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How to Write a Poem by Opening Up Access to Our Consciousness - Markings 143

The second in a series of writing poetry as a way of healing.



Line lengths and layout construct the images of a poem just as atoms unite to form a stoneware mug, a pouting lover or a grizzly bear. Atoms arrange themselves to make it possible for you to drink your morning coffee, decide to stand very still or recognize one of the many faces of your lover.

Lines, similarly, compose the structure, or the gestalt, of a poem. The word gestalt literally means shape, form or arrangement, structure. Line lengths and breaks create the unique shape of your poem and help determine its meaning. New experiments with poetic lines over the past one hundred and fifty years are an indication of the evolution of poetry but also reflect changes

in our understanding of how the world and universe work.

Dramatic changes in the line structure of poems began to appear in the poetry of Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson in the mid—nineteenth century. Even more radical experiments with line breaks were made by twentieth-century poets William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg and many others.

These changes opened poetry up and allowed it to breathe more on the page. Less encumbered with specific meters (though not altogether rid of them either) the poet could have more freedom to shape the poem so it could express movement and feeling. This change in the structure of a poem reflected a desire to write diversely without being limited by conventional

forms of verse.

Interestingly, these changes in Western poetry occurred at the same time as the discovery of the application of electricity and Einstein’s development of relativity theory. It wasn’t a coincidence!

We learned physical form is not solid as it appears; everything is made of energy. Electricity and relativity theory changed our concepts of what matter is, our relationship to it, how we could create with it, and what we could speak about. So, too, changes in poetic form radically altered possibilities of what a poem is and how a reader and writer interact with it on the page.

Modern poetry’s experiments with where a line breaks on the page allow a synthesis of spontaneity and structure, an integration of raw emotion with an organizing principle. Einstein’s relativity theory is not about anarchy or pure unpredictability; it reflects the combination of spontaneity and structure. This same inspired structure can also be used when making a healing poem.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl broke from the grip of academic re-

serve; the poet’s wild, passionate voice is heard:

Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down

the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ animal screams and

suicides! Minds New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks to


Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the

holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude!

waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!

How the lines in a poem are made on a page can help open up our access to the poet’s consciousness—and to our own. We literally give ourselves more space with a creative use of line breaks and lengths. We are able to perceive not just the meaning or message of a poem but enter into the creative process and the being of that poem. It is more possible to walk into a free verse poem as we write or read it, and as it were, look around. More formal verse can be very clear but it is more solid and dense, allowing us only to stand outside to appreciate it.

Here are two poem fragments that show how line lengths influence the emotional impact of a poem and its capacity to allow us inside to experience it directly. The first poem is by

William Wordsworth (1770—I 850):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

— from Ode: Intimations of Immortality

The following fragment is by Allen Ginsberg from his poem

Wales Visitation.

White fog lifting &falling on mountain-brow

Trees moving in rivers of wind

The Clouds rise

on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist

above seeming ferns exquisitely swayed

along a green crag

glimpsed thru mullioned glass in a valley raine—

Wordsworth writes in perfect compact lines. He communicates a truth through images that are steady and in language that is direct. His lines conform to the same rhythm and express a certain predictability Wordsworth’s meaning is thus explicit. Ginsberg opens up the body of the poem, allowing ‘white space” on the page to indicate shades of feeling. He translates the inner pulse of his vision by radically changing the line length

and word placement on the page. Ginsberg’s poem is more implicit in the meaning we might draw from it. Wordsworth may be telling us a truth we might discover or intuit if we looked through the window of Ginsberg’s poem with enough longing. Yet both men are expressing something exquisite.


The length of a line of poetry and where it breaks affect the meaning and emotional impact. Various line lengths and breaks can communicate some of the following:

* Rhythms of thought and feeling.

* Exact representations of the mind’s moment-by-moment movement, the lines indicating the poem’s ‘breath’.

* Flow of natural speech.

* Enjambment

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.

—Naomi Shihab Nye

Enjambment is a folding over of words and sense from one line to another. The break of your lines is essentially done by feel—what feels right. Enjambment is about providing a sense of movement to your poem. Enjambment also occurs in more radical line placements on the page. John Dooley writes about walking on the earth:

i went to walk upon Her face, and She, content, kind, truthful, gifting, patient, offered me places in the curves of Her nose, upon Her forehead, in Her earlobes so that I may feel Her breath as She kissed the top of my feet with air, a gift placed with care in the cupped bands of my heart.

i went to walk upon

Her face, and She,

content, kind, truthful,

gifting, patient.

offered me places in the

curves of Her nose,

upon Her forehead, in Her

earlobes so that

I may feel Her breath

as She kissed the top

of my feet with air,

a gift placed with care

in the cupped bands of my heart.

The lines flow with the sensations of the poet’s bare feet. The brevity of each line seems precious, seems to hold the reverence Dooley feels toward the earth.

©Jeff Guess 2019


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