I'm honored to have Roy Beckemeyer as my Guest Blogger today. I met Roy through the Kansas Authors Club and have come to admire and appreciate his poetry. He was selected as Kansas Authors Poet of the Year in 2013, a well deserved honor. Roy's post will help both writers and readers of poetry. I guarantee you'll learn something from this post. Leave a comment for Roy.
What About Writing Poetry?
I know that as a creative prose writer you have already heard about all those tools at your disposal: "Show more than you tell...Use sensory details...Open with a hook ... Characterization ... Use similes and metaphors ... Use strong verbs ... Vivid description" (I borrowed these from Nancy's Blog posting "What Do You Know About Creative Nonfiction?"). And each of these applies equally well to poetry writing.
So what is it that distinguishes prose and poetry? One difference is the use of line breaks. In prose our sentences go on until they hit a margin, then continue on the next line. In poetry, lines can break wherever the poet wishes.
Why break a line in the middle of a sentence? Let's look at some examples (quoted poems are by the author unless otherwise attributed).
One reason is to encapsulate a string of words on one line to provide emphasis to a thought or image.
"Near midnight, the Milky Way crescendos"
Or the line may make a nice sounding sequence of words. Notice, in the line below, the repeat of the hard "c" sound in each phrase, the repetition of the double-l sound, the ending of each phrase with the same word, "moon," and how smoothly and pleasantly the line rolls off your tongue.
"the cotton-ball moon, the dollop of cream moon"
The line may entice us on to the next line. In the three lines below, the first two lead us on to the next line to see which leaf hasn't fallen, then the poet plays with us a bit by the let-down of the third line. He has led us on to a small disappointment.
"All the leaves
are down except
the ones that aren't..." - from "Verge" by James Schuyler
The line may end on a word that we want to emphasize, as in the first line below, where ending on the word "weight" seems to make the word itself feel heavier.
"Finally feel the full weight
of the sky on your shoulders"
Or the line may contain a rhythmic count of beats.
"At last the end of fence-mending is near"
The line length may have been chosen by the poet to make the reader slow down or speed up. The long line length for this next sequence of words supports the image being portrayed by enticing us to read on rapidly to its end, just as hail falls swiftly to the ground.
"like a hailstone hitting the sidewalk and shatter
its brittle brilliant self back up into the sky"
Or the lines may just look good on the page. The short stanzas of the next poem make a pleasing shape on the page. The first two stanzas are shaped the same, and help to lead us into the poem in their regularity, with the longer line followed by a shorter one. Then the whole poem tapers as it comes to a close. The sequence of two-line stanzas makes the poem open and slows us down, lets us take the time to think on what it has to say.
"On these hard-edged mornings
of late winter
spring aches for its chance,
longs to swell
out of every bud,
to enclose the angular
bones of trees
in an arpeggio,
a green song
of grace notes."
(From my poem, "Lent".)
Finally, the line endings also work like punctuation marks (e.g., the period, comma, and semicolon) in that they cause us to pause or hesitate as we read. But they are also more versatile: they can build suspense, or add emphasize in other ways to the content of the poem, as we have seen in the examples above.
The next time you read or write a poem, spend a few minutes looking at the layout of its lines. Notice how the lines affect how you read the poem, on the impression it makes on you. Try breaking the lines in different places. How did that affect the poem as you read it? As you spend more time doing this, you will become adept at using thoughtfully chosen line lengths to add to the impact of your own poems.
- Roy Beckemeyer