Shape and Structure in Poems

June 27, 2022

One of the most wonderful things about poetry is how it takes you to unexpected places.  I had several thoughts on what I wanted to write about today.  I knew I wanted it centered entirely on The Poem Itself, on how a poem is put together.  I wanted to do that close looking at the construction: What’s the point of view/ who’s speaking?  What about the lines: metrical or free verse?  Long, medium, or short?  What about the sentences, and how they entwine with the lines?  Are the lines mostly end-stopped, or mostly enjambed?  Are there regular stanzas, irregular stanzas, or no stanzas?  What’s the poem’s connective tissue: how does it get from one thought or one image to the next? (Along with point of view, that’s the most interesting piece to me.)  And of course, what’s the tone of voice, whether that voice is attached to a body or not (as in omniscient point of view)?  What are the poem’s emotions?

I started pulling books from the shelves, thinking of poets who might be useful for this, and turned to Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” one of my favorite poems since I first read it.  Then I looked at another poet I was thinking of–and opened the book to a poem about trees I didn’t remember reading before.  And then there were trees everywhere.  I haven’t changed the topic, it’s still Shape and Structure, but I think it’s interesting to have this constant among all the variables.

Add your thoughts as you read to the comments here, and plan to join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link later in the week.



John Ashbery

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.



Adrienne Rich

The trees inside are moving out into the forest,
the forest that was empty all these days
where no bird could sit
no insect hide
no sun bury its feet in shadow
the forest that was empty all these nights
will be full of trees by morning.

All night the roots work
to disengage themselves from the cracks
in the veranda floor.
The leaves strain toward the glass
small twigs stiff with exertion
long-cramped boughs shuffling under the roof
like newly discharged patients
half-dazed, moving
to the clinic doors.

I sit inside, doors open to the veranda
writing long letters
in which I scarcely mention the departure
of the forest from the house.
The night is fresh, the whole moon shines
in a sky still open
the smell of leaves and lichen
still reaches like a voice into the rooms.

My head is full of whispers
which tomorrow will be silent.
Listen. The glass is breaking.
The trees are stumbling forward
into the night. Winds rush to meet them.
The moon is broken like a mirror,
its pieces flash now in the crown
of the tallest oak.



Jericho Brown

In my front yard live three crape myrtles, crying trees
We once called them, not the shadiest but soothing
During a break from work in the heat, their cool sweat

Falling into us. I don’t want to make more of it.
I’d like to let these spindly things be
Since my gift for transformation here proves

Useless now that I know everyone moves the same
Whether moving in tears or moving
To punch my face. A crape myrtle is

A crape myrtle. Three is a family. It is winter. They are bare.
It’s not that I love them
Every day. It’s that I love them anyway.



Dorothy Tanning

Not that anyone would
notice it at first.
I have taken to marveling
at the trees in our park.
One thing I can tell you:
they are beautiful
and they know it.
They are also tired,
hundreds of years
stuck in one spot—
beautiful paralytics.
When I am under them,
they feel my gaze,
watch me wave my foolish
hand, and envy the joy
of being a moving target.

Loungers on the benches
begin to notice.
One to another,
“Well, you see all kinds…”
Most of them sit looking
down at nothing as if there
was truly nothing else to
look at until there is
that woman waving up
to the branching boughs
of these old trees. Raise your
heads, pals, look high,
you may see more than
you ever thought possible,
up where something might
be waving back, to tell her
she has seen the marvelous.



Stanley Plumly

It looked like oak, white oak, oak of the oceans,
oak of the Lord, live oak, oak if a boy could choose.
The names, like ganglia, were the leaves, flesh

of our fathers.  So Sundays I would stand
on a chair and trace, as on a county map,
back to the beginnings of cousins,

nomenclature. This branch, this root…
I could feel the weight of my body take hold,
toe in.  I could see the same shape in my hand.

And if from the floor it looked like a cauliflower,
dried, dusted, pieced back together, paper–
my bad eyes awed by the detailed dead and named–

it was the stalk of the spine as it culminates at the brain,
a drawing I had seen in a book about the body, each leaf
inlaid until the man’s whole back, root and stem, was veins.







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