On the Move

Poetry, unlike prose, is not reliant on plot. While it is possible to create a poem with a plot, a plot is by no means a requirement for a successful poem. It is merely one option out of many. Progression, however, occurs whether a poem has a plot or not.

There should always be a reason why one line appears before or after another. There should be a reason why the first line is the first and the last line is the last. Even in an Imagist poem, the description of the image needs to progress. The readers shouldn’t feel as if they are being fed a series or random but related facts. They should feel as if the poem is leading them towards a shared goal or destination.

For many poets, progression is second nature. They automatically write in a linear style and it comes through with very little effort. That doesn’t mean that they can just assume the progression of the poem is perfect every time, but they often find little reason for change. Other poets spend much more time determining the order for their poetry. They consistently move or change lines simply because the original version (or even the revision) doesn’t seem to move forward or evoke the right impression. Determining order can be especially difficult in longer poems and in Imagist poems, which are not intended to tell a story so much as to develop an impression or feeling in the reader.

Many Means of Progression

There are no quick and easy solutions to the problem of progression. Every poem is different and has different needs. It is fairly easy to judge the progression of a poem with a plot, but a poem about an image or an issue can be harder to interpret. Below are some ways to measure progression. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it probably covers 90% of poems.

Chronological: Progression through time.
Spatial: Progression through a physical position.
Process: Progression through a sequence of events.
Size: Progression from the large to the small or the small to the large.
Climactic: Progression through levels of importance.
Relational: Progression that shows a relationship such as cause and effect, problem and solution, comparison and contrast.

When reading and editing, try to determine what sort of progression is taking place and how successfully that progression is shown. Once you determine the type of progression you can judge each part of the poem by how it relates to the intended progression.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write a three stanza poem that shows a progression with each stanza. The three stanzas should serve as a beginning, middle and end respectively. It might help to picture the poem as a three act play.

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