DON’T BE A DRONE: Manipulating the Reader Through Pitch and Pace, A Poetry Craft Essay by Grant Clauser

Manipulating the Reader Through Pitch and Pace
A Poetry Craft Essay
by Grant Clauser

Pacing in poetry can be used as a focusing technique. Both fast and slow pace equally have the ability to draw in a reader’s focus in slightly different, but complementary, ways. A sudden shift into high gear can raise our excitement or anxiety, while hitting the slow motion button compels us to look with greater scrutiny and concentration. Either way, pace is a kind of volume adjustment–by turning the volume of the poem up or down you force a shift of attention upon the reader.

Try this experiment–recite the alphabet out loud. First, start out slowly. Then speed up. As your recitation gets faster, your voice will involuntarily rise in volume. If you do the opposite, start fast and end slow, your volume will decrease. I’ve actually tried this experiment with my kids using a sound pressure meter, and their voices changed by a few decibels. Both shifts cause the listener to adjust their attention. The first causes the listener to sit up straight, triggered by the excitement of the louder voice. The second causes the listener to lean forward, paying extra attention to the details.

In many poems, pace control is achieved through syntax and diction. Essentially, any change in syntax or diction is a cue to the reader that pace and/or volume is also changing. A shift from long sentences to short ones, or description to metaphor, all signal that the poem is getting louder or quieter, faster or slower.

One of most obvious ways to impact pace and volume is the command. It’s the direct address to the reader that wakes us up and asks for our attention. Richard Hugo uses this frequently, as you can see at the end of “Farmer, Dying” where he piles on a series of commands in one stanza:

And we die silent, our last days loaded with the scream
of Burnt Fork creek, the last cry of that raging farmer.
We have aged ourselves to stone trying to summon
mercy for ungrateful daughters. Let’s live him
in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim
and curse the Baltic back, moon, bear and blast.
And let him shout from his grave for us.

When we get to “Let’s live him / in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim…” we can hear the pitch rising. If you’re reading it out loud, you’re standing up at this point as if in the throes of an anthem. The words “scream” and “cry” a few lines up act as signals for what’s coming. A command in a poem provokes an almost instinctual response in a reader. It’s the most active voice possible, and the hardest to ignore. When you hear a command you either oblige or resist, but either way, you engage with the words.

The next hardest to ignore is the question. What’s the most natural response to hearing a question? Answering it, of course, which you just did in your mind. Poets, like trial lawyers, sometimes use questions deceitfully. They know the answer, or at least their answer, but they want to trap you into answering it for yourself. That way you’re captured by the internal logic of the poem. Turning to Hugo again, this time in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” he uses the entire third stanza to hound the reader with a series of questions that are more-or-less rhetorical:

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Being a master manipulator, Hugo follows up that question stanza with a command “Say no to yourself.” However, the questions in the prior stanza are the primary volume controllers. Each question feels louder than the rest. Each one asks the reader to question their core values. It’s like a parent berating a child, wearing him or her down with questions that are really accusations. Readers can’t help but respond .

Even when a poem doesn’t answer its questions, and many do not, it still hooks the reader in the search. Readers are like cats following the light from a laser pointer–they can’t help themselves. Jennifer Givhan’s poem “Polar Bear” works on this principle with a rhetorical question that compels the reader to the poem’s conclusion phrased as another question. After the initial question we come to a long sentence constructed of pancake-stacked clauses that speed the poem along:

… We are on my bed crying for what we’ve done
to the polar bears, the male we’ve bonded with on-screen
whose search for seals on the melting ice has led him
to an island of walruses and he is desperate, it is late-
summer and he is starving and soon the freeze
will drive all life back into hiding, so he goes for it,
the dangerous hunt, the canine-sharp tusks
and armored hides for shields, the fused weapon
they create en masse, the whole island a system
for the elephant-large walruses who, in fear, huddle
together, who, in fear, fight back.

And then the rush stops on line 22 with a period, and a hard emotional stop that coincides with a change in setting (from the description of the polar bear attack to the speaker’s son), which is also where the author brings up the ends of the metaphor and ties it in a knot for the reader.

Kim Addonizio’s poem “What Do Women Want?” starts out with strong declarative statements, “I want a red dress. / I want it flimsy and cheap,” which you probably hear in a moderate pace and volume – not whispering or shouting, not dragging or rushing. The hard and medium-hard end-stop lines keep you from moving too quickly. A few lines later the poem picks up speed thanks to the the shift from short statements to a longer sentence that goes on for seven enjambed lines. The effect is like a creek, burbling along, and then it tumbles through a waterfall, speeding up along the way for those seven lines. But what always happens at the bottom of a waterfall? There’s a pool where the water, or energy, gathers, stops for a moment, then moves again. Directly after that seven line waterfall, Addonizio slows us down with shorter lines, shorter sentences, and more end stop lines that make it hard to rush through.

Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” which has become something of an anthem for the times, uses these techniques and others as it pushes and pulls the reader along. It controls the reader so expertly that you feel you’re a car on a roller coaster, and your only choice is to follow the rails. The opening short, end-stopped, declaration, “Life is short, though I keep this from my children,” acts like a thesis statement for the poem. It’s followed by a much longer sentence, broken up into enjambed lines that use repetition, all of which speeds the poem along and raises the emotional pitch. Directly in the middle, Smith alters the pace with two emotionally-laden statements achieved both by startling images and an ecclesiastical-sounding sentence structure:

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake.

That’s an interesting moment in the poem, because it’s a gut punch. Midway through the experience we are forced to reconsider our place (as reader and as people in the world) and reorient ourselves. Getting back to the roller coaster comparison– this is the moment when the car is paused at the top of the ride, and you’re looking nervously at the park down below. The very next sentence is the dive to the bottom, propelled by three enjambed lines. Then the poem continues to repeat phrases from the first half, lifting and turning its imagery, jolting the reader back and forth until the poem rolls smoothly back to ground.

So why all this attention on pace and volume? Because poetry shouldn’t be monotone. It shouldn’t be the white noise you fall asleep to or the drone of the late night TV news anchor. Why do TV commercials blast their volume? Because the change gets your attention of course, and getting attention is the first step in getting you to engage with the content. As in advertising or marketing, poetry can be (and I’d argue that it should be) manipulative, and a poet who knows how to control a reader’s attention and emotions is a poet I enjoy reading. A poem that hooks you by the nose and pulls you down the road is one you’re going to remember.

Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of two poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing 2012), plus the forthcoming collections, The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books) and Reckless Constellations (Cider Press Review Books).  In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry ReviewThe Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is Email queries to


Image credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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