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Not With A Bang, But A Whimper

by Jough Dempsey
14 April 2002

Getting started can be the hardest part of writing a poem. After you've begun, inertia will usually carry you forward - but carry you towards what? Following are some practical tips and other things to keep in mind as you write a poem.

You've found some spare time, and decided to sit down (people are always sitting down to do things) and write a poem. You're wearing your comfy shoes, you've found a quiet place to write - you've even found something to write about - so now what?

The middle of things. Start there...

Beginning a poem with an action is an easy way to jump-start things. Save the introductions for the novelists - poetry is a more immediate experience, and being immediate, needs to have something happen right away. I'm not talking about something shocking, or even a "grabber" to pull someone in to your poem.

Starting in the "middle of things" means having the action start before the first line of a poem, as though the world were just progressing along as it always does, and we're jumping in at the moment of the first line. Not every poem will necessarily "start in the middle" but many good ones do, and it's a way, as I said, to get a start on a poem - essentially, it's a trick that helps you cheat your way into writing a not-too-bad poem.

Let's take a look at a classic poem and I'll try to show you what I mean. If you read poetry at all, you're probably at least somewhat familiar with the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken." We're not going to analyze the poem, but just look at the first few lines and think about what's happening at the start:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Frost doesn't begin his poem telling you that he was feeling restless, so he decided to take a walk, then strolled down past the farmhouse, kicked a rock, and then finally came to a fork in the road. Instead, Frost begins with an action - in this case, it's the roads performing the action. They're "diverging." Personally, I love actions like this because it animates the inanimate - I mean, the roads are just there in reality, but in Frost's poem they're active, they're energetic roads "diverging" in a yellow wood.

Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" is another example of a poem starting in the midst of things. Here are the first four lines:

That's my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

We didn't start with the Duke welcoming the Count's aide into his castle, nor were we forced to suffer a long introduction about who's who and what's what. Browning jumps right in - with the speaker, the Duke, obviously addressing someone - this "direct address" is called a "dramatic monologue" and functions much like a monologue in a stage play. But that's another story...

I could probably randomly pick poems from the archive, and be able to show examples of starting with an action or starting in the middle of things (with or without an action). But after you've started, what then?

What words are lines to end on?

Now that you've started a line, how do you know when to end one line and begin another? We'll address "the line" in more detail in a later article - for now, I'll offer a cop-out followed by some suggestions.

The cop-out: no one can tell you how to end a line and you may not even know what the best line breaks are yourself, so just experiment and re-work a line until it feels "right" to you. It may never "feel right" and you may never know if it's the right line break, but after all, this is the cop-out.

Okay, now for the practical bits that will actually be useful: You have certain places in a poem that automatically gain more "power" than the rest of the words just because of their placement. They are as follows, and in the order I believe them of most importance (based slightly on some study I read years ago and can't cite that talked about where the eye is drawn when reading a poem):

  1. The first word
  2. The first line-break (last word of the first line)
  3. The first line
  4. The very last word (last word of the last line of the last stanza) of the poem
  5. The first stanza-break (the last word of the last line before the first space, or paragraph break [remembering that paragraphs in a poem are called "stanzas"])
  6. All subsequent line-breaks
  7. All subsequent first lines of each successive stanza
  8. The last line of the poem

You could probably argue about what is more important in a poem, and lists of this type are silly and probably not incredibly helpful, but what's important is to remember that NOT ALL WORDS IN A POEM ARE EQUAL. So the placement of lines on the page will highlight or diminish their importance, at least structurally.

So what's the structure of a poem?

A poem can have many "shapes" and forms - different line lengths, stanza lengths (the number of lines in a stanza), indenting, blank space, sections, etc. Here's a basic look at a simple poem form without any real words, just looking at the form of the poem:

A Poem's Structure

FIRSTWORD blah blah blah blah blah LINEBREAK
yada yada yada yada blah baloney yadda break
who cares? Not me. Doesn't matter. STANZA BREAK

LOOK-AT-ME!  Okay, not any more. Okay wait, ONCE MORE
but now it doesn't matter again--

                                    IMPORTANT, this line is INDENTED
                                    for a REASON
AND NOW not indented again. We're HEADING
into the home STRETCH

YES, here it is, the moment you've been waiting FOR--
the last line of the poem, pay attention, now the poem's OVER.

Admittedly, it's not very readable. However, I hope our little experiment has at least focused your attention to the lines in ALL CAPS. I've also bolded the really important parts. Now, does this mean that you should save up all of your REALLY "BIG" WORDS for the end of the first line? No. But you should at least be aware that there's more focus on those words, lines, etcetera.

Read some poems and see how many have line breaks on articles (the, a, an), prepositions (of, in, by), conjunctions (but, and, or) or other "transitional" words - most poems don't end lines on these "inconsequential" words because poets know that line breaks are a source of POWER in your poem, and why would you want to focus on the word "the"? (At least, unintentionally focus on the word due to carelessness and not a choice).

Must learn balance, Poet-san.

Now that we've looked at the physical structure of poems, we can take a look at the ideological, or structure of a poem's ideas and meaning. Like fingerprints, snowflakes, & William Shatner's toupees, so too are no two poems alike. Here are some general tips anyway.

All art plays upon balance in one way or another, either by being balanced and symmetrical, or by being intentionally un- balanced. Balance is the key to beauty. Symmetrical faces are considered the most beautiful, because of their balance. Poetry (and most other things) must be balanced, or out-of-balance - but you can't ignore balance in a poem.

For this article, though, we're looking at the active writing of a poem, and so we won't be able to see if the poem is balanced or not until it's completed. We can begin thinking about working toward something, though, as a poem takes shape.

