syntax and sentence structure in poetryShaping the Poem

Poems fail as other forms of writing do, because they:

  • 1. have nothing informative, entertaining or moving to say

  • 2. are not developed with the reader in mind

  • 3. have dull or faulty sentence structure

  • 4. neglect what is expected of the genre.

Is Your Poem Really Necessary?

A publisher considering a MS wants to know three things: that the author something important to say, that people want to hear about it, and that the writing is adequate to the task. Judging from submissions, it will surprise many poets to know that similar criteria apply to poetry. Yes, a poem may start with a vague tune in the head, and no doubt develops in some subterranean way of its own, but the final piece needs to be as tightly plotted as the best detective fiction. All must seem natural and inevitable. Level by level —   content, argument, emotive expression,  diction, imagery, rhythm — everything will hang together and be interrelated in one convincing whole.

How is that achieved? By the application of an immense amount of effort, flair and experience. There is no single method of composition. Spencer used the medieval world of allegory to suggest and shape. Shakespeare followed the rules of Renaissance rhetoric. Racine modelled his plays on the Greek classics. Yeats wrote prose drafts. Pound employed mimicry and textural collages. And so on. Every writer of stature develops his own method, which works for him and fulfills the cultural expectations of the time.

Time available and natural talent impose their own restrictions, but the composition process is often driven by the content, which is not so much chosen by the poet as drawn from his deepest nature. Certain themes provoke and obsess writers, so that from juvenilia to masterwork the author can be seen working and reworking a restricted range of material. Often these relate to personal incidents, perhaps buried deep in childhood, but not completely so, and not so as to explain why response has taken this particular form, or invoked any response at all.

How does this relate to the craft of writing? The one thing that all editors and publishers look for is individuality. They want something fresh, authentic and distinctive, which is nonetheless relevant, self-validating and convincing. Novelty by itself counts for nothing — the small presses are crowded with such stuff — but poems that build gradually into a landscape at once original and significant are greatly prized. The odd poem can always be created out of some lucky chance, but to produce good work consistently, that explores new territories and presents them vividly, calls on rare personal qualities, honesty not the least of them. Matters well outside the usual ambit of literature have to be researched, and everything fused in an uniquely personal and all-embracing vision.

Keeping the Reader In Mind

Contemporary poetry tries not to use existing language in new ways so much as to create a new language (or languages) altogether, dispensing with rhetoric in favour of:

  • vivid images only tenuously connected with narrative or general argument of the poem

  • collages of remembered thought or conversation

  • readymades of life around, the more arbitrary the better.

  • themes continuously drawn from the process of writing: poem seen as process rather than object

  • private/recondite symbols and allusions

Only partial success has met these efforts. The theory is at least dubious, and the work often fails in its primary objective, which is to communicate. Some ordering of material or rhetoric is inescapable, as in this worked example. Equally important is word choice.

Syntax or Sentence Structure

Great licence is given poetry, but effective sentences are still essential. Many patterns have been developed down the centuries: a simple listing: {1}

1. Two short sentences linked by a semicolon, actual or implied.
Prose example: Verse is one thing; poetry is another.
Verse illustration:

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where the story ended
. {2}

2. Repeated structure with the verb understood and therefore omitted.
Prose example: Verse is is one thing, poetry another.
Verse illustration:

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found
No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap. {3}

3. Compound sentence(s) ending with explanatory statement:
Prose example: The book he wrote, with its balanced arguments, its brief case histories and restrained phrasing, achieved more than had the political tracts over the previous century: it spoke the truth.
Verse illustration:

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. {4}

4. A series without a conjunction.
Prose example: The poem he wrote on this occasion was his best: simple, heartfelt, unanswerable.
Verse illustration:

It stuck in a barbed wire snare,
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene.

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. {5}

5. A series of clauses linked by and or or:
Prose example: He made the poem express his private thoughts, and to give voice to his inner doubts and quandaries, and to what he had not before found the courage to confront or understand or suppose were the confusions of so many of his own countrymen.
Verse illustration:

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child. {6}

6. Balanced pairs.
Prose example: The piece he wrote on this occasion was his best: researched and referenced, restrained and sincere, unswerving and unanswerable.
Verse illustration: :

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair
Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies
. {7}

7. Introduction with appositives.
Prose example: Barbed, audacious, truthful — the article struck home.
Verse illustration:

So smooth, so sweet, so silvery, is thy voice
As, could they hear, the damned would make no noise,
But listen to thee (walking in thy chamber)
Melting melodious words to lutes of amber. {8}

