9 minutes reading time (1779 words)

THE SHAPE OF THE POEM ON THE PAGE

After close reading of about 1500 poems, all shapes and sizes, you start to think about shape and shaping a lot.

[Nerd alert: this blog entry is long and obsessive. It involves mangling a poem by Thomas Hardy.]

I’m not talking about concrete poems, where the shape is self-evidently a statement. Just contemporary poems, which can look like almost anything.

On the traditional end of the spectrum, there are still a surprising number of sonnets leaping into action. It’s astonishing how many ways you can shape a fourteen-line poem.

Even if you go for iambic pentameter and a solid block, your choice of words changes the shape substantially. You’ve got a maximum of eleven syllables per line if you end on a feminine rhyme. If you write monosyllables (quite apart from any other effect) your line looks long. Polysyllabic words make the line longer, especially if they have double vowels squeezing them out:

the trees will freeze and then the freeze will flow
(so avaricious mandolins respire)

Those two lines are the same in syllable count. But they look completely different, without even moving the beginnings in and out to mirror the syllable count as poets used to do.

I was always fascinated by Thomas Hardy’s inny-outy shapes, though they can also drive you nuts. Here’s ‘Her Song’, not least because today it is Sunday:

 I sang that song on Sunday,                     
    To witch an idle while,              
I sang that song on Monday,                    
    As fittest to beguile;                 
I sang it as the year outwore,                  
          And the new slid in;              
I thought not what might shape before 
    Another would begin.                

 I sang that song in summer,
    All unforeknowingly,
To him as a new-comer
    From regions strange to me:
I sang it when in afteryears
         The shades stretched out,
And paths were faint; and flocking fears
    Brought cup-eyed care and doubt.

Sings he that song on Sundays
    In some dim land afar,
On Saturdays or Mondays,
    As when the evening star
Glimpsed in upon his bending face,
         And my hanging hair,
And time untouched me with a trace
    Of soul-smart or despair?

So why does Hardy move line six further in than the other indented lines? Because it’s shorter than any of the others, but slower. Because the rhythm changes. Because its lyrical and the lines swing like a song. Because it strengthens the way you follow the highly compressed story. The longest line (the seventh in each stanza) extends itself visibly and, if you read the poem aloud, seems to hang in space for a moment before the enjambment resolves the meaning on the following line.

He uses some odd expressions doesn’t he – “And time untouched me”? What’s that about? You can work it out though – ‘and time hadn’t even touched me’ is effectively what it must mean. There’s ‘she’ in stanza one; he and she come fleetingly together in stanza two; in stanza three there he is on his own ‘in some dim land afar’. The lovers have come and gone. The song remains the same.

But I didn’t mean to get intrigued by the poem, only its shape. That’s the effect Thomas Hardy can have on you. He creates these fascinating shapes which, by and large, guide you through the poem, its sound and its sense.

There is a magic thing in poetry, where the sound, the sense and the shape come together and somehow re-enact what the poem is talking about. It’s rare.

It seems to me that in contemporary writing the opposite often happens. Poetry exercises its constraints. The poet rebels. Rebellion usually involves breaking patterns. This is fine, until the rebellion itself sets even more rigid patterns. So a person who likes the look of couplets will write a sonnet laid out in seven groups of two lines. Why? Rebellion can only be the answer once. After that, the shape and the stanza divisions need to be doing something other than just slowing the reader down (though that may be one function of stanzas).

The shape of the poem on the page controls how you first perceive it (assuming it fits on one page, as the majority of modern poems do, and assuming reading is your method of approaching the poem, as opposed to listening). After that, the shape controls how you read. It directly affects the messages between the eye and the brain. If you capitalise the first word in the line, it makes the left-hand edge intense; it creates more interference with enjambment. The line breaks in particular can make the reader’s life easier or extremely difficult. If difficulty is a concept in the poem there might be a good reason for the latter.

I’m going to translate Thomas Hardy a little and lay him out differently. See what happens. Before I do that, I have to comment on ‘cup-eyed care’. What a weird expression! I like it because it’s weird. Are the cups the huge ‘bags’ under the eyes of a traumatised person? I guess so.

I sang that song on Sunday to witch an idle while. I sang that song on Monday,
as fittest to beguile; I sang it as the year outwore and the new
slid in; I thought not what might shape
before another would begin.                   

