Poetry 202: Sight & Sound

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

See also: Poetry 101: Getting Started.

Why Poetry?

So you’ve decided to write a poem.


That is, why a poem and not prose? Writing poetry involves more than just inserting some line breaks into your sentences. In fact, line breaks are not the ultimate determinant as to whether a composition is prose or poetry: prose poetry does not have the line breaks usually seen in poetry, but is written as prose is, in paragraphs. Despite its lack of line breaks, however, prose poetry retains all the other elements commonly associated with poetry, even, in some cases, rhyme.

Poetry tends to be more densely layered than prose. It makes extensive use of figurative language such as hyperbole, irony, metaphor, personification, simile, and symbolism, and employs rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Words are used as much for what they connote (suggest or imply) as for what they denote (their literal meaning). For example, the word cat denotes a small, domesticated, carnivorous mammal. But the use of cat in a poem might connote the qualities often attributed to cats: stealth, ruthlessness, the ability to sleep 18 hours a day. Or, it might connote one of the many associations people have with respect to cats: witchcraft, crazy old cat ladies, and so on.

But although prose is generally more straightforward, direct, literal than poetry, it can and does make use of rhetorical devices such as figurative language; prose that incorporates many such devices is called poetic prose (for more on poetic prose, see The Musical Magic of Words).

So what does distinguish poetry from prose?

Go back the beginning. Think about your purpose for writing the poem. This will give you an idea of whether or not your subject is suited to poetry. What do you want to leave your readers with when they’re done reading?

In general, if you want to make an argument, write an essay. If you want to develop characters and a plot, write a story. Like a movie, a story can encompass many frames (or scenes). A poem, on the other hand, is more akin to a photograph or painting. It is better suited to focusing on one scene, one key image, one central metaphor. This is not to say that the topics poetry addresses are insignificant. On the contrary, poetry often tackles themes that go to the heart of what it means to be human, but it does this by narrowing the scope and focusing on the details. For example, in “Women on a Beach,” Anne Michaels describes a beach scene as day turns to night:

The beach glows grainy under the sun’s copper pressure,
air the colour of tangerines.
One of you is sleeping, the wind’s finger
on your cheek like a tendril of hair.

Night exhales its long held breath.
Stars puncture through.

This poem may seem very simple on first read, but it leaves an image that lingers after the reading that is as vivid as if the reader had witnessed the scene him/herself. This ability to resonate after the reading is what H.R. Deutsch calls “presentation language.” Deutsch writes that in poetry, words are “‘inexhaustible objects of meditation,’ things in themselves,” whereas in prose, “words ‘die’ as soon as they are read because they act only long enough to indicate the situation or scene or meaning beyond them.” That is, in prose, the primary purpose of words is to convey information. Once they’ve done that, the particular words used are no longer necessary and can be forgotten. You could tell the story or give the instructions to someone else using different words (synonyms) with no real loss of message. Poetry also conveys information, but the intrinsic qualities of the words—what they sound like, how they make you feel—that comprise it can be just as, or more, important. In poetry, the particular words chosen are significant. Whether a word is clear or vague, how it sounds, and where it is placed are all things to consider when writing poetry. As George Santayana writes, “Poetry breaks up the trite conceptions designated by current words into the sensuous qualities out of which those conceptions were originally put together.”

a poem is pure energy
horizontally contained
between the mind
of the poet and the ear of the reader
if it does not sing discard the ear
for poetry is song
—Nikki Giovanni, “Poetry

As Nikki Giovanni says, a poem must sing. It doesn’t matter how momentous the content, a composition doesn’t work as a poem if it sounds clunky or awkward. On the other hand, if poem sounds right, it can work even if it’s nonsense. Take, for example, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky“:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

As a child, each time I re-read Through the Looking Glass, I would read this poem aloud to myself, fascinated by the way the meaning of it seemed to dance just out of reach on my tongue. If only I re-read it one more time, maybe it would make sense. Of course, it never did, but that didn’t matter. The point was not the meaning contained within the words, but the delight in the sound of the words themselves.

Poetry 202: Sight & Sound

Background Photo: takomabibelot/Flickr (CC-by).

Constructing a Poem

So, how do we get a poem to sound right?

Traditional poetry relies on rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Here is an excerpt from “White Lie,” a sonnet by Carole A. Taylor in the new journal 14 by 14:

You ask if I still love you. I don’t know
why it should matter now. I always say
I do. It’s what you want to hear, and so
I fudge; it costs me little either way.

As a sonnet, “White Lie” is written in iambic pentameter (an iamb is the pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable; pentameter means there are five iambs or ten syllables per line). The first and third lines rhyme (know/so) and the second and fourth lines rhyme (say/way), so the rhyme scheme is abab.

While end rhyme gets the most attention, rhyme can also occur within a line (internal rhyme) or at the start of a line (beginning rhyme). For example, in “White Lie,” lines 2, 3, and 4 start with why/I/I. Another technique is visual rhyme: words that look alike, but sound different, e.g. know/now (lines 1 and 2); enough/through (lines 7 and 8). Then/been (lines 9 and 11) is an example of near rhyme: words that don’t rhyme, but nevertheless sound similar.

