexisting pauses is said to have parsing lines. For example:

Roses are red,
violets are blue,
sugar is sweet,
and so are you.

These lines are parsed, broken into grammatical units of subject, verb, and predicate adjective. Moreover, the commas would make you pause at the same spot the line break doesthere is no conflict. The lack of conflict has a specific effectit propels the poem forward. You don’t pause much at all; you are moved to continue reading until you get to the last line. You are also moved to do this by enjambment. The sentence does not end at the end of the line, but continues to the next line, so you keep reading, searching for the end of the thought. You could slow down the pace of this poem simply by switching out the punctuation so that each line would be end-stopped:

Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet.
So are you.

Look at what happens to the poem when you annotate the line, or work against the grammar and punctuation:

Roses are red. Violets
are blue, sugar is
sweet, and so

This is a pretty extreme, silly example, but it makes the point. The irregular breaking of the line changes the tenor of the poem entirely. You can’t read it fastyou are forced to stop at the breaks, against your will, even. In addition, the superindenting of the last line puts a new emphasis on the word “you.” It sets it apart, highlights it like a sculpture on a pedestal. You don’t just read the word, you arrive at it.

Of course, you want to pay attention to what it is you are emphasizing with such tricks. For example, the rearrangement above doesn’t work because the highlighted words are pretty silly. What’s the point of “arriving” at the totally expected and meaningless pronoun, you? Here is where you have to learn that tricky dance between content and style, so that when you create an arrival, the destination is worth it.

These choices also work best when you can merge the visual and the auditory. The way you hear a poem in your head is very likely to reflect the emotional tone you are trying to create visually, the questioning stance or the galloping pace. How disappointing is it when someone else reads your poem aloud and it sounds nothing like it did in your head? You can manipulate the way a poem is read by manipulating space. Usually, the more white space you incorporate into the poem, the slower it will be read.

I don’t really pay attention to form when I’m drafting. In fact, I often draft quickly, in long lines or even paragraphs. My first concern is getting down the content, the words and images I want. One way to move from first draft to second (or at whichever draft the issue of form comes into play) is to record yourself reading the poem. Print out the poem, double spaced, in a big font, with no line breaks. Read and record. Then, take your printout and a pen, and mark the pauses where you hear them. This is your first draft of the lineation.

In subsequent drafts, notice any patterns that emerge, and either intensify or erase them, depending on what you want. For example, if after your reading draft, you notice that most of the lines of your poem are a certain length (either visually, syllabically, or metrically), any lines that are irregular will have more emphasis. If this is what you want, then keep the irregular lines. But if these irregular lines have no special meaning, you need to trim or fatten them, as the case may be, to erase that accidental emphasis. Any time you deviate from a pattern, you create emphasis. Emphasis must always be intentional.

Always consider stanza breaks. A poem with no stanza breaks, even a short one, reads fast. Stanzas, like paragraphs, create units of thought. You can have the content dictate the length of the stanzas, or you can try to have regular stanzas, all of the same length. Try the same poem a couple of different ways, and see what effect the differences create. Show it to a couple of good readers, too, and notice the different ways they react to different arrangements.

While you’re at it, have them read the poem aloud to you once you’ve decided on the final arrangement. Make sure your guinea pig is a good reader, however. Hardly anyone knows how to read anymore, period, much less poetry, so make sure any problems you hear are the poem’s and not the reader’s before you make any changes. Test your readers with a finished poem, yours or someone else’s. If you find someone who reads like he’s supposed to, do anything to keep him as a friend, but still test your poem with at least two readers before you edit.  Have you arranged your words effectively enough that someone else reads the poem just like it sounds in your head? Adjust as necessary.

Arrangement is one of the most difficult aspects of poetic composition, but it’s what separates the merely competent from the truly gifted. It may take several drafts to get it right, so you can’t rush it, and you must be willing to experiment with several different ways of arranging the same poem so you can see the effects produced, and control them. To focus on content and word choice alone is to miss the point of poetry, which is a language not just of words, but of silences.


  1. Thank you for your close reading!

    adam strauss

    1. My pleasure! You are very good at manipulating the line. This poem is an excellent example of the possibilities of great arrangement. I fixed the links--had not realized Fence had changed the address.


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