I sang that song in summer, all unforeknowingly, to him as a new-comer
from regions strange to me: I sang it when in afteryears the shades
stretched out and paths were faint; and flocking
fears brought cup-eyed care and doubt.

Does he sing that song on Sundays in some dim land afar, on Saturdays
or Mondays, as when the evening star glimpsed in upon
his bending face, and my hanging hair, and time
untouched me with a trace of soul-smart or despair?

I’ll bring it further into the contemporary mode (notice this is a ‘now’ and ‘then’ poem, like many, but Hardy never uses those two little words).

I sang that song on Sunday to witch an idle while.
I sang that song on Monday, as fittest to beguile.

I sang it as the year outwore and the new slid in;
I thought not what might shape before another would begin.                     

I sang that song in summer, all unforeknowingly,
to him as a new-comer from regions strange to me.

I sang it when in afteryears the shades stretched out
and paths were faint, and flocking fears brought cup-eyed care and doubt.

Does he sing that song on Sundays in some dim land afar,
on Saturdays or Mondays, as when the evening star

glimpsed in upon his bending face, and my hanging hair,
and time untouched me with a trace of soul-smart or despair?

In that couplet version you can see rather a good effect with the cross-stanza enjambment between the last two couplets, driven beautifully by the force of the question – and a clear question because it begins ‘Does he’.

But we contemporary poets like cross-stanza enjambment a lot. We like it so much that in some cases it starts to be a key feature of the poem. Like this:

I sang that song on Sunday to witch
an idle while. I sang that song on Monday, as fittest

to beguile. I sang it as the year outwore and the new
slid in; I thought not what might shape before another

would begin. I sang that song in summer (unforeknowingly)
to him as a new-comer from regions

strange to me. I sang it when in afteryears the shades
stretched out and paths were faint, and flocking fears

brought cup-eyed care and doubt. Does he sing that song
on Sundays in some dim land afar, on Saturdays or Mondays, as when

the evening star glimpsed in upon his bending face,
and my hanging hair; and time untouched me

with a trace of soul-smart or despair?

Obviously Hardy’s rhyme scheme is trying to pull the poem back into a different shape from the one above. But in most contemporary writing there is no rhyme scheme, and often there’s no obvious control of assonance either. The shape of the poem often seems to be doing not much except being a nice shape.

Some people like three line stanzas and do them a lot. Personally, I was always prone to quatrains, and had consciously to think about that when assembling poems to make a book. Some people take a perfectly normal poem shape and make it look like a paper doiley by putting holes into the layout. Like this:

    I sang that song

         on Sunday to    witch     an idle while    I sang 

that song     on Monday

as fittest     to beguile  I sang it as    

      the year     outwore       and the            new

slid in      I thought     not     what    might shape

          before      another would             begin 

The  doiley has the advantage of standing for punctuation pauses where necessary. Also you can mess about with it for days and have quite a nice time. In fact, I can enjoy reading Hardy ‘endoiled’, now I come to think about it, although it would occur to me, when I read it out loud, that the gaps were perhaps not magical – just interesting.

When you first start writing poems, obviously you think hard about how you’re going to shape the words on the page. You can take a traditional form that helps you decide what to do with the lines. You can take a metrical pattern that will show where the line breaks must fall. You can divide into neat chunks (two, or three, or four, or five, or six-line groups). You can decide a sort of line length you like the look of and divide your line words into lines roughly three or four inches long. You can do it by breath. You can do it by counting syllables. By counting words. You can call it a prose poem and fully justify it (in both senses).

Or you can take your shaping from the phrasing of the lines, and let your line break where the phrase ends. You can let the stanza end where the paragraph ends. It sounds boring, but you could do worse. Especially if your ear is attuned to the sounds of the words you choose.

I sang that song on Sunday,                     
to witch an idle while,                  
I sang that song on Monday,                    
as fittest to beguile;                      

I sang it as the year outwore,                  
and the new slid in;                       
I thought not what might shape before 
another would begin.

In his original, Thomas Hardy does all that at the same time as working an intricate pattern of rhyme, metre and repetition. And in the whole poem he doesn’t even tell you what happened.

He doesn’t have to. The poem is shaping the relationship. Or vice versa.

b2ap3_thumbnail_BRAIN.jpg

THE POWER OF METAPHOR
EXPLODING POEMS
 

Comments 10

Guest - Tim Love on Sunday, 26 January 2014 12:38

I'll try to constrain myself to just a few comments

* "Some people take a perfectly normal poem shape and make it look like a paper doiley by putting holes into the layout … you can mess about with it for days and have quite a nice time." (!). Rosmarie Waldrop's take on this is that if margins and newlines don't work any more, you can try putting the spaces within the lines rather than tacking them onto the ends.

