(I originally wrote this for a presentation with The Dalton School.)
Think of writing in verse like tweeting
When you Tweet, you have just a few characters to get your point across, right? And so sometimes you spill your thoughts into the Tweet and then have to start figuring out what to cut so you can get to and keep the most important part, the heart of your message. Think of writing in verse like that. Take a passage you’ve written in prose and start cutting.
Since Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is in the public domain, let’s use it as an example. I can rewrite the beginning in verse using only 92 words and convey the same meaning compared to 274 Carroll words used in prose. Is it exactly the same? No. But it includes the same main points you need to know to tell the same story.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (beginning retold in verse by Lisa Fipps)
Stretched out on
the soft grass under
the summer sun,
Alice nearly fell asleep.
“What a snoozefest,” she yawned and then
glanced at her sister’s book.
“Bor-ing!” Alice said.
The word still hung in the air when
a white rabbit with
pink eyes hippity-hopped right by her and
whipped a watch out of his waist-coat pocket.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”
He took off running.
“Now that’s not boring!”
Alice said, chasing the rabbit down a hole.
She didn’t even think about
how she’d get out.
Beginning of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversations?”
So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.
There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
End a line in verse before finishing a thought
One way to keep the reader moving through a poem is bending a line before you finish a thought.
Notice the same example of my version of the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. What is she sitting on? Under what? What happens after she yawns? The word hangs in the air when what happens? A white rabbit with what? He hops by her and does what?
The white space becomes a part of your poem
Use the white space on the page with as much intention as you use your words. In my verse version of the Alice in Wonderland example, notice the break between all that happened in the beginning and the end. That little bit of what space – just one simple line – separates the next thought and sets it apart, so you get a cliffhanger effect. Here’s another example, using a poem from my book, Starfish. (This is not how it appeared in my book, but it could have.)
FOR JUST A WHILE
into the pool.
The water is bathwater warm
but feels cool
compared to the blisteringly hot air.
Dive under the surface.
Soar to the top.
Arch my back.
As soon as I slip into the pool,
I am weightless.
For just a while.