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Finding the right line

Write for three minutes without stopping, without thinking – beginning with the words ‘The moment I realised…’. Don’t worry about the form you are writing in, or if some of it is nonsense, but keep going for the full three minutes. Let the nonsense come: it may be where the poetry is hiding.

Now read it back aloud.

Next, rework it so that it is in lines, irregular or regular. Bear in mind that you want the reader to keep on reading, so make your line-breaks interesting, using them to introduce tension. Note connectives, prepositions, verbs, conjunctions, because these are key points at which you can break lines. Exploit the unexpected (look at what Browning does with the surprise line-break in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ or Ivor Gurney in ‘To His Love’). Internal rhymes can add tension, too. Be alert to stresses at the start of a line, and resist the impulse always to end a clause at the end of the line.
You might find that a certain kind of poem is already emerging: perhaps it wants to be in a single sentence, which can be effective (look at Amy Clampitt or A.R.Ammons for examples).

But you will certainly feel that words, lines, entire sections need to be cut out. This is where you become the sculptor looking for the shape in the stone. So (as Basil Bunting said) ‘cut out all that you dare’. But don’t assume it is the nonsense that must go. Be honest with yourself.

When you have pared it down and are happy with the layout of the lines…

Tear it apart again.

See what it looks like in unrhymed couplets. Or abab half rhyme quatrains. Or in a certain shape. If it is falling into a sonnet form, pull it back and make it something quite different: say, stepped verses such as W.C.Williams used. If it is in short lines, convert them to long ones, and vice versa.

Keep track of all these drafts in case you come back to them.

By now you should have a poem that is on its way to finding its own form. You might even be ready to give it a title. But always read it aloud, again and again, and if there is something niggling, don’t be too easily satisfied.

Good luck.

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