* I'd guess that regular stanzas in free verse were, as you say, the ghost of traditional forms. Nowadays they indicate that a poetic (rather than prosaic) reading is worth a try, and at each stanza-break the reader's left wondering whether the next stanza will be a continuation or a juxtaposition. When I word-process, I set my preferences so that I see the line-breaks. Like any other character (or paragraph break in prose) they need to earn their keep.

* My guess is that regular stanzas are a growing (workshop-influenced?) trend. I've been comparing Tiffany Atkinson's 2006 "Kink and Particle" with her 2014 book "So many moving parts" (a book about your loft, Helena?). The earlier book has some poems with internal spaces and many poems without regular stanzas. The new one has 6 poems with 2-line stanzas, 8 poems with 3-line stanzas, 6 poems with 4-line stanzas, and 5 poems with 5-line stanzas - all pretty arbitrary if you ask me. A shame.

I'll try to constrain myself to just a few comments * "Some people take a perfectly normal poem shape and make it look like a paper doiley by putting holes into the layout … you can mess about with it for days and have quite a nice time." (!). Rosmarie Waldrop's take on this is that if margins and newlines don't work any more, you can try putting the spaces within the lines rather than tacking them onto the ends. * I'd guess that regular stanzas in free verse were, as you say, the ghost of traditional forms. Nowadays they indicate that a poetic (rather than prosaic) reading is worth a try, and at each stanza-break the reader's left wondering whether the next stanza will be a continuation or a juxtaposition. When I word-process, I set my preferences so that I see the line-breaks. Like any other character (or paragraph break in prose) they need to earn their keep. * My guess is that regular stanzas are a growing (workshop-influenced?) trend. I've been comparing Tiffany Atkinson's 2006 "Kink and Particle" with her 2014 book "So many moving parts" (a book about your loft, Helena?). The earlier book has some poems with internal spaces and many poems without regular stanzas. The new one has 6 poems with 2-line stanzas, 8 poems with 3-line stanzas, 6 poems with 4-line stanzas, and 5 poems with 5-line stanzas - all pretty arbitrary if you ask me. A shame.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Sunday, 26 January 2014 15:30

The interesting thing, it seems to me, is that the default shape for prose is effectively no shape at all because we're so used to the rectangular text block that it's effectively transparent. When reading prose, we look through it to the narrative (if it's a narrative text).

There was no need to be restrained Tim. I love it. :-)

But the scope for shaping a poem is infinite. Having said this, the fashion for centring everything, when people first discovered (with word processing software) how easy that was, is now generally regarded as naff, at least when it's decorative rather than meaningful.

Not capitalising first word in the line of a poem is harder than capitalising, unless you know how to change the default settings. But I like the fact that it's harder because wherever there's a choice, it should be deliberate.

So hard to be sure what is a growing trend, given the sheer numbers of people writing. But looking at the magazines is interesting. Having said which, if you edit a magazine, you don't want a whole set of poems that are the same shape, do you?

There's a big difference between being innovative and looking innovative. The shape can make a poem look more inventive than it is. Not that I think poems have to be inventive. Sometimes I wish they would just get on with saying what they mean to say, plainly. I was driven nuts working in an educational environment where the word 'innovative' was apparently synonymous with 'good'.

The interesting thing, it seems to me, is that the default shape for prose is effectively no shape at all because we're so used to the rectangular text block that it's effectively transparent. When reading prose, we look [i]through[/i] it to the narrative (if it's a narrative text). There was no need to be restrained Tim. I love it. :-) But the scope for shaping a poem is infinite. Having said this, the fashion for centring everything, when people first discovered (with word processing software) how easy that was, is now generally regarded as naff, at least when it's decorative rather than meaningful. [i]Not[/i] capitalising first word in the line of a poem is harder than capitalising, unless you know how to change the default settings. But I like the fact that it's harder because wherever there's a choice, it should be deliberate. So hard to be sure what is a growing trend, given the sheer numbers of people writing. But looking at the magazines is interesting. Having said which, if you edit a magazine, you don't want a whole set of poems that are the same shape, do you? There's a big difference between [i]being[/i] innovative and [i]looking[/i] innovative. The shape can make a poem look more inventive than it is. Not that I think poems have to be inventive. Sometimes I wish they would just get on with saying what they mean to say, plainly. I was driven nuts working in an educational environment where the word 'innovative' was apparently synonymous with 'good'.
Guest - Antony Mair on Monday, 27 January 2014 14:29