What do you mean by "take shape"?

As you write a poem, try to think of the shape of the poem as it's forming. I don't mean how the text interrupts the blank space on the page - but rather how the movement of the poem changes: From where has the poem come? To where is the poem going? If nothing happens, if your poem doesn't move or change, you're not doing your work as a poet. Art is about conflict - and a good poem is like an argument. Yeats wrote "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." (*) A poem is a poet's argument with himself - and in a good poem, we often believe that it's the poet who loses.

Diamond Diagram on the shape of poetry.

The shape of a contemporary poem is usually diamond shaped. You start with something really specific, expand outwards towards, if not generalities, than certainly ancillary elements to the central theme or "heart" of the poem, and then close on more specificity, either of image or idea. I'm not saying this is how poems should be written, only that this is the way that so many poems are written. It's the modern creative writing programme "formula" for poetic success - and it's a good place to start. When you're learning how to cook, you usually won't deviate from the recipe in fear of making a mistake and ruining your dish. The same holds true for poetry - when you've mastered the clichés, you'll be free to "break out" of the mold set forth by minor poets everywhere.

Here's how it works - you start off with an action or a specific image. Ah, new vocabulary word. In a poem, an "image" is a representational form of a real-world object. In other words, if you were going to build a wagon, you'd need at least one handle, a container, and at least two wheels for the "thing" that you constructed to be considered a "wagon." An image in a poem is like building a wagon - an image is usually some pairing of a noun with a verb - or a pairing of some thing with some action. More on images later.

Okay - so you have an image. The poem will grow from that image - you don't need to tell a "story" because people will automatically make connections even if you randomly juxtapose two disparate images. It's amazing, actually, how the human mind works. We're always looking to make patterns, to create order from chaos.

Images will work better, though, if you limit the chaos. Your images should "link up" to a certain degree. If I were writing a poem about a farm house, I probably wouldn't follow that up with an image of a window-washer squeegeeing the windows of a skyscraper, because those two things, while both buildings, don't really "belong" together. So when you write, you want to link your images by juxtaposing things that "go together" (in whatever way they "go together" for you ). You don't need to explicitly state their associations, either. Your readers will be able to figure out how things go together. The moments when they can't is usually when your poem fails, and you lose your readers. I think this is what people mean (but don't quite understand) when they try to "interpret" a poem. Poems aren't puzzles (most aren't, anyway). You don't need to try to put the pieces together. Interpretation is at its peak when a poem is at its vaguest. The reason that Hallmark cards aren't considered the epitome of brilliant poetry is that they have to be generalized by design. They wouldn't sell very many cards if the text inside the birthday card you bought for your grandmother was obviously written for the grandmother of the writer, complete with specific recollections from the writer's own memories: "like the time you made me beef vegetable soup and I spilled it on my 3-2-1 Contact! t-shirt..."

So, um, about the shape of a poem?

Right. As you link your images, working towards some end, some revelation, many poets will increase the "scope" of their poem through a seeming non-sequitur - a monkey in the wrench that doesn't seem to fit yet, paradoxically, doesn't seem out of place. The poem will then curve back inward, focusing towards the end.

An example is probably in order, now, so we can look at the diamond shape of modern poetry:

Sonnet 55

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

William Shakespeare

Yes, I know, I tricked you a little. I promised "modern" and gave you... well, modern, actually... but I know, you were expecting "Modern."

Let's do a little quick explication: The first four lines expand out in a widening triangle - essentially, what he's saying is that his poem is going to be around longer than marble (which lasts a long damn time) or gilded (metal) statues, and that the woman (we'll assume woman, here) he's writing about will "shine... bright". And just to pause for a moment the phrase "sluttish time" has always been one of my favourites. Okay, the next four lines (called a "quatrain" - five lines would be a "cinquain" - and I'm sure you could look all of this stuff up somewhere... it's just fancy poet-speak to make talking about poems easier for the initiated) widens to the broadest points of our diamond, talking about how war will trash the monuments, and every record of the subject of the sonnet's memory BUT, this poem will, in essence, keep her alive. Cocky, yes. But he was right. As least, so far (400+ years and counting...).

You'll notice that the next quatrain starts turning back towards the ideas in the first quatrain - and then the final couplet (two lined stanzas or just two lines by themselves are called "couplets") brings the poem down to a razor-sharp point.

Take a look at any poem by some of the world-renowned "cookie-cutter" poets, and you'll see a similar pattern: Mary Oliver, May Swenson, Galway Kinnell , and Sharon Olds are poets who often write using this particular formula. Their poems won't all follow this formula - there are many formulas in poetry, too, just as there are many formulas in movies. For instance, "boy meets girl boy romances girl - gasp! - it looks like boy is going to lose girl due to some misunderstanding but then everything is straightened out in the ninth hour and the two lovers are reunited" describes many movies, but it doesn't describe all of them. The best poems (and films) are those that don't seem to fit into any formula, but there's nothing wrong with the formula itself. It's what you do with it. Some good poems are formulaic. Many aren't.

The monkey is in the air shaft.

That's it for this installment. In my next article, we'll look at some do's and don't's of writing poetry - there are, of course, no rules - but there are some guidelines that will help get you going faster. As they say, there's no need to re-invent Coca-Cola ™ - learn from other people's mistakes.

Work Cited

  Yeats, William Butler. "Per Amica Silentia Lunae." The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats: Volume V, Later Essays. Ed. William H. O'Donnell. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994. Originally published, 1917.

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of this here web site, an online poetry resource for the refugees of academia. In his spare time he delights in his condition.

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