Monday Mantras:

06 Dec

12:06, Monday, 6 December, 2010 – Atlanta

Last Monday, we covered: Read; carry pen and paper; the first draft is not writing, so don’t fret. Today we are going to focus on more technical aspects:

The key positions in a poem are the last word of each line and the first word in each line. The importance is because of the way people read. In poetry we know that when we reach the last word, our eyes must move to the next line. But because the end of a line is the end, our brain will take more notice of that last word. Knowing this, the decision of where to break a line becomes crucial. How long do you want the reader to linger at the end of a line. You control that decision through the word plus punctuation. The first word is important because, well, it’s first. Not quite as important as the end word, because we move on quite quickly to the following words in the line, but important because it is where our brain takes up the poem again after breaking from the previous line.

A poetic line does not = a sentence.
If you stop at the end of every line so will your reader.
The effect is of jerking one’s way through a poem.
This gets old quickly.
There is no movement.
If this is the effect you want, okay.
But be aware of the effect. You get the point.

Again, where you break the line and using punctuation are how you tell the reader how to read your poem. Notice how line breaks and punctuation help create the rhythm and music of poetry. Do you want the reader to move smoothly onto the following line, as if lead or pulled by a magnet? Do you want the reader to pause for a brief moment? Do you want the reader to pause for a little longer, before moving on? Do you want the reader to stop dead? You need to help them with what direction to go. Reading poetry is not that easy for many people. They appreciate any signposts.

Full stops [says it all, doesn’t it?] or periods are your friends. Use them freely, but remember to make sure you’re not inadvertently making a sentence fragment. Those horrible fragments. Also, remember the effect on a reader.

If you don’t know whether or not to use a comma in a sentence, look at the sentence without a comma. If the meaning of the sentence seems unclear, try adding a comma. If all’s well without the comma, leave it out. That being said, commas can be used to tell a reader to pause a half beat.

Don’t be afraid of semicolons. Fearless (and correct) use of semicolons is the mark of a sophisticated writer; use them to join two sentences that are balanced in meaning. Generally speaking, if you can use the word “furthermore” [but don’t] between two independent clauses and it makes sense, you’ve found a potential site for a semicolon. For a further look into this most misunderstood of punctuation marks go to Oatmeal. Go even if you understand semi-colons.

Don’t be afraid of colons either. Using colons is even easier than using semicolons: use them to elaborate on something you’ve just written. If you can use the phrase “and here it is” between a sentence and the stuff that comes after it, you’ve found a potential site for a colon.
Question marks follow questions, not statements that begin with something like, I wonder.

Exclamation points are great! They’re packed with emotion! But don’t use them too often! They can be annoying! If you need an exclamation mark to tell the reader how to read something that is not an exclamation, then recheck your word choice and context. Reserve the exclamation marks for exclamations: Boo! Nuts! Ouch!

Dashes are a great way to add a surprising element to the middle or end of a sentence. They signal a detour, like an aside in a play. They also signal a slightly lengthier pause. Dashes are twice as long as hyphens. HYPHENS AND DASHES ARE NOT THE SAME.

I promise not to get quite this technical again…okay, maybe a little when I talk about parts of speech, but I’ll wait until the New Year. I’ll leave you with a wonderful poem by Denise Levertov, “The Secret“. As you read it, notice that she chooses interesting places to break her lines; her end words are not always what we think of as strong words, but be conscious of how your reading of the poem is controlled by where she breaks her lines [enjambment – yes, there is a term for it] and the punctuation she uses.

Tomorrow: Sound exercises…finally!


Posted by on 06/12/2010 in poetry, writing


5 responses to “Monday Mantras:

  1. markwindham

    30/01/2012 at 9:21 pm

    Been playing with this one a lot lately; punctuation, line breaks, spacing etc. Did one on Sunday with nothing – no caps, punct.,, just breaks. Seems to have worked. Controlling the flow and mood with these devices intrigues.

    • margo roby

      31/01/2012 at 7:32 am

      Mark, This is one of my favourite things to do and that is revision. I love crafting. It’s why it takes me so long to write a poem. I have another book; it’s short. I am rereading Richard Hugo’s Triggering Towns. I had forgotten, or not matured enough as a writer to understand how important what he says is. Except for muddling poet and speaker [which surprises me — no poet doesn’t know they are not the same], he makes good points, his premise being that we need place for every poem, what he calls his triggering towns. His style is irreverent — I’m pretty sure he said damn, a couple of times, but that may just be the style. He is very straightforward. He makes sense. I am halfway through and not a prompt or exercise in sight, only essays on the craft.

  2. teri

    06/09/2012 at 12:56 pm

    I am still at a loss, with the comma. Does that sentence need a comma?

    • margo roby

      06/09/2012 at 2:42 pm

      Hello you! No it doesn’t. Now, if you said: I am still at a loss, especially with the comma you’d be correct. I know, nuts. I went online to look for someone who might explain it better than I can, and I think Purdue is the clearest. Read it through and see if it makes sense.
      A lot of it is how it sounds to your ear, so you can train yourself. Really!


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