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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Poetry Critique: “The weight of a needle” rests on syntax and punctuation

Traditional poetry uses patterns of rhyme and rhythm to shape each line, determine the number and length of verses, and form the whole poem. Without those precut patterns to go by, free verse loses its linear structure, often relying on punctuation and syntax to hold a poem together.

Line-breaks bring structure, too, along with a potential discussion for another day, but for now let’s focus on sentence structure as formed by syntax and punctuation:

The weight of a needle
by Mihai Constantin Duminica

The needle went to far
The needle went to deep
No more secrets that she could keep
Broken thoughts won’t give her wings

The pit is gaping down between her legs
To drown all beasts, and to start the feast,
Dance of the dead, smell of decay,
Roaming free, yet trapped inside a nightmare

Your nightmares reach into my dreams
No will can trap what one can feel,
Lying there, in your hospital bed,
Dreaming of past mistakes, wishing to be dead

Your end won’t reach you,
The deeds of death, forever meant
To haunt your thoughts
And on your cross, your name

...shall fade

The poem opens with the highly effective use of repetition to set the mood and scene. To clarify that scene even more, the third verse could become the second to establish the hospital locale almost immediately. This would also give readers a hint of what’s coming, rather than plunging them into the images in the present verse two.

Switching verses two and three, however, will work best if no switching occurs in the point of view. In the initial draft, verses one and two refer to the patient in third person, whereas verses three and four switch to second person. Using one or the other would strengthen the poem.

We could have a whole discussion about the pros and cons of either perspective, and either can work here. For this poem though, I vote for third person “she” and “her” since using second person “you” might tip the poem toward sentimentality.

Choices about punctuation affect a poem, too, offering structure that makes or breaks the syntax. Some poets, including Pulitzer prized ones, believe that punctuation weighs down a poem, which can certainly happen. Here, however, punctuation would be more apt to clarify meaning and help readers to slow down with each comma and pause at each period.

That said, punctuating a poem can also show any snags in the syntax. By using punctuation here, for example, we have to decide about the “that” in the third line, which, as is, makes the line more of a phrase than a full sentence. My solution would be to omit that “that” and change “could” to “can.”

While we’re in a revising mode, I’d also remove the single instance of passive voice in the poem, turning “is gaping” into the active verb “gapes,” mainly because active verbs tighten almost any kind of writing so are generally considered an asset, especially in a brief text or poem.

Making that type of change during the revision process does not correct an error since the use of a passive verb is not a mistake, but a minor flaw does occur in the use of “to” in the first two lines. i.e., “To” is a preposition when the adverb “too” is needed to establish just how far and how deep that needle went.

I’d also experiment with word choices, which I encourage each of you to do often, for instance, to test connotations or to try out a variety of sounds as you read aloud each poem and each revision. For example, I’d like to see another word in place of the second nightmare.

Notice, too, how switching verses two and three add a sound echo in “wings” and “dreams.” This led me to add “ill” at the end of “lying in a hospital bed,” which you may or may not want to leave since that addition is redundant.

Each change you make as you revise can change something else and something else until it’s hard to know where to stop or when. I find that true in revising my own poems but also in commenting on poems by other people. In either case, letting a poem sit awhile gives you a little distance between yourself and your work, so you can see what, if anything, seems “off.”

To me the logic or, perhaps, clarity seemed off in the line “To drown all beasts, and to start the feast,” so I suggest the line be omitted or reworked with sound echoes rather than the true rhyme found in beast/ feast. That’s a matter of preference of course, depending on the sound effects you want to create, but in this instance, the rhyme emphasizes a thought and image without giving readers a deeper insight into the intent.

Milhai, as you continue to evaluate various aspects of your poignant poem, also consider returning to the thought and image you initially threaded into your powerful opening lines. Let that needle guide you in stringing together images that enhance your poem and help you to say what you most want to say.

Meanwhile, let’s look at this version. Better yet, read aloud the first version and this revision:

The weight of a needle
by Mihai Constantin Duminica

The needle went too far.
The needle went too deep.
No more secrets can she keep.
Broken thoughts won’t give her wings.

Her nightmares reach into my dreams.
No Will can trap what one can feel,
lying in a hospital bed, ill
and dreaming of past mistakes,
wishing to be dead.

The pit gapes between her legs:
dance of the dead, smell of decay
roaming free, yet trapped inside a ___.

Her end won’t reach
the deeds of death, forever meant
to haunt her thoughts,
and on her cross, her name
shall fade.


  1. I thank you for your critique, i appreciate it very much, but i must state the fact that English is not my native language, therefore i believe it is to be expected that punctuation mistakes are to be expected.When I write in english i only use my common sense and my particular aesthetic sense, which is actually based on my personal translation. that is the reason i tend to let some things apparently to be governed by randomness. I assure you that there is a logic. I thank you once again for all your suggestions, and I want you to be certain that i will respect them as much as I can...

  2. Mihai, thanks again for sharing your poem for critique. It never occurred to me that English wasn't your native language. Good job! A current trend among American poets has been to omit all punctuation, so you might want to do that too. The key is to use line breaks to group each thought, so readers can follow your direction as they read your poems.