No poet likes to hear the expression "slush pile"—it implies that our creations have gone into a heap of unsolicited poems that, like yesterday's snow, are gray, dirty, useless and melting fast. But slush piles do exist.
Magazines, even small ones, receive hundreds of submissions a month, sometimes even more, and contest judges have to read thousands of submissions in a brief period of time. Most of these poems are written in free verse—and are completely unstructured. There are many simple but elegant techniques, however, that can put structure into your poem without inhibiting it.
Free verse, despite its anarchistic sounding name, doesn't mean that a poem should be formless. The name comes from the French "vers libre," and simply means poetry that is written without a strict form of rhyme, meter or repetition. What follows are seven techniques you can use to make your poem stand up like a good piece of meringue pie—just enough structure to give it form, not too much to make it overly stiff.
1. The title
Don't neglect this opportunity, for that is exactly what a title is—an opportunity to introduce the reader to the poem. Avoid one word abstract titles, like "Autumn" or "Death," which are timeworn and cliched. Instead, use the title to create interest.
Santa Fe poet Leo Romero's title What Trees Dream About encourages the reader's curiosity. So do highly specific and intriguing titles like Li-Young Lee's poem on Manhattan, The City in Which I Love You. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's The Pennycandystore Beyond the El, and African-American poet June Jordan's If You Saw a Negro Lady use the first line as a title—a rapid way to draw the reader in. You can also use the title in a painterly or descriptive fashion; instead of "Autumn" try for a phrase that truly captures the season.
2. Line breaks
In prose the basic unit is the sentence, but in poetry it is something shorter and more partial—the line. When writing a poem, you naturally have to break it into lines. There are two basic methods for this—breaking it where it feels right and breaking it according to a set form. In free verse, there is no pattern to the line breaks, but two rules of thumb can help:
1. Break the line where you would typically take a breath.
2. Break it where it makes sense in terms of syntax, and where it will help the reader.
To practice breaking poetic lines, start with a prose block that of course has no such breaks. Try the following exercise to help acquaint yourself with your own inclinations in terms of line breaks.
• Step A. Pick one of the following topics: "I remember ..." or "Things I have lost."
Start with the topic and write for 10 minutes or about two notebook pages. Be loose, wild, and do not write poetry—no rhyme, no line breaks.
• Step B. Take the prose block you have written and break it into poetry. This will work best if you type the words out, so you can see them clearly. Discard any material you don't like—for example, the opening may be warm up that can just be dropped.
Break the lines where it feels natural. Read aloud and break where you breathe. Use long lines if possible. And avoid one word lines—they tend to add undue emphasis and look amateurish. Now read the poem over and see how your own natural rhythm as a poet has emerged.
Counting the number of syllables per line is another way to gain control over your free verse. Traditionally, English lines run 10 syllables with five of them stressed or emphasized. This is basically iambic pentameter. It isn't usually that strict, however. If you look at any line from Shakespeare's sonnets you will see it is rarely in rigid iambic pentameter.
To make the lines of a poem sound natural, like human speech, you can use the technique of syllabics, which is much freer than any traditional meter. In syllabics, you count the number of syllables per line and attempt to standardize this throughout the poem. For example, if line No. 1 has seven syllables, all the rest should have the same. You can also be looser, and run lines, say, from six to eight syllables or some such range. Many contemporary poets use this, including Robert Creeley and Lucille Clifton. You might look at a poem you like, count the syllables, and see what is going on.
To learn the technique directly, take an old poem of yours and rewrite it with syllabics. Try for lines of at least five syllables and less than 12. Stay in a moderate range. It is best to start with something already written so you can practice without interfering with inspiration.
When you feel comfortable with syllable counting, incorporate it into your routine for writing a new poem, counting as you go.
4. Strong front words
The way most poems work, the last word in each line gets the emphasis. Counting syllables and creating smooth line breaks enhances the end of each line. But don't neglect the front words in each as well.
As an experiment, draw a line down the front of your poem, isolating the first word in each line. You might be surprised to see a batch of very uninspiring words, such as "and" and "the." Now try and replace some of these with strong individual words, including verbs and nouns. The easiest way to do this is by dropping off some modifiers; this also creates a tighter line in general. Not every front word has to be strong, but do improve a few for an overall better effect in the poem.
5. Fresh images
Poems that linger in the slush pile have one fault in common—they rely on abstractions and cliches rather than on individual observation. For example, a poem that talks of the "colored leaves" of autumn isn't exactly fresh. To create a stronger poem, observe the outside world with your senses. Share your perceptions of your own time and place with the reader.
The yellow cottonwoods along a dry river might be a better image of autumn in the arid West than those colored leaves. Or maybe a Japanese maple is dropping red star-shaped leaves in the middle of a busy city complex. Children jumping in leaves is a cliche—a memory of mother ironing leaves in wax paper for a school project is not. Be specific, and enliven the poem with your own perceptions. The reader wants to experience what you know, not something generic.
Here are quick tips to make your poems strong:
A title should do more than name; it should engage the reader's curiosity. Line breaks should feel natural, not forced. Repetition of lines with a similar number of syllables can add form to free verse. The opening word of each line should be compelling; use nouns and verbs whenever possible. Cut cliches, and add unexpected images and ideas in your work. Your ending line should strive for maximum reader impact. Revise your poem to ensure all the above is addressed.
The ending of a poem should be distinctive. That is, don't have the last line be any old thing that could appear anywhere in the poem. When you write the last line, be clear—you don't want it to be something that simply sounds good but is obscure. There is a tendency to tie up the end with a homiletic feel—but that often limits the poem. Avoid summaries that are cliched, like "Autumn is a time of change" or "Love is the greatest power" or "Death ends it all." Instead, try the following:
• End when you have said everything you meant to say but no more.
• End on a luminous image that allows the reader to exit the poem.
• End on a feeling or tone—but know beforehand what that is.
• End by coming back to the start, but in a fresh way.
7. The process of revision
Of course, just having a great last line doesn't mean you are truly done with the poem. You still need to revise. Many poems that end up in the slush pile have never been revised at all. But don't forget that the word "revision" itself means to see something freshly, or one more time.
Take the same creative energy you used to start the poem to revise it. Double-check some of the useful techniques for free verse—is the title interesting, is the end clear and uncliched, do the lines break smoothly, and does the poem sound right when read aloud? If the flow seems off, count the syllables in the awkward lines and adjust for a smoother effect. Double-check that you've been as specific as possible, and added your own original details.
Now relax. Let your poem go forth on its own.
This article appeared in the April 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.