Your deconstruction and reassembly of Hardy's "little" poem was rather like someone taking a sledgehammer to a carriage clock and then trying to put together something for Ikea - leaving me with the conclusion that the original was vastly superior. What was interesting - as in all such exercises - was that in the deconstruction process the full extent of Hardy's skill was displayed (though I personally think that "cup-eyed care" is dreadful and "time untouched me" doesn't work). One thing you don't mention is the historical context (sorry if I'm labouring the obvious). Hardy's form echoes and adapts the traditional song or ballad form, so we know where we are - but he then subverts it in the third stanza. In the more "contemporary" formats a context of this kind is largely irrelevant. I think Pound would have been in despair at the reversion to a more formalist approach - a paradox in a society that is increasingly fragmented.
There may be a link between current formalism and writing on word-processors. Ted Hughes, I recall (it's in one of his letters to his son, but I can't now remember which) was strongly against writing on a typewriter since he was of the opinion that, being a mechanical activity, it engaged the lefthand, analytical, side of the brain - whereas writing by hand stems from drawing and engages the righthand, intuitive side. I know people's opinions on this are divided, but it could go some way to explaining the amount of rather lifeless verse that's around, in impeccably arranged stanzas.

Your deconstruction and reassembly of Hardy's "little" poem was rather like someone taking a sledgehammer to a carriage clock and then trying to put together something for Ikea - leaving me with the conclusion that the original was vastly superior. What was interesting - as in all such exercises - was that in the deconstruction process the full extent of Hardy's skill was displayed (though I personally think that "cup-eyed care" is dreadful and "time untouched me" doesn't work). One thing you don't mention is the historical context (sorry if I'm labouring the obvious). Hardy's form echoes and adapts the traditional song or ballad form, so we know where we are - but he then subverts it in the third stanza. In the more "contemporary" formats a context of this kind is largely irrelevant. I think Pound would have been in despair at the reversion to a more formalist approach - a paradox in a society that is increasingly fragmented. There may be a link between current formalism and writing on word-processors. Ted Hughes, I recall (it's in one of his letters to his son, but I can't now remember which) was strongly against writing on a typewriter since he was of the opinion that, being a mechanical activity, it engaged the lefthand, analytical, side of the brain - whereas writing by hand stems from drawing and engages the righthand, intuitive side. I know people's opinions on this are divided, but it could go some way to explaining the amount of rather lifeless verse that's around, in impeccably arranged stanzas.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Saturday, 01 February 2014 09:34

Thanks for that Antony. Yes, you're right. The original is vastly superior.

There is a connection between word processors and first word capitalisation; often people don't know how to change the default setting which capitalises every word after a 'return', as it was once known on a typewriter.

But I think most of the impulse to divide things into little stanza boxes comes from insufficient thought about how the shape and meaning combine, or could combine.

Easier for me to criticise, of course, than get it right myself!

Thanks for that Antony. Yes, you're right. The original is vastly superior. There is a connection between word processors and first word capitalisation; often people don't know how to change the default setting which capitalises every word after a 'return', as it was once known on a typewriter. But I think most of the impulse to divide things into little stanza boxes comes from insufficient thought about how the shape and meaning combine, or could combine. Easier for me to criticise, of course, than get it right myself!
Guest - Tim Love on Saturday, 01 February 2014 09:51

I think the typewriter (fixed-width font) had an effect. And people have tried to explain the poularity of rectangles -

"It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech ", Olson

"The early avant-garde's play with poetic language as visual art grasped the change in poetic emphasis from aural to visual with the ascendency of free verse, and, further, moved poetry from weight on metaphor to emphasis on the material world, trying to put some physicality onto the poetry ... The influence of Cubism and Dadaism encouraged poets to see the page as verbal collage, and led to rediscovering Greek patterned poetry", Carol Ann Johnston

"As poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page, the visual appeal of an approximately square field on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist", Don Paterson

