12/2 – Form & Lineation

Daily Warm up: Choose a small object to be given one day to your great-grandchild. Write a letter to that child explaining why you have chosen this object for him/her.

Today we’re going to talk about form & lineation.

Form

Form is fairly easy to define. When we talk about forms of poems, we mean recognizable styles of poems with particular rules. For example: sonnets, sestinas, lunes, acrostics, cinequains, ballads, etc.

For CENTURIES, poetry was formal or nothing–there was no such thing as “free verse.” Now of course, we often think primarily in terms of “free verse” and see form as the exception. As writers of poems, it’s useful to remember that it’s actually the norm. Free verse is the exception.

Lineation

Lineation = how a writer breaks the lines in his/her poem

When we talk about lineation, the best resource I know is actually this article from the Poetry Foundation. Like, seriously. If you want to get an overall sense of lineation, this article is the place to be.

We’re going to borrow from the article a lot today (like all the exercises are hers, not mine), but I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who considers themselves a serious writer or reader of poetry.

In a nutshell, writers break lines for all kinds of reasons, including things like…

  • To suggest a double meaning
  • To invite a pause or a hesitation
  • To create questions or tension between lines
  • To make an ending word or statement more definitive
  • To amplify/emphasize the sounds (rhyme or rhythm)
  • To mask/de-empasize the sounds (rhyme or rhythm)
  • To complicate the definition of a “sentence”
  • To confirm the traditional definition of a “sentence”

And it’s a good idea to be CONSCIOUS of your line breaks. In the words of the article,

Whenever you have a draft of a poem, try changing the ways the lines break to see if they can bring new connotations or observations to the surface or to see if they can emphasize different aspects of your poem. Line breaks are one of the most important tools you have as a poet, so you want to make sure that your choices of line breaks are informed by knowing the other possibilities and being able to explain a little bit about why you finally formed the lines the way you did.

Like, let’s look at this poem by Sharon Olds and talk about why the writer breaks the lines where she does.

We’ll talk about reading the margins of a poem, too. Don’t let me forget.

Experiment

For today’s practice writing, we’re going to combine lineation and form into a single poem. Again, this exercise comes from Rebecca Hazelton, so all credit to her!

I’d like you to write a poem consisting of of 5-7 lunes.

A lune is a three-line stanza that consists of a set number of words:

  • Line one has three words
  • Line two has five words
  • Line three has three words

You can see a sample here (it is my poem “House Finch Lunes,” which first appeared in The Mom Egg Review in 2015 and was reprinted in my chapbook Tuesday’s Children in December 2016).

Once you’ve done that, you’re going to re-lineate the poem so it is not made up of lunes anymore. Try longer lines or turning each stanza into one line.

This will give you a second poem that’s very different visually than its predecessor.

Finally, write a few sentences about how changing the line length does or does not affect the poem’s meaning and quality.

  • Did you find yourself revising as you changed the line lengths? How so?
  • Does your subject matter differ for a long-lined poem versus a short-lined one? Why?
  • Does your tone differ? How so?
  • Is this a “fast” poem or a “slow” poem in terms of pacing? Why?
  • Do you find yourself breaking lines for different reasons? What reasons?

I’d like to check both versions of the poem and your reflection answers to these questions on Monday in class.

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