While rhyme is not essential to poetry, all poetry is rhythmic. Rhythm refers to the flow of words conveyed by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. Meter occurs when there is a pattern to the stresses. Don’t force words to do things they’re uncomfortable doing. Use your words naturally to provide meter and rhythm. Sometimes this means rearranging words or varying the number of syllables per line in order to achieve a natural rhythm. And don’t be afraid to use an imperfect rhyme. In Anne Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know,” her rhymes are:


As you can see, church/hearse and stones/alone are not true rhymes. But they’re close enough to maintain the rhythm of the poem. And, while her lines are all of similar length, the number of syllables actually ranges from seven (the first line) to twelve (line 8). Also note the choice to start the poem with a stressed word: Gone, which provides the first line with a great deal of force, as if pushing off or away:

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

Take the time to think about where the stresses fall in your work. When scanning a work to determine which words are stressed or accented, consider: how you would usually pronounce the word, that is, its natural stress(es), and whether the particular meaning being conveyed would lead to a word/syllable being emphasized that might otherwise not be. In poetry written in English, lines generally end with a stressed syllable. Since articles like the/a and connecting words like and/or are usually not emphasized, in most cases, you don’t want to end a line on one of these words. Consider:

Gone, I say and
walk from
church, refusing the
stiff procession to
the grave, letting the
dead ride alone in
the hearse. It is
June. I am tired of
being brave.

In Sexton’s version, the reader’s eye lingers on church/grave/hearse/brave—all strong, evocative words that are practically a poem in and of themselves. In this version, the eye focuses on and/from/the/to/the/in/is/of/brave. Leaving aside brave, which is only there because it happens to be the last word, the other words tell the reader nothing, and because the lines all end on words that would normally be unstressed, this creates confusion for the reader (Do I stress say or and? Neither? Both?), and the poem’s rhythm is lost.

Note that a poem may be non-rhyming, but still conform to a metrical pattern (generally iambic pentameter). This is called blank verse. Shakespeare’s plays are examples. Here is an excerpt from Romeo & Juliet, Act II Scene 2:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.

The same principles that apply to poetry can be used when writing lyrics, although the language in lyrics is often less dense because emotion can be conveyed through music/voice, and freer with rhyme and meter because syllables can be curtailed or drawn out, emphasized or deemphasized.

The verses of “Sway” by the Perishers have an abcb rhyme scheme: lines 2 and 4 of each verse rhyme (be/eventually; soul/stole), while the chorus has an abccdeff rhyme scheme: lines 3 and 4 (before/anymore) rhyme and lines 7 and 8 (down/ground) are a near-rhyme. This song also has a fairly regular iambic meter (with some variation), with generally eight syllables per line in the verses and seven in the chorus. Listen.

I talk to you as to a friend
I hope that’s what you’ve come to be
It feels as though we’ve made amends
Like we found a way eventually

It was you who picked the pieces up
When I was a broken soul
And then glued me back together
Returned to me what others stole

I don’t want to hurt you
I don’t want to make you sway
Like I know I’ve done before
I will not do it anymore
I’ve always been a dreamer
I’ve had my head among the clouds
Well now that I’m coming down
Won’t you be my solid ground?

Free verse has no regular rhyme or meter, but often makes use of other kinds of repetition to give the poem form and rhythm. For example, in William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” there is a pattern of words (3/1), a pattern of syllables (4/2 in the first and fourth stanzas, and 3/2 in the second and third stanzas). Also, all but the first stanza end in a noun (barrow/water/chickens):

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In “Variation on the Word Sleep,” Margaret Atwood also makes use of repetition, repeating the starting phrase “I would like…” several times, as well as the word sleep(ing):

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head.

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

Notice that when Atwood repeats the line: “I would like to watch you sleeping,” she changes the stress. The second time, she puts the emphasis on the word you by inserting a comma and line break between you and sleeping:

I would like to watch you,

Atwood also makes use of other forms of repetition in this poem. In the second stanza, she makes use of alliteration: each line has word that begins with W (walk/wavering/watery/where/worst). She also uses assonance: the long E sound in sleep is repeated in bluegreen/three/dream/breathing. Other sound effects to try are consonance: repetition of consonant sounds before and after different vowels (e.g. brick/brook) and onomatopoeia: words that imitate sounds (e.g. buzz, ding).

When working in free verse, it’s also important to pay attention to the appearance of the poem on the page. Think of the arrangement of lines as the structure that supports the poem, like the frame of a house. Line breaks and punctuation tell the reader when to pause and breathe. Stanza breaks can indicate a more significant change: in tone or voice, for example.

What is the overall message you want to send? The lines in “Variation on the Word Sleep” flow in and out, almost as if they are simulating breath. A blocky poem presents a different image. Consider how differently “The Red Wheelbarrow” reads when its lines are rearranged like this:

so much depends upon
a red wheelbarrow
glazed with rainwater
beside the white chickens.

A poem that tumbles down the page, like the words are falling, presents yet another image. Poems can even be shaped to represent an object within the poem.

In poetry, nothing is random. If the addition, subtraction or substitution of a word would improve the poem, it’s not done. If rearranging words or changing the placement of line breaks would improve the poem, it’s not done. Write with intention.

Listen to these poems read aloud by their authors:

Poetry Advice from the Pros:

  • Poetry Daily: a new poem each day. A great way to keep abreast of contemporary poetry and see what editors are looking for. (Note: This site does have an RSS feed; search for “poetry daily” or “poems.com” in your feed reader.)
  • How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry) by Edward Hirsch, at the Poetry Foundation website.
  • Poetic Forms & Techniques & Poetry Glossary from the American Academy of Poets.
  • How Poems Work is a monthly column at Arc Poetry Magazine that “examines the nature and craft of poetry through thoughtful, lively, accessible, analytical, and informative prose.” You can subscribe to their feed or get the columns via email.
  • Hone the Craft: advice from Canadian literary journal Contemporary Verse 2 on getting published.


Paola Corso, “Falling Into Place.”

R. H. Deutsch, “Poetry or Prose?” College Composition and Communication 15(1), (February 1964), pp. 38-40.

The Norton Introduction to Literature, 4th Ed. (Buy 9th Ed. at Amazon.)

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th Ed. (Buy at Amazon.)

George Santayana, “The Elements of Poetry.”

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