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Pay attention to flow control.

Punctuation, form, spacing, and line breaks can be a poet’s greatest tools for controlling the flow and dynamics of a poem. You, as a poet, should be able to set the pace for your poem, control how fast it is read, where it slows or quickens, where it is soft or thundering. You control how your poem flows and hangs together, or how it doesn’t. In music, there are special markings to control the dynamics and how they shift from one level to the next. The composer can mark one section fortissimo and the next pianissimo, or throw in a crescendo or diminuendo. In music, the time values of the notes are known, and the tempo can be marked and measured against a metronome. There are also markings for staccato and grace notes. Poetry has little in the way of these markings for dynamics, tempo changes, and ornamentation. Usually, only your words are published. Your words may be published in a specific form or shape, providing the editor understands what you are trying to do and does not “correct” it. What tools do we poets have? Punctuation, form, spacing, and line breaks.

Do we use a comma to slow the reader down? Or do we use a full stop (period)? Do we use a semi-colon for some in between length of pause? How about an ellipsis? Punctuation can change the dynamics of a poem. It can slow the reader down, or the lack of it can speed the reader up. And its abuse can make the reader roll her eyes and stop reading.

Form is discussed much more heavily in our Poetic Forms Listing. Each form has different strengths and weaknesses, and form can definitely effect changes in the flow. For instance, a haiku is much shorter and flows differently from a sonnet. A double dactyl or limerick bounces along, while iambic pentameter either runs or plods.

How you, the poet, use spacing makes a big difference in how a poem is read. By separating into paragraphs or stanzas, you create a natural pause. With every line break, there is a pause in thought as the reader’s eyes tracks down and back across the page to pick up the new line.

Another thing that poets can do is running sentences across multiple lines. The technical term is enjambment, at least if there is no punctuation at the end of the line. Where you put line breaks in relation to natural pauses or punctuation can determine if the poem feels like it is sliding quickly from line to line or pausing for thought between.

Flow control is also important in lyric writing. Because with songs the metronome keeps going, flow is more important than in a poem meant to be read or spoken without music. Here are some suggestions from Peter Berryman about flow:

  • Words should tumble out easily, particularly in a fast song.
  • Keep a low s-count.
  • Watch for words joined with the same sound, like “half fast.”
  • Beware of bunched-up consonants, as in “packed clay.”
  • Street usage has good flow: “djeverava” for “did you ever have a.”
Appendix G of this book has information on why some singers will put poems they find appealing to music. One of the qualities mentioned in that appendix is that the poem flows well.

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