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Chunking Up a Poem

One can look at a poem as movements, quick-paced phrases and headlong rush of plot or imagist slow whirlpool. One can plot summaries in the margins of gist. Repeated objects can be circled like eyelets or lily pads. Themes act to lace a common thread thru. Or sounds can. One can read by going thru and looking at how phonemes is used. Prevailing vowels and voice or unvoiced consonants, shifts with the mood of the text.

Any kind of filter can crack the poem open more. What tools in the box were used? Did one seem over-favoured?

It’s gratifying when a poem actually is worked and polished so that such things are there and the more you look, the more you find. Other, less crafted pieces, tend to just fall into fragments the way prose is likely to. The words and pacing are instrumentally chosen. And on with the show. It doesn’t matter. Each is playing a different game for different results. It’s like photographers who insist on not a hair out of place and everyone gets a flattering image, or “real” pictures where people are “as is” and are mid-facial expression.

Looking at what a poem does in a selective reading of syntax and line breaks. How is it chunked up? Not each line with a caesura, not each line to its own. (Is it obvious in my shorthand that the diagonal lines are a sentence continued?) It’s tempting to diagram it as a grammar tree as well but that would be another exercise.

Suffice to scan and see the poet mixed the grammar around. No loops of only subject verb object of expected phrases.

Adv. phrase, null subject, object. adj noun, adj noun, adv phrase, noun, adj phrase. […] pronoun noun
prepositional phrase, noun phrase. verb, preposition phrase, (ambiguous) noun or verb, noun phrase

The sentence structure avoids monotony which keeps the interest up the way varied intonation would in sound.

[The source doesn’t matter I suppose but it’s from Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada, an anthology by Anne Compton, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie and Robin McGrath.]

What does it do to a poem and a reading when each line stands end-stopped?

In the absence of variation — nothing to see here — attention goes away from form into content. What does it do to momentum to tie stanzas together by breaking a sentence across them? Depending on what you expect, you might find it distracting or distressing, or a relief from the baldness of statements, a kind of decorative but functional element if done well.

Reshuffling this poem to make lines end-stopped? In this case, the long sentences would have to be printed on the page landscape not portrait, and it would make for a very ragged edge. What impact does the poet’s choice have on reading? The meaning is compressed into couplets. The mid-sentence allows for reveals of surprise shifts that expand on the image in a new direction after the line break. It hooks forward and allows a rest at the end of each couplet.

The different lengths of sentences and phrases gives a texture. In dense ideas, it forces more pauses which allows more density. If one had the same density but run-on sentences and a block like prose, one would run out of breath and headspace, dizzy trying to chunk up the ideas onself.

By choosing a pacing and varying it, one is clustering thoughts and giving something extra to the eye. It is like food arranged on a plate. Choose well. If one adds an element that lessens the overall effect, it’s like adding plate decoration of unripe tomato slice and wilted yellowing parsley. Better to leave off syntactical variation if it is not done with enough artistry or feels forced.

Doing it for the sake of doing it isn’t enough. Fix a flat poem by enjambing it is like adding ruffles to cover poor sewing on a shirt. It is not to cover up or fluff up or because enjambing ruffles are the rage this year but to complement the thrust of the poem.

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