Pacing in a Poem

Tina Barr

One element that I often share with students, when we workshop poems, is the movement or pacing of a poem.  The poem’s imagistic, linguistic or narrative thrust must convey the reader through the poem.  The poem might center on a small drama, and this is fine. Think of a haiku.  But the poem’s length has to be congruent with the level of drama.  In Robert Frost’s famous poem, when a boy loses his hand to a saw, just before he stops work, the poem is rich with microcosmic and macrocosmic context, so the poem is longer, and narrative.  Sometimes the “meat” or the “juicy” part of a poem does not actually occur until later in the draft, often because as the writer begins, he or she doesn’t reach “lift-off,” or its real central metaphor, or dramatic upswing, or the language doesn’t become really compelling until a certain point in the draft.  Often this is because the writer is gearing up before her or his unconscious begins to drive the poem.  And it’s the unconscious that really comes up with compelling imaginative ideas.

There is a balance between the way the reader moves through the poem and the “pay-off” for the reader.  The reader must be kept engaged by the poem, and the poem needs to offer or give an experience to the reader, whether purely linguistic, or centered in imagery, or in a dramatic moment or series of moments, or a story.

My students are often confused about what I mean by pacing, but I mean the poem can’t meander on for 3 pages unless those 3 pages pack some kind of punch. That is why in the guidelines for submission to the Hearst Prize, NAR editors suggested sending in a poem that was no more than a page in length.  They were referring to the difficulty of sustaining that energy, and poetry, because it is, in general, about compression and condensed language, works best, often, on one page! 



Barr’s books include Green Target, winner of Barrow Street Press Book Prize, and the Brockman-Campbell Award (Fall 2018), Kaleidoscope (Iris Press), and The Gathering Eye (Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize).  Her three previous chapbooks were all winners of contests.  Her Fellowships include the NEA, Tennessee Arts Commission, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and The MacDowell Colony.  Her poems are recently published or forthcoming in American Journal of Poetry, Asheville Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Brilliant Corners, Crosswinds, Louisiana Literature, Tar River Poetry & elsewhere.  Visit her website here.