​Here goes. These are points that ‘snag’ my reading because of the frequency with which they occur. Of course, a poem could contain any of these features and still succeed in spite of them.

1. Breaking a line on a hyphen. (I thought this went out decades ago, but it is apparently back with a vengeance. I have seen more hyphen-broken lines this July than you could shake a stick at.)

The name of the shop shone bright in red-
gold lettering.

2. Breaking the line mid phrase. (Ok, it can be done. BUT a great many people are doing this for no apparent reason other than to create a kind of contemporary ‘poem’ feel. Lots of breaks on ‘and’ and ‘the’ and prepositions like ‘of’ and ‘to’. Are the lines even interesting without the line breaks?)

The clock struck
one and the mouse ran
down. Why are the
two of them so
predictable and
what is the point of
the mouse?

3. Breaking a phrase across a line or stanza to re-enact some action also taking place. (Although this may have some justification, it can be less than subtle.)

The magpie clacked and flapped
in alarm. A squirrel shot down

the tree and into the bushes.

4. Forming a stanza round a sequence of leaning verbs, then ending with a discrete sentence with subjectless verb,

I sorted out the washing, put the whites together,
jumbled the dark clothes into a pile,
scrutinised the options on the washing machine,
selected 13 for Mixed Load, threw in two laundry capsules,
shut the door, pressed START.
Poured myself a mug of sweet strong coffee.

5. Using a line break to substitute for a comma. I have written about this before here.This is actually part of a bigger issue, which might be headed ‘how to punctuate your poems’. A number of prize-winning poets in recent years have published poems with no punctuation at all. Some use gaps between words instead. Others use punctuation here and there in their own coded system. Let them do what they do. But unless you are very sure and consistent in your own system, try punctuating poems in the same way as prose. It will help the reader understand what you mean.

6. The word ‘then’ used as turning point in the action. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes ‘Then’, then ‘then’, then ‘finally’.

7. Frequency of certain words (sorry!) : heft and shard; shard and heft, also weft and filigree.

8. Too many adjectives.This is easy to check in your own work. If you have an adjective (or two, or three) accompanying nearly every noun, you have a problem – unless you’re deliberately going for over-kill. Make nouns and verbs work harder, even if they don’t want to. 

9. Certain kinds of ‘trendy’ titles, leading into list poems eg ‘Reasons for having a secret name’ ‘What I learned from my sister before she died’ A lot of first line titles too, some working better than others.

10. Titles that use the best phrase in the poem and therefore steal the thunder later.

11. Sentences that go on a very long time and the reader gets lost on the way to a full stop and there are semi-colons; often several of them; and line breaks that make it even more difficult: sometimes the sentence even lasts the whole length of the poem, which is not inconsiderable and may include gaps and jumpy phrases that leap off to the right and then back to the left, and when you get to the end (IF you get to the end) you have forgotten what you thought the poem was about. 

12. Chunking stanzas into even sizes.Three-line stanzas. Quatrains. A lot of couplets. Lines about the same length to make a nice rectangle or square. This often leads to significant cross-stanza enjambment because the stanzas (verses) are not verse paragraphs so much as divisions forced on the words by rule of two, or three, or four. The reader starts to wonder about the relationship between the form of the poem and its subject. Is there one? 

13. How fragments. They work like this:

She thinks of him, leaning against the gatepost
in the evening sunlight. How his brows furrowed.
How he would clench his jaw. 

14. Rhyming for closure at the end, but not anywhere else.

15. Formatting complex layouts for an A4 page.This can include elaborate spacing or verbal collage, including some lines justified left and some right to the right of A4. 

16. Formatting prose poems in a blocks that run the full width of an A4 page with narrow margins. Length of line is a key factor in readability.

17. ‘Yet’ or ‘And yet’ towards the end of the poem

18. ‘For’ used instead of ‘because’. (Some poets will defend this to the death.)

19. Colons used to control the reader into seeing that the next bit extends the previous bit, although this is self-evident.

20. Frequent semi-colons. (When I was at school Mrs Clarke said we were not to use more than one per page. How things have changed!)

21. References to Edward Hopper (and especially ‘Nighthawks’) appear more often than any other painter, film-maker or author.

