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Workshop: Shaping a poem

Shape and space can give as much meaning in poetry as the words themselves. In this Step, watch Rebecca and Kate shape 'Patagonia'.
We’ve thought a little bit about the choices that writers make when they form their poems, and one of the things to think about is how we give shape to a poem, what kind of shape we want it to make on the page and in our ears when we read it out loud. Kate, tell me a little bit about giving shape to a poem. Why is it important, and how do we do it? It’s such a big question, but it’s also quite a sort of small one, because I think it’s almost impossible to answer it in the abstract. It has to be what’s the right shape for this poem, for your poem?
And for that reason, I think when we’re going to get a look at ‘Patagonia,’ aren’t we, which is the poem that we’re studying. And for this purpose, we’ve put it onto a computer screen, and we’ve put it all together, all of the– and put it into continuous prose. So do you want to talk us through how you might go from a big block of text like this– To something nice like that? To something like we’ve got on the page. Well, yeah, so let’s do something simple. So when we paragraph in prose, we use a paragraph or a time break usually, don’t we?
So if we do that with this, then I guess we put a paragraph there, would we, after the full stop? ‘I planned to wait’. Because that’s a different thought, isn’t it? Maybe there.
Oh, that’s a very long sentence there. So let’s put a paragraph there. I don’t think that’s– ‘I thought of us in breathless cold’. It’s gone amazingly flatter, hasn’t it? Hasn’t it just. ‘I said perhaps Patagonia and pictured a peninsula, wide enough for a couple of ladderback chairs to wobble on at high tide’. Full stop, end. And I think it does illustrate how if you end where you expect to end and then the tension that’s in the white space just goes. Yeah. So you need quite big words at the end. So if I put that word, ‘I thought’, then you get a big word. ‘Thought’ is a much bigger word, isn’t it, even than ‘tide’.
It goes off into the big space. Yeah. So if the image of the poem is of this little person thinking of a whole continent and also facing out into the big ocean, then that echoes it. So you get a stanza break there as well. ‘I thought’. For kind of the first line, which is always an important one, again, it’s about ‘and pictured’. Because it’s all about this thinking person looking out. And that’s how that got there. At the end, I use the ‘I meant’. Right. And I think if you have a pause, a bit of space after ‘I meant’ and a line break, then it sounds much sadder, because it’s a hesitation. It is a hesitation. ‘I meant years’.
And then it hurries up at the end. ‘I meant all of them with you’. The rhythm hurries up a little bit, because she is embarrassed. And it makes that word ‘years’ very long, doesn’t it, in time? Years is a long word to say. And we fall into that line on that and on that rhythm. So actually the end of a poem is quite a good place to start your arrangement, actually. The beginning and the end. And you can see there that I’m getting the length and shape at the top. Yes. And the length and shape at the bottom.
If we do, if we’re on that principle, putting the saddest, loneliest words at the end of the line, we’re going for ‘enough’ there. So the ends of lines and the beginnings of lines are coming out as very important points in the poem for setting the tone of what you want to write. The end of the line– the end of each line gets a special little place. I mean, the content of a whole line is important. Look at those hit a couple of ladderback chairs need to have it aligned themselves, because there’s two of them, and they’re sitting on a peninsula. So there they are like that.
But the beginning of the line– I’m stressing in this poem the ends of the line rather than the beginnings of the line. But the beginning of the line is important too. These are just– actually, there’s a series of prepositions at the beginning. And that’s because each line stops in a spot where the speaker is kind of thinking or listening or on the edge of something. And then it drops onto a preposition, so it keeps going. Great. ‘I thought’. And then she gets another big hesitation, you see. Yes. With the stanza. Stanza’s a bigger one. So there’s a break between lines, which is a short pause. A short pause.
And then there’s a break between stanzas between verses, and that’s a much bigger area of white space. It’s a bigger area. And I always think it’s almost always a movement in time. Right. I was about to say a movement forward in time, but of course, not necessarily. And look, there’s another facing word. There’s another looking outward. In this one, she’s actually literally facing the horizon, ‘facing a horizon round as a coin’. And I think using this principle, ‘I plan to wait’ needs to go into that stanza, doesn’t it? Because there is a big movement in time. So ‘looped’ – it’s not fantastic. There’s always compromises.
But if I want that ‘I planned to wait’ at the end of that stanza, and I really do, then I have to have those lines. In a way, something like ‘round as a coin’ would be lovely on its own. Yes. But ‘looped’ also works with ‘round as a coin’, doesn’t it? It’s the same sort of image. Same sort of idea. Same sort of idea separated by a comma. So how did you move from this long sentence, paragraph, into lines? Well, that long sentence paragraph, she’s building up a series of things that will take you to the moment when he’s going to turn to her.
So it needs to have tension in it, because the ‘until you turned at last to me’ needs to be sad. So they’ve got ‘until you turned, at last, to me’. There we go. That’s a line like that. So I’m going to– I’m working at the bottom, and I’m working into four, because it’s a four at the top – ‘bored themselves to sleep’. Let’s see – ‘growing worried in the hush’. I think they need to ‘paddle off’ on their own, don’t they? That needs to be a line ending. How are we doing? ‘Paddled off in tiny coracles’.
So it gets so much better, doesn’t it? ‘I planned to wait’, long pause, ‘till the waves had bored themselves to sleep’. And I think I’ve let that be a long sentence because it’s about being relaxed. ‘Till the last clinging barnacles, growing worried in the hush, had paddled off in tiny coracles, till those restless birds, your actor’s hands, had dropped slack into your lap’.
There’s a sort of heaviness that comes in towards, and that’s because the lines are getting more end stopped is the term we use, which means when the punctuation matches the end of the lines. And it’s lovely to look at it and think, gosh, that’s so much better than the paragraphs at the beginning. And it is. It’s a poem.
Shape in poetry can be visual, as you saw in Step 1.9, but a poem’s appearance on the page also changes the way in which you hear and understand what’s being said.
To help you understand the impact of shaping further and to help you prepare for finishing your poem, in this video, Rebecca and Kate look at the shape of ‘Patagonia’, and experiment with changing the line breaks to see how changes to shape and space can have an impact on meaning.
Consider the following questions and share your thoughts within the discussion area:
Does watching this video alter or deepen your response to ‘Patagonia’, which you read in Week 1? How does it feel hearing from the author?
In the next Step, you’ll experiment with the space and shape of your poem: ‘The View from Here’.

Course tip

If you’re watching this video on a mobile device, you may be able to zoom in while the video is still playing to take a closer look at some of the detail. We have also added an additional transcript for accessibility which some of you may find useful. You can find this at the bottom of the Step.
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