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Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby glorybee » Sat Nov 07, 2015 9:54 am

Poetry has its own set of conventions—rules or customary ways of formatting that aren’t covered by the same rules you’d use for prose. I’ll go over a few of those here; keep in mind that I’m not covering rhyme, meter, or any of figurative language that is expected in poetry—I’ve got lessons on those elsewhere. Check out the list of topics for poetry writers here (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).

TRADITIONAL (rhymed and metered) POETRY:

1. It’s most common to begin each line with a capital letter, even if it’s in the middle of a sentence. Take a look at the poem below for an example:

I wrap myself in night, that velvet shroud—
I have no need for brazen light of day,
Nor little stars shall charm me. I have vowed
To dwell henceforth in sullen shades of grey.
No food is savory to me—no taste
Shall linger on my tongue. No melodies
Can penetrate the fortress I have placed
Around my icy heart. ‘Tis a disease
That stifles every sense. I cannot feel
A tender touch, compassion, mercy, grace—
And I defy capricious God to heal
When I have turned my back to His embrace.
Yet—through the leaden sky—a golden beam
Shoots forth. I spurned my God, but He found me.

Notice that the 3rd line begins with a capitalized word (Nor) even though it’s not a proper noun, nor is it the beginning of a sentence. In fact, only lines 1, 2, 5, and 13 would be capitalized if this was written out as prose, but all of them are capitalized here.

Capitalization of the first word in each line is not a rule—in the past several decades, many rhyme-and-meter poets have chosen not to do so. If you want your poem to look traditional, use this format. If you want it to look more modern, you may decide not to do so.

If you’re going to submit your poem for publication, check previously published poems in that site or magazine or anthology, and use their preferred format.

2. Many people who write traditional poetry feel the need to put some sort of punctuation (usually a period or a comma) at the end of each line. This is not necessary. In fact, it’s wrong.

Look again at the poem above—you’ll see that I ended some lines with punctuation; there are periods, dashes, and commas. Other lines have no end punctuation at all. This is called enjambment, by the way, and there’s an entire lesson on that, too. Follow the link above.

So how did I decide what to put at the end of each line? As I mentioned in the hint on capitalization, I looked at the poem as if it were prose, and I punctuated it accordingly.

I wrap myself in night, that velvet shroud—I have no need for brazen light of day, nor little stars shall charm me. I have vowed to dwell henceforth in sullen shades of grey. No food is savory to me—no taste shall linger on my tongue. No melodies can penetrate the fortress I have placed around my icy heart. ‘Tis a disease that stifles every sense. I cannot feel a tender touch, compassion, mercy, grace—and I defy capricious God to heal when I have turned my back to His embrace. Yet—through the leaden sky—a golden beam shoots forth. I spurned my God, but He found me.

Incidentally—if you have occasion to read a poem out loud, there’s no reason to pause at the end of every line. If there’s no punctuation there, just keep on going—maybe with the tiniest of pauses.

FREE VERSE

1. There are no rules. That’s why it’s called free verse.

However, I do have a few suggestions for formatting free verse.

• Unlike traditional poetry, in which the meter tends to determine the lengths of the lines so that they’re nearly the same length (or there’s a discernable pattern of line lengths), free verse sometimes contains lines of widely varying lengths. Choose which words go into each line with intention. Isolate some words or phrases for emphasis. Leave some lines long to contain a complete thought. If you’re using repetition, arrange your lines to stress that. Here’s a sample free verse poem for you to study:

But…

But I
am a leaf
slightly quivering…

But I have
been a ripple
that tickles silver sands…

But I have stilled
the thump of my heart with
the syllables of Your holy name…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul…

Like…

Like a
breath, a
whispered breeze…

Like a weaned
kitten who purrs with
throaty and contented rumbles…

Like a weaned child
no more blind and panicked
rooting, no more grasps from dimpled fingers…

Like a weaned child with its mother…

Like…

Like a
whisper, a
sweetly spoken caress…

Like a weaned child
ready to stand, to stretch,
to step, I grasp your hand, and trust…

Is…

Is my
hushed, hushed,
soothed and rested self…

Is my soul
when You quiet me
when You cover me, when You surround me…

Is my soul within
my soul without, my soul
yesterday and tomorrow, my soul there and here…

Is my soul within me
when You lead me to the place
where all is still—is still—is still…

Like a weaned child is my soul within me...

In this poem, I wanted each section to increase in intensity and then quieten down, so I started with one-word lines and increased the word count in each 3-line grouping. And there are other intentional patterns of word lengths there, too. Even though this poem doesn’t have meter, it has rhythm.

The key is to choose your line lengths with intention, for their effect on the reader, and to enhance meaningfulness.