"This frame reinforces the impression that every poem aspires to a rectilinear condition, the shape of a mirror or a window... in our unconscious desire to locate the presence of the poet behind the frame of the words, we try to animate the poem itself ... and the poem itself seems to be returning our attention", Michael Donaghy

I think the typewriter (fixed-width font) had an effect. And people have tried to explain the poularity of rectangles - "It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech ", Olson "The early avant-garde's play with poetic language as visual art grasped the change in poetic emphasis from aural to visual with the ascendency of free verse, and, further, moved poetry from weight on metaphor to emphasis on the material world, trying to put some physicality onto the poetry ... The influence of Cubism and Dadaism encouraged poets to see the page as verbal collage, and led to rediscovering Greek patterned poetry", Carol Ann Johnston "As poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page, the visual appeal of an approximately square field on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist", Don Paterson "This frame reinforces the impression that every poem aspires to a rectilinear condition, the shape of a mirror or a window... in our unconscious desire to locate the presence of the poet behind the frame of the words, we try to animate the poem itself ... and the poem itself seems to be returning our attention", Michael Donaghy
Guest - Nell Nelson on Saturday, 01 February 2014 10:46

Great quotes, Tim.

Love the Donaghy in particular.

Great quotes, Tim. Love the Donaghy in particular.
Guest - Geoffrey Bailey on Thursday, 06 February 2014 11:28

Hope I'm not too late. I think poetry is sound pattern, even inside your head. The shape as printed should be a guide to the reader/orator. A poem is not a painting, nor even a doiley. The mechanics of computer typing should not determine what you want to say or how you say it.

PS I had to lie about reading the terms as I couldn't get any response from clicking on it, but I shall be polite!

Hope I'm not too late. I think poetry is sound pattern, even inside your head. The shape as printed should be a guide to the reader/orator. A poem is not a painting, nor even a doiley. The mechanics of computer typing should not determine what you want to say or how you say it. PS I had to lie about reading the terms as I couldn't get any response from clicking on it, but I shall be polite!
Guest - Nell Nelson on Thursday, 06 February 2014 13:05

Geoffrey -- I've never clicked on the terms box before, but for me it popped up in a little window. I am pasting in the contents below. Your little window might have popped up behind the main page, depending on your settings. At least I have seen that happen. So you've educated me because I always agree to the terms without reading them, but now I've actually READ them! Point e) strikes me as curious and rather interesting. I wonder whether I've always complied?

Before submitting the comment, you agree:

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Geoffrey -- I've never clicked on the terms box before, but for me it popped up in a little window. I am pasting in the contents below. Your little window might have popped up [i]behind[/i] the main page, depending on your settings. At least I have seen that happen. So you've educated me because I always agree to the terms without reading them, but now I've actually READ them! Point e) strikes me as curious and rather interesting. I wonder whether I've always complied? Before submitting the comment, you agree: a. To accept full responsibility for the comment that you submit. b. To use this function only for lawful purposes. c. Not to post defamatory, abusive, offensive, racist, sexist, threatening, vulgar, obscene, hateful or otherwise inappropriate comments, or to post comments which will constitute a criminal offence or give rise to civil liability. d. Not to post or make available any material which is protected by copyright, trade mark or other proprietary right without the express permission of the owner of the copyright, trade mark or any other proprietary right. e. To evaluate for yourself the accuracy of any opinion, advice or other content.
Guest - Geoffrey Bailey on Thursday, 06 February 2014 14:33

Thanks. I've just sent Happenstance an email about another problem - it won't accept payment for a sub.!

Thanks. I've just sent Happenstance an email about another problem - it won't accept payment for a sub.!
Guest - Nell Nelson on Thursday, 06 February 2014 17:02

I haven't had that message Geoffrey, not yet. But you can reach me here: nell@happenstancepress.com. I assume you mean there was a hitch at the PayPal stage? It will accept payment, I promise, because it does just that every day for purchasers. I don't know what happened in your case, but I'd suggest you try once more, and then write and explain what didn't happen as it should have. Do make sure you scroll right down the page for the button that takes you to payment. All best, Nell

I haven't had that message Geoffrey, not yet. But you can reach me here: nell@happenstancepress.com. I assume you mean there was a hitch at the PayPal stage? It [i]will[/i] accept payment, I promise, because it does just that every day for purchasers. I don't know what happened in your case, but I'd suggest you try once more, and then write and explain what didn't happen as it should have. Do make sure you scroll right down the page for the button that takes you to payment. All best, Nell
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