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Play with tenses, voices, and points of view.

Experiment with different tenses, voices and points of view in a poem. If you usually write in the first person, write a few poems in the second or third person. Change something from past to present tense, or vice versa. Even play with the future tense. A poem that was used as an example earlier in the book, “Yankee in my Sights,” is set in early 1861 and is written in the future tense. It is written in the first person. One could as easily write a poem set in the year 2100 and write it in the past tense. You select the point of view from which the story is told. If you’ve been working on a piece and it doesn’t seem to work, consider shifting the tense, voice or point of view.

Using different tenses, voices, and points of view can also be used to evoke certain feelings or images or to present another side of the story. Ahab’s Wife was written from a woman’s perspective, which was quite different than in Melville’s original work. Going to third person can distance the action from the audience, especially if it is the formal third person as in Peter Berryman’s example:

“One goes to the doctor,” is more ominous than “I went to the doctor.”
Writing in the future tense can project hope onto what in hindsight we know was a hopeless situation. What can the past tense do? Can you take a poem that covers a near future event and write it in past tense to help distance the pain? Maybe a relative is dying of cancer? How will the days that approach seem in memory ten years from now? Can you write your poem that way? Can you write a poem from that relative’s point of view or as if you were the one dying of cancer? Can you write from the point of view of another involved in the scenario? The doctor or nurse? Another relative, like the kids, if you’re the spouse?

Moving from one voice, tense, or point of view to another can be a valuable tool to a writer. We often do this type of shifting naturally, but it can also be applied consciously to a poem that isn’t working or when we are encountering writer’s block or just want a different effect.

Tip Origin: Peter Berryman

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