8. Apposites or modifiers within the sentence.
Prose example: The poem he wrote on this occasion — sincere, audacious and unsparing — was his best.
Verse illustration:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see description of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophesies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise. {9}

9. Emphatic apposite at sentence end, usually after a colon:
Prose example: Whatever the feints and countermovements of the previous years, the elaborate and illiberal measures against free speech and their immediate removal, the unions' actions now left no doubt of their intentions: total opposition.
Verse illustration:

Should Beauty blunt on Fops her fatal Dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd Heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid Veins invade,
Nor Melancholy's Phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the Doom of Man revers'd for thee:
Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail. {10}

10. Using a single appositive or a pair.
Prose example: The poem he wrote on this occasion — his last day of freedom — though seeming so ordinary — was his best.
Verse illustration:

I knew a man who used to say,
Not once but twenty times a day,
That in the turmoil and the strife
(His very words) of Public Life
The thing of ultimate effect
Was Character — not Intellect.
He therefore was at strenuous pains
To atrophy his puny brains
And registered success in this
Beyond the dreams of avarice,
Till, when he had at last become
Blind, paralytic, deaf and dumb,
Insensible and cretinous,
He was admitted ONE OF US. {11}

11. Dependent clauses in a pair or series.
Prose example: If he had not chosen to record his own private doubts, and had only expressed what was being shouted in every house and tavern in the country, the outcome would have been very different.
Verse illustration:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light. {12}

12. Repetition of a key word or phrase.
Prose example: The article he wrote on this occasion was inflamatory, and the inflamatory response the government made to its publication brought confrontation one step closer.

Verse illustration:

Calm is the morn without a sound,
Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
And only thro’ the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground:

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on these dews that drench the furze,
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:

Calm and still light on yon great plain
That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
And crowded farms and lessening towers,
To mingle with the bounding main:

Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
These leaves that redden to the fall;
And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
And waves that sway themselves in rest,
And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep. {13}

13. Repetition of word in a parallel structure.
Prose example: The article he wrote on this occasion — calculated to its timing, calculated in its laboured phrasing and honest perplexity, calculated in its very deployment of terms that the government had removed from the political agenda — had a success that even his own supporters could scarcely have hoped for.
Verse illustration:

Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?
Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening-star. {13}

14. Subject and verb separated by comment or aside:
Prose example: So poetry, whatever the aim, has to be verse.
Verse illustration:

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
          Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward through the twilight, stray or stop
          As they crop —
Was the site of a city great and gay,
         (So they say)
Of our country's very capital, its prince
          Ages since
held his court, in gathered councils, wielding far
          Peace or war. {15}

15. A full sentence as an interrupting modifier:
Prose example: So poetry — it cannot be repeated enough — has to be verse.
Verse illustration:

The coast — I think it was the coast that I
Was just describing — Yes, it was the coast

Lay at this period quiet as the sky,
The sands untumbled, the blue waves untost,
And all was stillness, save the sea-bird's cry,
And dolphin's leap, and little billow crost
By some low rock or shelve, that made it fret
Against the boundary it scarcely wet. {16}

16. Introductory or concluding participles:
Prose example: Unswerving from the truth, ignoring his own supporters, he completed the reading.
Verse illustration:

The seas are quiet, when the winds give o'er,
So calm are we, when passions are no more:
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness, which age descries.

The soul's dark cottage, batter'd and decay'd,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new. {17}

17. A single modifier, out of place for emphasis
Prose example: Whatever he might have said to save the measure, poignantly, remained unuttered, and the opportunity did not return.
Verse illustration:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. {18}

18. Introduction with prepositional phrase:
Prose example: In most of us, poetry is an intermittent and dormant faculty.
Verse illustration:

In pious times, e're priestcraft did begin
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When man on many multiplied his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confined;
When nature prompted and no law denied
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
Then Israel's monarch after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,
Scattered his Maker's image through the land. {19}

19. Inversion of the normal subject-verb order:
Prose example: Humbug we necessarily hate in poetry.
Verse illustration:

Still falls the Rain —
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss —
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter's Field, and the sound of the impious feet
On the Tomb:

Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain. {20}

20. Complete inversion of normal pattern:
Prose example: Necessarily, humbug we hate in poetry, and also sentiment that is too simple to be genuine.
Verse illustration:

May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed. {21}

21. Paired constructions: subject-verb, so too subject-verb, etc.:
Prose example: As three hard years of his life had gone into the writing of the poem, so would three hard years in fruitless efforts to have it published.
Verse illustration:

