How Poetry is Different from Other Genres
Hooking the Reader in the First Line
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” — Emily Dickinson
Poets are often called the dreamers of the writing world. We tend to write close to the heart. Poetry is a complex genre with what seems like many rules, and at the same time, no rules. You may have been taught poetry in terms of type — sonnets, ghazals, acrostics, or haiku. But I am here to tell you, none of this matters if you don’t hit the four fundamentals of poetry in this article. Form does not equal quality.
As an editor, I’ve read thousands of poems from hopeful writers. Reading slush (unsolicited submissions) with a journal or magazine is a great way to learn what about a poem makes it stand out among the crowd. Because it requires reading hundreds and hundreds of poems in a short time, slush reading quickly identifies the poems that are special from the poems that are just fine. Editors and slush readers are looking for submissions that quickly set themselves apart.
How to Hook a Reader on the First Page
Why These Four Elements Are Fundamental to Getting an Agent/Editor’s Attention
But poetry is not fiction. In a previous post, I talked about the fundamentals of hooking a reader in short stories and novels. In a poem, a lot of those guidelines get thrown out the window. In fiction, the character is key, because the reader is going to have to stay with that voice for the entire book. But readers of poetry are much more forgiving and that is something worth celebrating.
So how do you stand out from the crowd as a poet?
In fiction, the key to standing out from the crowd is fulfilling the “First Page Promise.” It’s the idea that you need to tell the reader what to expect from your book on the first page. For poetry, that promise lies in the first line.
There are four elements that have to be on the first page, in my humble opinion, in order for the reader to know what to expect from a poem
The Four Fundamentals of a Great Poem
- A Fantastic First Line
- Unique Tone & Word Choice
- Structure that Serves the Poem
- A Satisfying Turn
If you can fit all of these things into your poem, then you’ve got the fundamentals down. By looking at these elements of your work, you can understand what you are promising the reader and which element needs the most work.
1. The First Line
I could probably write a whole other article on how important the first line is in poetry. When I read slush, I often base my decision on whether to read a poem by just the first line. If that first line doesn’t hook me, I’m out. (I’m a busy lady, y’all, I don’t have time to play.)
But what should the first line of a poem do? What do I mean by “hook”? Well, it often is about the unexpected. This isn’t the same as surprising the reader, because the first line also has to set up the rest of the poem in voice, theme, and structure.
For example, see Emily Dickinson’s poem:
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.
— Emily Dickinson, ““Hope” is the thing with feathers” (314)
Like her other famous poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” this poem begins with an unexpected image. In the case of Dickinson, who did not title her poems, the first line also becomes the title. Dickinson also makes use of enjambment (the break in the line) which makes the reading flow to the next line.
When I’m editing poems, I often delete the first 2–3 lines. It’s usually a little of the way into an unrevised poem where the best line lives. Don’t fret over this though, it’s in revision that a great first line can be found. Another tactic I sometimes take is to rearrange the poem so that the last line becomes the first, thus putting the important subject of the poem front and center, since most poets tend to meander in their first lines.
Here are some other killer first lines from classic poetry:
- “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
- “Do not go gentle into that good night,” from Dylan Thomas’ poem of the same name
- “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
- “I have gone out, a possessed witch,” from Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind”
2. Voice/Word Choice
How does the poem sound when it is read out loud? Poetry, from its birth, is a genre that is about language. Tone, voice, and word choice are all tools that convey to a reader what kind of poem they are reading — whether it is light and playful or deep and dark.
Think about how you speak. You probably have some kind of accent or manner of speaking that harkens back to your ancestors. That voice makes you unique. The same applies to poetry.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Maya Angelou — 1928–2014
Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise” uses African American oral traditions and blues, gospel, and folksongs to create a voice that sounds familiar to many Americans. What has now become an anthem against racism and hate began as a way of reminding people to hope.
As Angelou said, “Everybody in the world has gone to bed one night or another with fear or pain or loss or grief, trepidation, and yet each one of us has awaken, arisen seen another human being and said “Morning. How are you? Fine, thanks and you.” There is that about us all that we rise” (Southern Oral History Program).
Universality can go a long way in a poem. The word choice doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to spend hours with your nose in a thesaurus. Read the poem out loud. How does it sound?
3. Structure that Serves the Poem
This section is not titled just “structure.” Because structure by itself does not make a good poem. When I say structure, I refer to the form the poem takes. Repetition, rhyme, line length, and syllables. Essentially, how does the poem look on the page?
Shakespeare’s sonnets are considered the epitome of the sonnet form. Read as a group, they form a larger story about the narrator and his love interests. On an individual level, Shakespeare’s sonnets are still widely read 400 years later. My favorite is perhaps sonnet 130:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130
As an opposite to Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”), Sonnet 130 has a lot of humor and a turn that makes me go “aww.” These days, rhyming or highly structured poems are considered out of style. Sure, there might be some poets out there still banging out fantastic sonnets. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t invented new structures. In the end, you have to find what works for you and what readers respond to. Here are some unexpected structures you might want to explore:
- Erasure poetry or blackout poetry
- Cut-up (Remix, Découpé) poetry (popularized by William Burroughs)
- Cento poetry (collage of multiple sources)
- Acrostic or Golden Shovel Poems
4. A Satisfying Turn
The “turn” in a poem is a moment where the poem heads a different direction — either by utilizing form/voice/structure, or else in theme and content. In a sonnet, the turn is called the Volta (an Italian word for turn), but turns are vital to all forms of poetry.
You’ll notice that I did not say “a surprising” turn. I don’t believe every poem necessitates a gut-punch of a twist. This isn’t fiction. Some poems have a much subtler turn that leads the reader to a satisfying conclusion, even if it is one that is expected.
Let’s look at a traditional turn first, in the sonnet form:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
— "What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
In the traditional sonnet forms, the turn is often proceeded by the words “but/yet/and” etc. In contemporary forms, the turn can often appear in the last line, such as the following sonnet’s punchy “I will not.” A poem may also have many turns — subtler turns that shift the poem to a new places and a final turn that brings it back again.
Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]
Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea
ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,
a thou and who, touching every what —
and in the or, a shudder in the cut —
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare
bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.
— Karen Volkman
The best way I can explain a turn is in the terms of music. Have you ever listened to the beginning of a song and realized it sounds nothing like the end? That, my friends, is a turn. The classic example being, of course, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It begins with a slow guitar riff that builds to a song that sounds completely different at the end. It’s not just about theme — but about sound, and this is something to remember in your poems.
Hey y’all, I’ll be hosting a poetry critique session with Writespace via Zoom Saturday, October 10th, 1–4pm EST. We’ll be diving into poetry fundamentals in each other’s work, and discussing in detail how to fulfill that promise for readers. I’d love to see you there!
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.