22. Double spaced poems.I think this may be because people follow the default of Microsoft Word. When you hit the ‘return’ key, Word thinks you want to start a new paragraph. So you need to change the default setting, or learn how to do ‘soft returns’ (hold the ‘shift’ key at the same time as ‘return’). 

23. Capitals at start of every line, or irregularly (nothing to do with starting a sentence). Obviously there is a choice. There are still poets who choose to have a capital letter for the first word in every line. It is retro, but you can choose to be retro. But there are also poets whose Microsoft Word program defaults to a capital letter each time they hit the Return key (see point above). If this is the case, they need to change the default setting. 

24. Poems structured round a set of instructions, a list of imperatives to the reader. eg ‘How to kill your bee orchid’:

Water the plant daily. Talk to it.
Polish the leaves with a cloth soaked in honey.
Play music to your orchid. Touch its leaves one by one
with the tip of your tongue. Take it outside at night
when there is a full moon
and leave it in the middle of the lawn.
Take it in the bath.

25. ‘And I think ….’ or ‘And I remember’, or ‘Do you remember?’ Memory is hugely important in poems, and the question ‘Do you remember…?’ is a great trigger. But once it has fired the poem onto the page, remove the trigger.

26. Mingling the narrative perspective: I, you, we. I‘ll try to illustrate that.

Taking my coffee out in the sunshine,
I tripped over a yellow watering-can. I cried out
in pain, as you do. But no-one came. You know
how it feels to be ignored, you know
how the pain stabs worse when you’re alone.
We’re never more alone than when
in pain. Do you remember, last year,
when we were in Spain and I fell?
You were the one with the pina colada
and cold compress. 

27. The poet knows what is going on but.… There is a context. The poet knows the context and thinks it’s obvious what’s happening. In fact, the poet thinks it’s obvious enough to develop the idea using surreal metaphors or elaborate similes. But the reader is confused, and feeling increasingly anxious in case it IS all obvious and she just can’t see it….

28. A lot of ‘as’ sentences. I hate ‘as’. It can mean three things: while, because and like. That means it could be used three times in one poem meaning three different things. It is often at the start of a line, and often followed by ‘I’ (‘… as I write as on the page, as if I were a an Aztec, as indeed, on Sundays, I am.’) 

29. Ellipsis. Dots. Very occasionally there is a case for them. But if they are there for vagueness, that’s not good. Vagueness in poetry is not good.

30. A line or lines (often near the beginning) where the reader has good reason to read it wrong. There’s a word in a key position that could be a noun or a verb (and sometimes even an adjective) and the reader reads the wrong function and then never quite recovers, even after going back to check how it should have been read. The poet is not aware of this because the poet knows how the word is intended (possibly the only person to know in some cases). Here’s an example (where ‘fingers’ is likely to be read as a noun but needs to be a verb):

This night is bitter for the head and the cold fingers
the soul as it withers and shrinks. 

A last thought. I like to see how the complex-sentence poets construct sentences in their covering letters. Some of them write beautifully there – not a word out of place, and an engaging, personal tone. But when that same writer puts on poem-mode, suddenly the sentences are formed in a different way – far more difficult to follow, and the difficulty compounded by line (and stanza) breaks. I wonder whether we share a subconscious instinct that poems should be complex and a little ‘difficult’. Otherwise, they might not be saying anything of value.

A good friend sent me an antidote to this idea – a bit of Seamus Heaney. One can write a stunning poem in straightforward sentences. Here is a bit from ‘Clearances‘ to prove it (even the punctuation is entirely unremarkable).

Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big –
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don’t be dropping crumbs. Don’t tilt your chair.
Don’t reach. Don’t point. Don’t make noise when you stir.

Blogging about Snagging

How long does it take to snag a poem? 

Or even just read one. I read an awful lot of them, in book, fast. But that’s not reading properly.

But during the reading window (which is now shut and bolted, though various envelopes are still hurtling themselves against it) I read properly, and I snag as I go.

Ok – in any set, I admit I start with the shortest. I look at the shape on the page, and sometimes at the shapes of the rest in the group. Already there’s a personal aesthetic. I like the look of some better than others. Some look easy to read. Some look like hard work. I have never much liked long and thin, and I worry about centred. 

