3 minutes reading time (653 words)

Are Your Modifiers Dangling?

My reading window last month brought more poems than ever before. So 159 poets sent work. I can't read and respond to more than 1000 poems a month and stay sane, so I was at my limit.

But the challenge remains interesting, not least in the way trends change noticeably from one window to the next. So here are some trends I observed during the window. I've mentioned many of them before, but not all.

(I am aware I have a number of bees in my bonnet. It's inescapable. You get over-sensitized to things.)

  1. There were an unprecedented number of poems formatted in double spacing (often because Microsoft Word may double-space each time you hit the 'return' or 'enter' key). I strongly suspect some people think this is what 'poem' text is suppose to look like.
  2. I have seen the most ever poems with zero punctuation, though the poet may make an exception in the case of a dash, a question mark or an ellipsis. So actually there is punctuation but no commas or full stops.
  3. Punctuation-less poems in stanza form but with a capital letter at the start of the first word of each stanza. Gaps may be used to suggest pauses.
  4. 'So' or 'such' used as intensifiers.
  5. Poems that switch verb tense somewhere in the middle. Most poems these days are in the present tense. We have forgotten that this is a fashion. Once they were mostly in the past tense.
  6. Insertion of the phrase 'I think of', sneaking in even more often than 'I remember'.
  7. Prose poems formatted in very wide blocks, long LONG lines.
  8. Line breaks allowed to substitute for commas.
  9. Punny titles.
  10. 'As' used too often (my most unfavourite word, because of its grisly sound and the fact it can mean three things)
  11. Lists of nouns, but no 'and' before the last one.
  12. Metaphors that create an unfortunate mental image if you take them literally.
  13. Some poets have favourite shapes, so each poem looks rather like the one before (even though it may be about something completely different) eg long and thin, or short and fat.
  14. Enjambing every stanza.
  15. Whilst, amidst (but not amongst).
  16. Not heft this time, and only one shards, but quite a bit of musk and citalopram.
  17. Pantoums (loads): it's the new villanelle.
  18. 'After' poems (I need to blog about this separately because there is no consistency in what people mean by 'after' and it really does get confusing).
  19. The single sentence poem that gets its syntactical knickers in a twist in the middle.
  20. Long sentences with difficult syntax, often with the key verb and subject delayed and maybe three or four line breaks to negotiate before things start to make sense.
  21. That thing called a 'dangling modifier' is an arch culprit in poems. If your modifiers are dangling, I'd say you have a problem.
  22. Anaphora poems, by which I mean poems that start each stanza or each line with the same word or phrase (the 'Because' poem is a familiar example). This can be powerful. This can be powerful, of course. This can be powerful in the right poem. But you can have too much of a powerful thing.
  23. Sentences starting with a verb but subject implied: I am seeing this more and more. She goes to the cupboard. Takes out a cup. Thinks of a bad sonnet. (Is this actually a variation on 'leaning verbs'?)
  24. The ampersand is back, judicious use in some poems, rather than a consistent stylistic feature.
  25. Poems that can only work inside the space of an A4 page.
  26. The single most common problem: unintended obscurity. The poem is behaving as though it's obvious what's going on but the reader is mystified. This is quite different from deliberate obscurity, which can be compelling.

If any of the points above are obscure, it was unintentional. Sometimes you just can't see how difficult you're being.


THE WINDOW IS CLOSING
 

Comments 12

Guest - Jinny Fisher on Sunday, 11 August 2019 12:40

I love your trend round-ups, Nell; SUCH a lot to watch out for! One thing: prose poems surely don't have lines. The printed 'line' length will depend on the size of the page and the width of the margins, presumably as decided by the editor.

I love your trend round-ups, Nell; SUCH a lot to watch out for! ;) One thing: prose poems surely don't have lines. The printed 'line' length will depend on the size of the page and the width of the margins, presumably as decided by the editor.
Guest - grahaeme barrasford young on Sunday, 11 August 2019 12:53

Wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Wouldn't surprise me in the least.
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 11 August 2019 13:23

Dear Jinny -- no they do have lines. All text does. And sometimes even the end words are deliberate, not chance, though not for most poets.

There are different ways of doing this, and the block of prose doesn't necessarily run to the end of the page: the poet needs to decide what they need the block to look like or whether this is important.

So you can have a prose poem in a narrow block, a wide block, a block that fits whatever page it appears on -- many options are possible.

But most people send poems out on A4 paper. Often people lay out prose poems using the default settings for this page, because they haven't fully considered prose options. If you use the normal margins for A4 of about an inch each side, you will end up with a very long line, and that means it's hard to read. Magazines (and newspapers) are often printed in columns because shorter lines are easier to read.

Books are designed for optimum reading ease, and usually the number of characters in the line will be between 65 and 75 (that includes spaces). But an A4 line between ordinary margins may have up to 90 characters, depending on the font. That means it will hard going for the reader, who may not realise the cause of the slight sense of strain.

Sorry for this OCD response. My point is simply is that though line breaks are not an issue in prose poems (usually), the formatting of the block is. It may not even be fully justified... (in the formatting sense).

Back to verse now.

Dear Jinny -- no they do have lines. All text does. And sometimes even the end words are deliberate, not chance, though not for most poets. There are different ways of doing this, and the block of prose doesn't necessarily run to the end of the page: the poet needs to decide what they need the block to look like or whether this is important. So you can have a prose poem in a narrow block, a wide block, a block that fits whatever page it appears on -- many options are possible. But most people send poems out on A4 paper. Often people lay out prose poems using the default settings for this page, because they haven't fully considered prose options. If you use the normal margins for A4 of about an inch each side, you will end up with a very long line, and that means it's hard to read. Magazines (and newspapers) are often printed in columns because shorter lines are easier to read. Books are designed for optimum reading ease, and usually the number of characters in the line will be between 65 and 75 (that includes spaces). But an A4 line between ordinary margins may have up to 90 characters, depending on the font. That means it will hard going for the reader, who may not realise the cause of the slight sense of strain. Sorry for this OCD response. My point is simply is that though line breaks are not an issue in prose poems (usually), the formatting of the block is. It may not even be fully justified... (in the formatting sense). Back to verse now.
Guest - JinnyFIsher on Sunday, 11 August 2019 14:25

Thanks!
Here's todays dangling modifier: a headline from The Independent -- "Could Boris Johnson really force through no-deal? As a constitutional lawyer, here’s how the situation may play out."

Thanks! Here's todays dangling modifier: a headline from The Independent -- "Could Boris Johnson really force through no-deal? As a constitutional lawyer, here’s how the situation may play out." :D
Helena Nelson on Sunday, 11 August 2019 15:02

Wonderful! And of course Boris could do with a modifier, dangling or not....

Wonderful! And of course Boris could do with a modifier, dangling or not....
Peter Daniels on Sunday, 11 August 2019 15:10

A lot of people are nervously ignorant about how to use word processing (and especially Word) - the double space thing, how to format a prose poem, etc. A Word for Poets course would be truly valuable, and easily done online.

A lot of people are nervously ignorant about how to use word processing (and especially Word) - the double space thing, how to format a prose poem, etc. A Word for Poets course would be truly valuable, and easily done online.
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Monday, 26 August 2019