By a Hair

Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page from the start. What makes a piece of writing a poem? When I pose this question to a class or workshop, a similar set of answers usually surfaces.

“Poems rhyme!”

“They use fluffy words.”

“The words follow a regular rhythm, like song lyrics…only without the music.”

How bleak that last one is! Those poor lyrics, sitting dead on a page, kept from their music. Many a school kid has faced a poem’s lines on a textbook page and seen nothing but the lifeless skeletons of speech. Don’t let yourself approach poems this way. Remember the inherent music of the human voice. Poetry is a performance art, with all the movement, breath, resonance, and connection performances carry. We’ll talk more about performability in a future post.

Let’s return to the common “What makes a poem?” answers. Actually, none of the above-mentioned elements makes a group of words into a poem. Poems can rhyme…or not. They are sometimes metrical…but often run free of regular rhythm. Some contain lofty vocabulary…but many speak in plain words.

So what makes a poem a poem? One small detail, actually:

Arrangement of words

Believe it or not, this is the hairbreadth that separates poetry and prose. (Prose, by the way, is regular ole paragraph-style writing, in which each line runs from the left to right margin.)

Poets differ from prose writers in that they choose how their words will be placed on the page. They consider line length and position. A poem’s design adds to its impact. So, poems actually include elements of the visual and performance arts.

Of course, adding a few spaces and cutting lines of text short does not a good poem make. Next week we’ll look at some key considerations in crafting quality poetry.

Tip: When you envision and edit a piece, consider how its visual appearance might best collaborate with its other elements to deliver the desired impact. Place your words accordingly!


Weekly Exercise 2: Gathering Tinder

I will include examples as a guide, but please do not feel that yours should look anything like mine. The beauty in writing lies in each of us giving voice to our unique perspectives, in our own unique styles. We can find inspiration in others’ writing, but we must give our own writing voices a chance to develop.

  • Go through your list of last week’s sensory details or jot down some new sights, sounds, tastes, smells, or tactile sensations from your surrounding environment.
  • Answer the following in your journal:
    • What do you notice about them?
    • About yourself for noticing them?
    • What kinds of details draw your attention?
    • How would you describe your feelings and thoughts in response to them?
    • What do they make you think of?
  • Take one (or more) of your favorites.
    • Mine this week is the sound of my son’s voice as he learns to read on his own.
  • Expand on this detail in your journal by describing it in as many ways as you can. Use adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, and similes.
    • The dips and swells of his voice as he relishes giving voice to each letter. The roller-coaster inflections. The “errrrr” like a soft motor purring.
  • Note contrasts.
    • The sweetness of his little voice, contrasted with the power it has to fill the house.
  • Note ironies.
    • The mistakes he makes show smarts – he is taking ideas and applying them to new letter combinations, just not always the correct way.
  • Uncover a secret or revelation hidden in these details.
    • The grandeur of his little reading voice tells me how big and real the words are as they come to life in his imagination. That truck going “vrooooomm!” must be really close, loud, and terribly monstrous! The sounds hint at the wide world opening up to him as he learns to read.
  • Variations
    • free write your phrases
    • use bullet points to list them
    • make a collage out of them
    • If you are a visual type, include pictures or sketches.

About Lesley Clinton

Lesley's poems have appeared in the 2016 Houston Poetry Fest Anthology, the 2017 Texas Poetry Calendar, Sakura Review, Haiku Society of America members anthology, Euphony Journal, Frogpond Journal, and others.
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