But I try not to let personal taste get in the way – even though it can’t be denied. I read slowly, from beginning to end. This is the snagging stage. The poet has built the poem – often in neat chunks and short lines. I am moving slowly through to see whether there’s a clear run; to see whether I can make my way from start to finish without falling over an obstruction.

Often I do meet obstructions. It’s usually something like a noun that could be a verb – such as the words ‘shock’ or ‘fall’, for example. And the line break may create uncertainty what the word’s function could be. The poet knows, of course, where the sentence is going, but the reader doesn’t.

And there’s the business of punctuation. If it’s present, and it’s working correctly, you shouldn’t even notice it. If you start to notice it – if I start to put pencil rings round the semi-colons – it’s a snag.

Using line-breaks to substitute for commas can be an issue. If you have a lot of enjambment – lines where the sense runs smoothly right over the line end and into the next – you rely on the reader sensing that easily. But if you mix those lovely enjambed lines with lines where the line end represents a pause (but you miss out the comma), you create confusion.

Some people miss all the punctuation out. If you do this, your structure on the page – line breaks and indents and gaps, or whatever you do to organise the sense – has to work smoothly. And it can. But it doesn’t always.

Sometimes a snag – for me – is a word I don’t know – though I count this as a Good Snag. ‘Parkour’ was a new word I learned in July. So I stop reading and go online to Merriam Webster. It’s the same with references to paintings, music, or famous people. I have to look them up, and usually I do, unless it’s the fifth reference in an hour, in which case I just note what I don’t know.

I get tied up with imagery too. Decades of reading poetry has made me into a literalist. So I get the metaphorical application pretty well, but at the same time I log it literally. If you tell me love is like riding a bicycle, I’m ok, I can see you rolling merrily down the street. But if I find you, on the next line, washed up on the shores of a stormy river, I’m wondering what happened to the bike.

I am adjective-averse, and it’s getting worse. Sometimes there are a lot. Sometimes every single noun has an adjective (or two) to help it on its way. But – trust me – they start to cancel each other out.

It’s the poet’s job to sort out the snags, but often we can’t see our own. It takes another reader. So that’s all I am really. A snagging expert. Or that’s what I am at first.

If the snags are serious, I limit my feedback to snags alone. Because until they’re sorted out, the real work of the poem can’t begin.

If there are no snags, I read the poem two or three times more. I decide what I’m picking up at a literal and intuitive level. And then I write a response. Sometimes I just think it works. Some poems do what they set out to do. A pleasure to read – and it doesn’t always have to be deep stuff. It can be small. It can be ephemeral.

But I read poetry in a peculiar way. I can only describe it as like swimming breast-stroke while wearing goggles, where I’m seeing both above and below the water as I progress. The above and below views don’t quite match but that’s as it should be. I’m picking up on stuff. Trying to get the feel, and the tone, and the possible symbols. Whether it’s personal or theoretical, funny or tragic.

Some poems are strong writing. You know it when you hit it. You don’t even have to like it. You just know you’ve read something that works on its own terms. Often these poems will have a detail that you remember for the rest of the day. A reflection in a polished plate. A view of three ships through a window. 

Most poems are a mixture: good bits, best bits, weak bits, straggly bits. An awful lot of poems have a poem inside them trying to get out.

How long does it take to read a poem? It takes me at least five minutes for a short one, and up to 15 if it’s more complicated. I probably average 8-10 minutes per poem when I’m giving some feedback, and then I write each person a note too – and some of the notes are long.

In July I read around 1000 poems. It took a long time. If I include the notes and finding of envelopes for those who forgot them, I reckon around 130 hours. I like doing it, and I think it’s important. For me, it isn’t about looking for new poets to publish. It’s about being part of this thing we do, whatever it is, this poetry writing thing.

By the end of the month, I was tired. It’s like the opposite of PoWriMo – what I do is PoReadMo, twice a year.

But after July ended, envelopes kept arriving. Another one yesterday. Please don’t send any more!

I have moved over to a different kind of work now. It’s upstairs, not downstairs like the window weeks, and it involves writing and typesetting and publicity for books (watch this space). So there’s no time for reading more poems, except the ones I’m putting in books – which takes even longer. 

The next window opens in December. Brrrrrrr.