Craft elements refer to the building blocks of fiction/poetry. They include things like plot, character, point of view, imagery, rhyme, rhythm, meter, etc. Craft elements are the tools that writers use to build works of fiction/poetry, just as other types of artists use paint, clay, wood, metal, concrete, and even digital media to build creations for the sake of art, communication, or business. Creators use the tools of their craft to guide their audiences to focus on what’s most important in their creations. So, as readers of fiction/poetry, it’s worthwhile to ask how authors construct their creative work, and why they make their craft-related choices. And as creators ourselves, it’s crucial to consider how we can/should use the craft tools we have to construct our fiction/poetry.
In this activity, we’ll look at how poets use form.
FIRST, read the “cummings-herbert” and “Form in Poetry” documents linked at the bottom of this page.
SECOND, post a message to the Form in Poetry forum that addresses the following:
This is a tough challenge–that’s why they’re called “challenges.” Don’t be discouraged; just try, and don’t give up too quickly. I’m not looking for right answers, I’m looking for your ability to think creatively, to be curious, and to keep trying.
THIRD: Post AT LEAST ONE response to a classmates’ original message (you’re strongly encouraged to respond to lots of classmates’ posts). For your response, don’t simply agree with the original poster’s thoughts, or say “I never thought of it that way.” Add to the original poster’s observations, and then share what new insights or meanings your dual observations generate.
Post your original message no later than 2/27.
Post at least one response to a classmate’s original message no later than 3/2.
Grading criteria are in the Discussion Participation Guide.
In poetry, form refers to shape or structure without regard (necessarily) to content—the way a poem looks on the page. Whether a poem is left, center, or right-justified, its use (or not) of stanzas, the length of its lines, the inclusion of white space…all of these things contribute to a poem’s form.
It’s important to understand that all poems have form. Formal poems use structures handed down from generations past: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and haiku are all kinds of formal poetry. They have rules governing their shape. Free verse poems don’t adhere to any such rules; the poet can write any way she wishes. Yet even a free-verse poem has form — it’s just that it invents its own form as it goes.
Here’s an example of a free-verse poem, “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.There is no happiness like mine.I have been eating poetry. The librarian does not believe what she sees.Her eyes are sadand she walks with her hands in her dress. The poems are gone.The light is dim. The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up. Their eyeballs roll,their blond legs burn like brush. The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep. She does not understand.When I get on my knees and lick her hand,she screams. I am a new man.I snarl at her and bark.I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
Notice that there is no preset meter; also, external rhymes occur only rarely, and the lines vary in length. But notice how Strand uses punctuation: there is a comma or a period after each line except one. So we can see that it is mainly sentence structure that governs how Strand breaks his poem into lines. Even the single line without ending punctuation is a full sentence by itself. In this poem, punctuation gives the poem its form.
To build a poem’s form, a poet works with the line and with space, among other things. Ultimately, that’s all poetic form is: lines and space.
Obviously, a poem’s form has a lot to do with its lines. In poetry, sentences and lines are not the same thing. Look at this excerpt from Maura Stanton’s poem “Childhood” (Strong Measures 346):
I must have turned down the wrong hall,Or opened a door that locked shut behind me,For I live on the ceiling now, not the floor.
Okay, so what?
Verse is cadenced language cut up into lines, and poetry is profound verse — verse with layered multi-meanings as well as accumulated mega-meanings. One of the differences between the modes of prose and verse is that the first doesn’t break into lines and the second does. And that’s a pretty profound thing in itself.
When you combine or intersect the idea of lines with the notion of meaning, you end up with two kinds of lines: the enjambed line and the endstopped line.
One way to write a poem would be to break lines every time a sentence ended. But that’s kind of a one-trick zebra, don’t you think? But suppose you were to pit the movement of the sentence against the movement of the line? Then you could make ebb and flow. Come and go. Catch and throw.
Think back to science class: two sine waves of different frequencies — sometimes they enhance each other, sometimes cancel. But together they create a new wave with an exciting shape. Make sense?
An endstopped line is where the movement of the sentence works with the movement of the line. For example:
I must have turned down the wrong hall,Or opened a door that locked shut behind me,For I live on the ceiling now, not the floor.
See how there’s a punctuation mark at the end of each line? The zones of the sentence are in sync with the line break. Whenever you see punctuation at a line break, almost always you’ve got endstop. Lines that end with punctuation make the reader pause at the end before moving on to the next line. This adds a sense of solidity to the poem as a whole, especially if you have long stanzas, or no stanzas. This may be appropriate if your subject matter is solemn, serious, or “heavy.”
Now look at this excerpt from Charles Bukowski’s poem, “How Come You’re Not Unlisted?”:
for a man of 55 who didn’t get laid
until he was 23
and not very often until he was 50
I think that I should stay listed
via Pacific Telephone
until I get as much as
the average man has had.
of course, I’ll have to keep
writing immortal poems
but the inspiration is there.
You naturally pause at the end of the lines that have periods, but there are only two of those. And only one of the lines can be read as a complete sentence, though it clearly is not. Almost all of these lines encourage you to move right on to the next line without pausing for a breath. Lines that don’t pause at the end are enjambed. An enjambed line happens when the sentence movement conflicts with the line movement. Here’s another example, from Stanton again, same poem, opening lines:
I used to lie on my back, imaginingA reverse house on the ceiling of my house
Or the closing lines:
The floor so far away I can’t determineWhich room I’m in, which year, which life.
In both of these examples, the first line in the pair seems unfinished, leaves you up in the air until the second line enters. You can imagine that the reader is forced by the enjambment to read fast from one line to the next, almost as if the line break isn’t there. Or you can alternately imagine that there’s a kind of suspense at the end of the enjambed line, a moment of tension. Both are true. Using punctuation this way can create a sense of speed or urgency in a poem. In Bukowski’s poem, the fast-reading lines enhance the speaker’s voice, which is quick and conversational, and are appropriate to the lighthearted subject matter.
When you read a piece of prose, you don’t usually look at the white space in the margins. All of the action is in the words, and in-between the words, not outside them. Poetry is different. Poetry pays attention to the whole space of the page, and uses the space as part of the poem. Look at Ginger Knowlton’s poem, “Lost Socks”:
|grey tube socks with red stripes droop from the shower rod.in all of the shopping carts clattered down the alleyyour old socks are overflowing and stolenfrom the dumpster by a man rantingabout communists. a man straddlesthe saddle of his bicycleone foot on the ground. your long legs are strewn across melong-neck beer bottles in the dumpster down thereand a man mimicking your noise it is quiet in here nowand red cows on a green hillsidein a low moan only one hundred miles away
no one has ever seen the hydrogen atomit is entirely theoretical
on the first cold day red cows huddle together against wetgreen grassforget the dead you left they will not follow youone cow rolls over on its back there, some legs in the air.
(Don’t worry, you don’t need to understand the poem in order to understand this point about space.) Look at all that space around the lines “no one has ever seen the hydrogen atom/it is entirely theoretical”. You can’t just skip over it, you have to move through it. Moving through it takes time, and that influences how we read the poem. The white space around those lines also isolates them visually; one reads them in a more hushed, pensive voice than the rest of the poem.
In poetry, space is “read” as much as the words of the poem. Space creates pauses and transitions. Sometimes the reader moves through the space, and sometimes it can seem as though the space around a poem is a solid thing, squeezing a poem or situating it in a vast, lonely place:
1(a leaffall s)onel iness
And sometimes a poem moves through space fluidly—or like the smoke from a train…
Lines and space—that’s form!
Two Poems by e.e. cummings 1(a leaffall s)onel iness
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did begin;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sin,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victory;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
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