• Similarly, capitalization and punctuation are entirely up to you. Choose them—you know what I’m going to say here—with intention. For example, in the poem above, I used several dashes and ellipses, because I wanted those lines to trail off. I used capitalization only for the first word of each set of three lines, to reinforce the rhythm that I referred to above.

Please, please--don't just randomly arrange lines of prose and call it free verse. (There's a lesson on that, too.)

Finally, for both traditional poetry and free verse:

1. Single space within stanzas or meaningful groupings, and put a blank space between them.

2. Don’t center everything unless you have a very compelling reason to do so. In most cases, poetry should be left-justified on the page.

Well, this is a longer lesson than most. If you’re still here, here’s the homework.
1. Make a comment or ask a question about poetry conventions.
2. Link to a poem that you’ve entered in the Writing Challenge and say something about your poetry conventions there.
3. Write a short poem (no more than 8 lines, please) and tell about your use of poetry conventions. Or ask a question.
4. Post up to 8 lines of poetry by a famous poet, and comment on that poet’s use of conventions.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Nov 07, 2015 4:00 pm

Great lesson, Jan!

One of my favorite poems that I wrote for the challenge (though, I must admit, I did NOT write many - maybe 4?) is this one - which got a second place EC: Alvin Josiah MacRaney III. I wrote it in traditional form - though I did NOT capitalize the beginning of each line (it wasn't a purposeful decision. I didn't know better LOL). I also forgot to capitalize the word "Bible" in the middle of one of the lines. I punctuated it as I would have if I had written it in prose. I think, as far as format goes, it works (though now I probably WOULD go back and capitalize the first word of every line - and may ask Deb to do that when it's ready for publication in a Mixed Blessings book.)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby glorybee » Sat Nov 07, 2015 4:30 pm

itsjoanne wrote:Great lesson, Jan!

One of my favorite poems that I wrote for the challenge (though, I must admit, I did NOT write many - maybe 4?) is this one - which got a second place EC: Alvin Josiah MacRaney III. I wrote it in traditional form - though I did NOT capitalize the beginning of each line (it wasn't a purposeful decision. I didn't know better LOL). I also forgot to capitalize the word "Bible" in the middle of one of the lines. I punctuated it as I would have if I had written it in prose. I think, as far as format goes, it works (though now I probably WOULD go back and capitalize the first word of every line - and may ask Deb to do that when it's ready for publication in a Mixed Blessings book.)


That's an awesome poem, Joanne! I vaguely remembered reading it before, but it "got" me again! Well done. (Oh, and the formatting works either way. My preference would be caps at every line, but it's totally your call, and this doesn't bother me at all.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby CatLin » Sat Nov 07, 2015 7:04 pm

Jo, I've always wondered why you don't write more poetry. You do it well!

Here is a link to one of my free verse challenge entries.

What Good

Trying (in hindsight) to analyze my "conventions".....
    I used lower case letters throughout except, and purposely, when referring to God or His Word, to signify how small and insignificant I felt compared to His Awesomeness. (Notwithstanding your recent lesson on capitalization of references to God. ;) )

    I used short, one or two word lines, almost synonymous but "worsening" in connotation, to build intensity before the "punch" of the last line of the stanza.

    A few one-line stanzas break the flow to make you stop and think, and also as a transition.

Another great lesson, Jan. Thanks!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby glorybee » Sat Nov 07, 2015 7:14 pm

CatLin wrote:
Here is a link to one of my free verse challenge entries.

What Good

Trying (in hindsight) to analyze my "conventions".....
    I used lower case letters throughout except, and purposely, when referring to God or His Word, to signify how small and insignificant I felt compared to His Awesomeness. (Notwithstanding your recent lesson on capitalization of references to God. ;) )

    I used short, one or two word lines, almost synonymous but "worsening" in connotation, to build intensity before the "punch" of the last line of the stanza.

    A few one-line stanzas break the flow to make you stop and think, and also as a transition.

Cat


Excellent poem, and an excellent self-analysis. Thanks so much, Cat!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby beff » Sat Nov 07, 2015 10:39 pm

Hi Jan,

I tend to follow most of the poetry conventions. But, I do like to center most of my poems (perhaps not for a compelling reason, except I like the symmetry).

I do have a question. Faithwriters asks that our title not be in the body of the entry. There are times when I write poetry that I feel like the title is a part of the poem itself. And there are other times when I have a subtitle (if that is the correct term), that I "feel" needs to be put with the title (in the body of the entry, next to the poem itself). I'll post a link to one here. This is the Father

Specifically in the above poem, I wanted the contrast between "father" in the title and "mother" in what followed. What are your thoughts?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby glorybee » Sun Nov 08, 2015 1:13 am

beff wrote:Hi Jan,

I do have a question. Faithwriters asks that our title not be in the body of the entry. There are times when I write poetry that I feel like the title is a part of the poem itself. And there are other times when I have a subtitle (if that is the correct term), that I "feel" needs to be put with the title (in the body of the entry, next to the poem itself). I'll post a link to one here. This is the Father

Specifically in the above poem, I wanted the contrast between "father" in the title and "mother" in what followed. What are your thoughts?