Oh! if to dance all Night, and dress all Day,
Charm'd the Small-pox, or chas'd old Age away;
Who would not scorn what Huswife's Cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly Thing of Use?
To patch, nay ogle, might become a Saint,
Nor could it sure be such a Sin to paint.
But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey,
Since paint'd, or not paint'd, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid
; {22}

23. A this, not that construction (or the reverse) used for contrast.
Prose example: Poetry is a vocation, not a career.
Verse illustration:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. {24}

24. Dependent clause (usually starting with if, why, when, etc.):
Prose example: Because he so trawled the newspapers for material of current interest, and because he sent work to outlets of every political colour, not neglecting to call on editors and harangue journalists for long hours in bars afterwards, his became a name that even a trade magazine would not publish.
Verse illustration:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. {25}

25. Independent clauses (i.e. no grammatical connection between clauses and sentence, which is modified in entirety).
Prose example: He trawled the newspapers for material of current interest; he sent his work to every political magazine in the country; he called on editors and harangued journalists on his own expense in bars of their own choosing; he left nothing to chance and became unpublishable.
Verse illustration:

No; cast by Fortune on a frowning coast,
Which neither groves nor happy valleys boast;
Where other cares than those the Muse relates,
And other shepherds dwell with other mates;
By such examples taught
, I paint the Cot,
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not: {26}

26. Short simple sentence for relief or dramatic effect:
Prose example: Despairing of the confusion, the discordant voices and abortive measures of the party, he sat down that night to write the manifesto that would open his long-delayed campaign for leadership. It failed.
Verse illustration:

O, my luve's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:

O, my luve's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun!
O I will luve thee still, my Dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile. {27}

27. Short question for dramatic effect:
Prose example: Why did he write it?
Verse illustration:

The time is not remote, when I
Must by the course of nature die;
When I foresee my special friends
Will try to find their private ends,
Though it is hardly understood
Which way my death can do them good;
Yet thus, methinks, I hear 'em speak:
'See, how the Dean begins to break:
Poor gentleman, he droops apace,
You plainly find it in his face;
That old vertigo in his head
Will never leave him, till he's dead.
Besides, his memory decays,
He recollects not what he says;
He cannot call his friends to mind,
Forgets the place where last he dined;
Plies you with stories o'er and o'er:
He told them fifty times before.
How does he fancy we can sit
To hear his out-of-fashioned wit?

28. Deliberate fragment(s)
Prose example: The effect of his article, which is still debated, is perhaps not to be fully appreciated even now, unpredictable in its consequences, imponderable to those who study such things, vagrant and irrelevant to the parties concerned, brought about his downfall.
Verse illustration:

They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way. {29}

Successful lines of course use several such patterns at the same time, and add variations to these basic patterns.

Equally important in shaping reader expectations are genres and stanza forms.



1. The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success, Waddell, M.L., Esch, R.M. and Walker, R.R. (Barron's Educational Series, 1993) Somewhat adapted. Many such guides exist: e.g. The Harper & Row Rhetoric: Writing As Thinking: Thinking As Writing, Booth, W.C. and Gregory, M.W. (Harper & Row, 1987) and so on, which take the matter much further.
2. Little Gidding. T.S. Eliot (188-1965). NNA
3. All Day It Has Rained. Alun Davis (1915-1944)
4. Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno, Cynara. Ernest Dowson (1867-1900).
5. Daddy. Sylvia Plath (1932-63)
6 Among Schoolchildren. William Butley Yeats (1865-1939). NNA
7. Atalanta in Calydon. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909).
8. Upon Julia's Voice. Robert Herrick (1591-1674).
9. Sonnet 106. William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
10. The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).
11. The Statesman. Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).
12. Fern Hill. Dylan Thomas (1914-1953).
13. In Memoriam. XI. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).
14. Thyrsis. Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
15. Love Among the Ruins. Robert Browning (1812-1889).
16. Don Juan, Canto Two. George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron. (1788-1824)
17. Of the Last Verses in the Book. Edmund Waller (1606-1687)
18. On first looking into Chapman's Homer. John Keats (1795-1821)
19. Absolom and Architophel. John Dryden (1631-1700).
20. Still Falls the Rain. Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) NNA
21. The Seafarer. Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
22. Rape of the Lock, Canto V. Alexander Pope (1688-1744).
23. Atalanta in Calydon. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909).
24. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. William Wordsworth. (1770-1850)
25. The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue. Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400).
26. The Village: Book I. George Crabbe (1754-1832).
27. A Red, Red Rose. Robert Burns (1759-1796).
28. Lines on the death of Dr Swift. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).
29. Paradise Lost, Book 12. John Milton (1608-1674).


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.