Choices, Choices

What inspires you to write a poem?

The sound of a delicious word? A theme or motif that keeps playing in your brain? An emotion you are experiencing and want to explore?

All of these are elements of poetry, and the need to express or play with these ideas is often the first nudge toward something that wants to be a poem. But once those ideas are harnessed and tussled with, what about how they are placed as words and space on the page? How can you, as the architect of the poem, master and employ the tools of poetic writing? How can you become a skilled decision maker when it comes to the technical choices inherent in every poem? Exploring the answers to the following questions can help.

How do you decide when to capitalize words in your poems? Are you intentionally capitalizing every first line, like in blank verse? Why? Are you capitalizing every proper noun or the first word in every new sentence? Why? Or is your capitalization just whatever the default setting is in your word processing program? Again, why? What drives those decisions? Do they serve the poem? The reader? Do they help convey the expression you are trying to express?

And what about line breaks within the poems? How intentionally are you deciding when to enjamb a line (push the continuation of the thought on to the next line) and when to use a ceasura (a pause or breath, decided by meaning, like a comma or period provide in traditional prose)?

When do you punctuate and why? What is the relationship between your punctuation and your line breaks and your capitalization?

How are your choices to capitalize (or not) and your placement of line breaks and punctuation (or lack thereof) designed to help communicate meaning or emotion, and/or help the reader navigate the meaning or emotion you are wanting/needing/trying to express?

In poetry (as opposed to prose), all those decisions (capitalization, punctuation, line breaks, stanza breaks) are so much more important than in prose, where rules of grammar benevolently dictate the parameters in which to begin and proceed.

It can be helpful to think about this by dividing writing into two types: Grammar A, conventional prose with all established rules followed (like I'm using – mostly – to write this post), and Grammar B, where rules are intentionally broken and taken advantage of for the purposes of the poet. (e.e. cummings is the master of Grammar B, as evidenced by the lack of capitalization in his own name.) Effective use of Grammar B actually requires far more attention, intention, and mastery than Grammar A, since Grammar A is filled with rules we are trained to follow by default. Grammar B makes every grammatical choice a choice, not a default, and therefore much more important and (potentially) powerful.

Your homework:

Read Ted Kooser's marvelous book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. It's a very accessible discussion of technical, structural, and emotional choices in poetry, with lots of examples. His own poetry is also very spare and beautiful, with nary an unnecessary word. His newest collection, Splitting an Order, is gorgeous.

Seek out and study a variety of different poets' work through the lens of Grammar B choices. Where do the poets follow convention and where do they vary? When you find a poem you like, try writing an emulation of it and see what you learn by studying all the different choices the poet makes.

Tune your awareness to the myriad tools poets have in their poetry toolkits, and have fun playing with Grammar B. Experiment with different choices until you find the ones that convey what your poem wants to be, and then enjoy the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having fully explored and surrendered to the creative process.

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