I think your instinct was exactly right, and that your title needed to be there in that case. Happily, FW is one of the most accommodating places around. Just as with scriptures or writers' notes at the end of the story (if they take the writer over 750 words, the words aren't counted against them, but if they're needed to make 150 words, they are), we're pretty flexible about things like that. Your title and subtitle needed to be there for a desired effect, so it's fine to have them there.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby leighmac » Sun Nov 08, 2015 5:00 pm

Here's my 2 cents.... And it's
About that much worth! Jan, you are right about No hard and fast rules in contemporary poetry. In traditional poetry that calls for a particular format such as a sonnet or a haiku ( there are many others) there are rules for each one. However, even those are becoming more lax. Lots of Literary Journals will ask for submissions for those different forms of traditional poetry, but will either say " "strict form" or " loose form. " With contemporary poetry that is free verse or in form of a prose poem, punctuation can be anything the poet wants as punctuation or without punctuation, depending on how the poet wants to express. I would suggest, only suggest, that if you start out capitalizing at the beginning of a sentence, do that for the entire poem. The format of a poem is how the poet wants the poem to look on the page. It is up to the poet. Line breaks have always been hard for me. At every workshop or poetry conference I attend, my question go the poet teaching is " What are the rules for line breaks?" I almost always hear " Well, where do you want to break your lines? Do it where you want to." The closet I've come to a specific rule for he line break question is this:
1. If you want the reader to come to a "full stop" before you break your line, put a period or start a new sentence on the next line.
2. If you want your reader to keep reading with no stop, break your line after an preposition or a verb and continue the sentence on the next line.
3. Write each line as you want your reader to read it.
Okay. Those suggestions can be okay if you want to do that. But, again, there are no rules to line breaks.
Enjambment is mostly a poetic term used for stanza breaks. You can continue the last sentence of one stanza in the first sentence of the next stanza. In those cases
( and I use enjambment pretty regularly in stanza) you can use a comma or no punctuation at all between stanzas.

There's a whole lot I could say that is important for beginning poets about using word economy ( even more that you do in prose) and staying away from abstract
words like joy, love, and words that you can't touch. Use a concrete nouns and strong verbs. If you do use an abstract word, follow it with an image of the word... Or personify it. It took me years to get the hang of doing that.
Poetry is all about presenting images. It's not so much about strict rules or even strict format. Instead poems use strategic tools to give images, along with music to the reader. Rhyming and meter can be used all throughout a poem by drawing on poetic strategies that can include full end rhymes, internal rhyming, and near rhyming. End rhyming isn't the only way to put music into a poem.
Also, remember that poems don't need to be wrapped up in a neat bow at the end. The reader brings his own experiences into a poem and interprets it from those experiences. It's better to leave the reader satisfied, but pondering after reading your poem.
I don't do any of this well. It takes a lot of years! But you grow as poet as you read other great poets just like you grow writing prose when you read other great writers.
You did a good job, Jan!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby glorybee » Mon Nov 09, 2015 12:36 am

Thanks, Leigh. You went into so much more than just formatting--I should have you write some guest lessons on poetry writing skills. What a wonderful resource you are!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby Verna » Mon Nov 09, 2015 11:41 am

Thanks, Jan--and Leigh. I couldn't link to this little poem in FW, but I wanted to show some other reasons a poet might use in formatting to skip a line other than a stanza. In this one I wanted a pause for passage of time and for emotion.

She Said

She said:
You can’t go there.
You can’t wear that.
You can’t do that.
You can’t say that,

And I was very sad.

Then after many years
Of making my own choices,

She said:
I can’t sing anymore.
I can’t drive a car anymore.
I can’t cook anymore.
I can’t live in my house anymore,

And I was very, very sad.

One suggestion about formatting is for using capital letters at the beginning or not should be
consistent within poems in a specific grouping--as in publishing a poetry book.

One thing I would add about poetry in general is a quote by Paul Valery, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." That may be formatting, choice of word or image or comparison, ad infinitum.
Verna

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Formatting Poetry

Postby glorybee » Mon Nov 09, 2015 2:42 pm

Excellent, Verna--thanks for showing us the effectiveness of a blank space!

And I love the quote...it might be true for all writing, maybe (I know I've sure abandoned my share...)
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