Pacing a Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

I’m thinking of pacing, specifically of someone (an expectant father, ala the fifties cliche?) pacing a room: walking in one direction then turning and walking back. In this regard the gesture is akin to the etymology of verse– “Old English fers, from Latin versus ‘a turn of the plow, a furrow, a line of writing,’ from vertere ‘to turn’; reinforced in Middle English by Old French vers, from Latin versus. The movement of the verse line is a kind of pacing, a turning back.

So to talk about the pace of the poem, we are then, in some way, talking about the line. Pace, in the end has to do with the speed of motion, in general, and according to the American Heritage Dictionary definitions, they particularly have to do with walking or marching. Perhaps this is why it’s important to think about the rhythmic foot. But meter, in the end, is only one way of measuring rhythm, measuring the pace of the poem: it is not rhythm itself. Vers libre removed much of the trappings of meter in poetry, but not the need for rhythm, the need for the poem to have a pace. Williams and Pound talked about cadence, “a term formerly often used to describe the rhythmical flow of such nonmetrical prosodies as Biblical poetry, Whitman, free verse of several stripes, and prose poetry. Drawn from music the term … implies a looser concept of poetic rhythm than that applied to metrical poetry and mainly refers to phrasing.”

Pacing is about the rhythmic movement of lines down the page, and how we create that momentum. Each poem, each emotion, seems to demand its own pacing, and in some ways therefore, talking about pacing is pointless: there are no real rules, no magic solutions. Still, it’s important for poets to consider the ways poems are paced, the way poets manipulate the rhythms of a poem. Syntax, alliteration, diction, rhyming, the juxtapositions of sounds, and line all play into how a poem speeds along the page. It goes without saying that a Dickinson poem and a Whitman poem pace differently down the page, in part because of each poet’s sense of line, each poet’s vision and vision of a poem.

For instance, a recent poem from The New Yorker is written almost entirely in lines ending in a period, with the exception of one that ends with a dash at the end of a clause, maintaining a sense that the poem keeps stopping, and another that is enjambed. More, most of the lines in Michael Hoffman’s “In Western Mass” have at least one caesura in it, as we see here:

Once, an owl huddled there, pecked at by small birds.
It was daytime and just beginning to snow. Such a picture of misery.

Me in my blue shirt, and James’s tie. A frog
hopped over my boot. It seemed like luck. Then the threshold.

Notice how the enjambed line break actually enacts the meaning of its sentence (hopping over the break), and how the poem uses sentence fragments (“Such a picture of memory” and “Then the threshold”) to further slow the poem. The result is a poem the pace of which captures the spirit of its first line: “What do I remember of those strange episodic parts of my life.” Fragments. Bits. The poem’s pace engages the hesitation of the thought process.

Line and punctuation are only two ways to control the pacing of the poem. Consider the opening stanza of “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, and read it out loud, paying attention to the movement of your mouth.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The numerous plosives (P and B sounds) and velar stops (K sounds)  force our mouths closed and thus slow the poem for the demands of articulation, and the forced breath of such sounds enacts the threats of the household. These sounds disappear from the poem as the speaker comes to better terms with the memory of his father.

Pacing then is as much about what’s happening at any given moment in a poem as it is about the sounds and energy of the poem. Crystal Williams begins “In Search of Aunt Jemima” like this:

I have sailed the south rivers of China and prayed to hillside Buddhas.

I’ve lived in Salamanca, Cuernavaca, Misawa, and Madrid, have stood upon the anointed sands of Egypt and found my soul in their grains.

I’ve read more fiction, non-fiction, biographies, poetry, magazines, essays, and bullshit than imaginable, possible, or even practical. I am beyond well read, am somewhat of a bibliophile. Still, I’m gawked at by white girls on subways who want to know why and how I’m reading T.S Eliot.

Consider the way momentum builds in this poem, the forward movement of its phrasing: the first line is a statement, the second a longer statement, the third is yet a longer statement, this one followed by a sentence of self editorializing, which is then given a rationale, a statement of why this is important. The poem’s energy builds, early on, as Williams paces the poem by extending both the line and the sentence to build momentum.

Later on, to create emphasis, Williams shortens the line creating a staccato effect that enacts the speaker’s building frustration:

I am not your timberland, tommy hilfiger,
10K hollow-hoop wearin
gangsta rappin
crack dealin
blunt smokin
bandanna wearin
Bitch named Poochie.

Repetition of sounds and the high number of stressed syllables furthers this sensibility.

Each poem–each moment of a poem–makes demands of the poem’s pacing. As The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics points out “since poetry is of course made up of language, the natural rhythms of speech are the threads of which larger rhythmic cadences and meters are woven.” For me, “speech” is the key word here, because poems are still meant to be said aloud, how they’re spoken is the key to pacing.  Change the syntax and you no doubt change the pacing and how a reader (or listener) experiences what’s said in the poem.

Our vision for a poem, of course, shapes the pacing even more. A poet such as Jan Beatty often writes poems that rely on narrative structures, and such poems engage a quickness that is related to the art of storytelling and reliant on enjambments among other things to propel us more quickly down the page, as in these lines from “The Zen of Tipping”:

My friend Lou
used to walk up to strangers
and tip them—no, really—
he’d cruise the South Side,
pick out the businessman on his way
to lunch, the slacker hanging
by the Beehive, the young girl
walking her dog, and he’d go up…

Furthermore, echoing sounds at the end of the line at the beginning of the following line does a lot for smoothing out the enjambed break.

Whereas the more lyrical-meditations of Mark Doty draw out moments through description: the held camera of the poem remaining firm so that the poem slows, as in this excerpt from “Broadway”:

So many pockets and paper cups
                    and hands reeled over the weight
                              of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd

a woman reached to me across the wet roof
                    of a stranger’s car and said, I’m Carlotta,
                              I’m hungry. She was only asking for change,

so I don’t know why I took her hand.
                    The rooftops were glowing above us,
                              enormous, crystalline, a second city

lit from within.

Despite the number of sentences here, everything seems to be happening at once. The action of Carlotta interrupting the reverie of “So many pockets…” and followed up by a moment of self commentary about the moment are all meant to be simultaneous. Here the poem’s thinking is suspended and thus its pacing slows down despite the enjambments. The indented lines adds to this, making each line feel longer while simultaneously being the same length–creating a visual stretching out of time itself.

And pacing, after all, is about time. Not just the tempo of the line, but how we manipulate lyricism and narration and meditation: by shifting the gears of our thinking from narrative advancement to lyrical reverie to contemplative commentary, we engage various aspects of thinking in the reader that may slow down or speed up accordingly. Pacing, ultimately, is about the elasticity of time in the poem. It is neither metronome nor clock, bur reflective of the tempo of our engagement with language and subject matter, voice and vision. Craft gives us ways to enhance the pacing of our thoughts.


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