The window is the widest it’s ever been. More envelopes have flown in than ever before.

I think I’m at the zenith. (I love words beginning with Z.) I don’t think I can ever do this thing again because I can’t read all the poems and still have time to publish anything. How on earth is it possible to keep a balance?

But it has been, as always, fascinating. I’m now just over halfway through the mountain of envelopes (122 so far), and since Boxing Day I’ve stepped up the pace. Why? There are no more parcels to wrap, no more Christmas cards to send, and few orders for books coming in.

I have forgotten what a poem is, if I ever knew. I only know now whether (or not) I seem to be following the piece of text in front of me clearly.

When it works, it’s no longer a piece of text. It’s a whole experience. I can step into it and, when I get to the end, I can step out again. And I can repeat this any number of times.

When it doesn’t (as it seems to me) work, the reasons are usually the same reasons that apply to prose that doesn’t work, but exacerbated by tricky line and stanza breaks. Sometimes reading a poem is like fighting through a thorny thicket.

This might be fitting if the poem was about fighting through a thicket. If it’s about a childhood photograph (as many are), this is less desirable.

I’ll add one or two points to the bugbears I rehearsed last week, because they come up so often I’m starting to think I’m suffering from some rare neurosis. And indeed I am probably excessively sensitive to features that, in another context, wouldn’t bother me at all. But it does no harm, I think, to flag them. I promise not to mention ‘leaning verbs’, though everywhere they are still leaning.

Visual elements

Prose poems are here to stay. Most of them arrive formatted for an A4 page, which is what they’re printed on. They are usually fully justified or blocked (the occasional one is left-hand justified with a ragged right hand margin, which I find interesting, because I’m interested in the shapes of poems).

There’s some dispute among typographers about the optimal line length for readability (and it is different on a paper page from a web page). When lines are too long for my eyes to cope with, the focus goes weird. I feel antsy. And it’s easy for the poet to adjust this! Use a size 12 font and count the characters! I have seen lines 84 characters long, and I know this is Too Long. But I think poets, whether writing in verse or prose, should think about both shape and accessibility on the page. It’s part of the poem, isn’t it? Am I going completely daft? If the poem is ever published in a book or pamphlet, the page will be smaller than A4. So it’s sensible to set margins that take account of that. Unless the whole point is to make it as difficult to read as possible. Cue, thicket.

Double spacing

Many poems arrive formatted with double spacing. I wonder whether some literary courses, MLitts or whatever, are requesting poets to submit all work double spaced? It used to be the norm for university essays. Maybe the submission requirement has filtered through to verse where it’s not appropriate. Or perhaps some websites have influenced formatting conventions? Frequently you see poems double-spaced online, and I suspect it’s because the person putting them there doesn’t know how to adjust the formatting. (A hard return on a keyboard will create double spacing in a web page. You have to hold the shift key down at the same time to do a soft return and get the spacing single.)

Back to the shape of the poem on the page. I don’t mind if line spacing’s slightly wider than single. That doesn’t get in the way of seeing the shape of the whole poem. But full double spacing has an odd effect. It stretches a poem that should fit on one page onto two. It makes stanza breaks enormous (because they are quadruple spaces). It makes poems with single line stanzas (they do exist) look exceptionally weird, as though the lines are floating in egg white.

Habitual past
It’s not just the shape of the poem, it’s the sound and motion.

Okay. Poets are fond of writing poems about something that used to happen regularly. They used to make daisy-chains in the garden. They’d see the old lady next door cutting the grass with kitchen scissors. They’d giggle about how funny she was. And all the while they’re telling you about this, the ‘d’ sounds start to stack up. Not only this. The actions they’re describing are increasingly generalised. A single action in the past (the time you trimmed your uncle’s moustache) is more compelling than the fact you used to do it often. And you can use a simple past tense for something that happened often. You just need to tinker a little.

There is a sort of poem that begins with a sequence of habitual past statements. It is building up to something that happened once – we know that immediately. However, it’s building in the same way that a thousand other poems build. Like this:

It seemed as though I’d always known him.
We’d walk together in the park
and comment on the state of the grass.
We’d talk about dogs and joggers,
our missing relatives. He’d tell me about
the day his hat turned into an elephant.
I’d say, Don’t be daft. He’d tell me
there were more things in the world, Horatio.
One day [ . . . ]

This caveat is just as true for prose. The lines above sound like the typical opening to a short story. But nobody wants to write typical openings. What we want is an opening that is arresting.

For the same reason, you might not want your anecdote to follow the typical construction of ‘I’d always known . . . Then one day . . . . Suddenly . . . Finally’. It’s all too familiar. Besides, that little word ‘then’ is deceptively easy to slip in. Many poets find themselves using it two or three times in one short poem. They don’t see it because it’s so small and unobtrusive (except to a person stuck in a thicket). I am now so sensitized to ‘then’ that I tend to underline it and watch it, just to stop the wee thing getting out of hand.

Intensifiers and qualifiers

Mark Halliday once pointed out to me that few statements were not improved by removing the word ‘very’. He was right. I’ve been now withholding ‘very’ for a merry long time. A long time (in a poem) sounds longer than a very long time. I don’t know why. ‘Really’ is just the same. But ‘really’ is not really a problem in poems (please note, none of this applies if writing in direct speech or monologue).

The one that is a newish problem for me is ‘so’. I don’t mind ‘so’ in “the Christmas pudding was so rich that we all threw up in the afternoon”. And I quite like using ‘so’ to mean ‘because’ (though I have rationed myself since one blog when I noticed I had used it at the start of five different paragraphs).

No, the problem is ‘so’ as intensifier. So sweet. So charming. So nice. So small. So sad. ‘So’ before an adjective contributes to the awwwww effect. Which in poems is generally to be avoided, unless you’re being funny. Find one good adjective and use it. Or better still – as Mark Twain said of the noble Adjective in Pudd’nhead Wilson, “When in doubt, strike it out.”


And finally (yeeha!):
Complicated sentences (with a multiple clauses and difficult line breaks and commas and semicolons) that go on for two inches or more. Like this:

 I looked into the trees, into the myriad branches
where the leaves, drifting past in yellows, reds, browns,
golds, flaunted their transitory selves; knowing they
were products of the mind, my own cold
consciousness; and not even, no matter how I looked at
it now or then, or at any time
since, leaves – in the sense of chlorophyll and foliage –
futile and fearful – and real.

This is poem as thicket. If the poet were writing prose, I doubt they could achieve such impenetrability. I have created the example, of course, but I have not exaggerated.

I am going off dashes too, by the way, not just semi-colons, but I’m not going to mention that here. Except that dashes are dashing all over the place lately, in various shapes and forms and inconsistencies, and some of them are hyphens. So in order to be less slap dash, it would be good to take a look at Punctuation Matters. Once in a while.

Now to the rest of the mountain. I may eventually be back. Did I mention I’ve also encountered some terrific poems?


Well, I have.