The Line and the Sentence, Concerning “Awaiting Word”

“Awaiting Word” is one variety of what is called “the list poem.” I think a poem like this tends to work better as a spoken, oral poem. It doesn’t offer much as a printed poem, because as you read the poem a second or third time, you don’t find many hidden treasures in the way metaphors connect or lines break or allusions grow. On the other hand, a good oral poem, a good poem for poetry readings and such, offers structures that can be readily followed, connections that lead the listener through the poem. An oral poem should not require three or four times of listening to understand it.

One thing we might notice in the structure of the poem is that I still retained the structural device of stanzas—in this case five line stanzas. Another thing is that I determined line length mainly by sentence and phrase lengths. Basically, the lines are between seven and eleven syllables long. I didn’t count them, but I spoke everything out loud and revised based on a sense of running length of the voice speaking—kind of like a riff on a guitar or a drum rhythm that gets repeated but changed every so often.

This is also a good place to point out that because poems are written in lines we always are contending with the relationship of the sentence and the length of the poetic line. I haven’t conducted a thorough search through the history of poetry, but it seems to me that many poems from long ago matched the sentence or phrase unit with the length of lines. Then slowly over time, as poems were separated from singing and thus from totally regular rhythms, poets began to release the sentence and phrase units from the 8-beat, 10-beat, 12-beat line.

Notice how I varied the relationship between line and sentence. In the first three stanza, I varied between one sentence per line and one sentence per two lines:

Stanza 1=2 lines, 1 line, 2 lines

Stanza 2=2 lines, 2 lines, 1 line

Stanza 3=1 line, 2 lines, 2 lines

Then stanza four is kind of like a chorus. five 1-sentence lines.

Then stanza five is: 3 lines, 2 lines

Stanza six returns to the first stanza structure: 2 lines, 1 line, 2 lines.

An editor caught a grammatical mistake that I am grateful for her finding. In the last stanza I had written: “You might be broke and the mechanic/ right now is looking under the hood.” Then editor reminded me that I did not have a hood the mechanic could look under. I had not been attentive to the double meaning of “broke,” as being broken and as not having money. So I revised.

Where did I get the ideas for the different acts of waiting? They are just the kinds of things I listen to on the radio news and read in newspapers and such. The child who took the MRI is a member of my church. She was really eleven, but “eleven” did not work with the spoken rhythms, so I changed it. This was the late nineties, so the stock market was going crazy with the growth.   I thought Rhode Island sounded funnier than other states. Saul is there because he is such a powerful conversion story. It was the late nineties and the Clinton impeachment drama was going on. My truck was always breaking down and I live in the country and drive a lot. My radio is not broken, so I made that up.

Poetry Lecture Assignment:  Write your own list poem. Start it out with some kind of sentence. Then build off one of the nouns or verbs or phrases in that sentence. “You know she loves you when . . .” Lies my father told me. “My father told me . . .” or Lies my family told me: “My father told me . . . . / My mother told me . . . / My brother said . . . .”



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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.