Craft Essay: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

by Frances Donovan

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place.

Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Finding them was a bit of a challenge, perhaps because it’s difficult to sum up such a characteristic in a pithy, searchable phrase. The very act of researching the subject and writing this essay has helped me refine language to define it. After a fair amount of Googling and old-fashioned skimming in paper books, I finally had to resort to crowdsourcing. Many thanks to the poets in online communities who helped me find what I was looking for. And I began to notice some commonalities.

Proper use of tense (present, past, past-perfect, conditional, etc.) is one important aspect of clearly depicting more than one moments in the same poem. This technique seems self-evident, but it’s been a blind spot for me in my own writing. Since cogitating on this issue, I’ve learned to pay much closer attention to my use of tense in my own poems.

But the appropriate tense isn’t as simple as events moving in one direction on a timeline. Memory doesn’t work like that – it allows us to hop back and forth. In Laura Kasischke’s poem “Bike Ride with Older Boys,” the speaker uses past tense (“I was thirteen”) and past perfect tense (“I’d given them my number”) to describe the primary moment of the poem (“I said… I’d meet them at the Stop-n-Go / at four o’clock. / And then I didn’t show.”). The poem shifts into the present tense (“I have been given a little gift”) to indicate the speaker’s voice in the present day. But then past and present begin to mix: “I never saw those boys again / I’m not as dumb / as they think I am // But neither am I wise…”).

With the word “Perhaps,” we move into an eternal present of possibility. Two possible outcomes, both described in the present tense, lend an immediacy to the scene that wouldn’t be there if the conditional were used instead. The return to the past tense (“Who knew then”) and the use of the conditional immediately afterward (“I would be”) loops time around the event itself, evoking both the original memory and the speaker doing the remembering. The end of the poem (“those boys still waiting / outside the Stop-n-Go, smoking / cigarettes, growing older.”) uses present tense to evoke the eternal present of possibility, with the final words “growing older” evoking time’s inexorable forward movement.

Repetition also plays an important role in maintaining unity across different moments in time. Kasichke centers her poem around the characters’ planned meeting at the Stop-n-Go. Of the poems I reviewed, the very successful ones begin and end with a single vivid image, such as the mother’s gold wedding ring in Wendy Mnookin’s “My Mother Turns Ninety.”

Sensual imagery isn’t the only kind of repetition that works. “Shirt,” by Robert Pinsky, uses repetition of cataloging and meter—as well as imagery—to connect multiple scenarios. I hadn’t realized the depth of Pinsky’s talent until I came across this poem. “The back, the yoke, the yardage,” begins the poem. The listing of a shirt’s elements in a loose iambic meter stitches the poem together, as it spools out to a sweatshop in Asia, reels back in to the buttoning of a cuff, out again to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and so on.

The second catalog (“The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union”), inserts the historic and socio-economic implications of shirt-making into the physical act. The next line continues the back-and-forth stitch between the shirt and the conditions in which the shirt is made: “The treadle, the bobbin. The code…” Note the period that separates “the code” from the treadle and bobbin – a subtle indicator that the poem is about to spiral outward again. The end of the same line invokes one of the most famous events in the histories of both the labor movement and the garment industry: “…The infamous blaze // At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.” Four stanzas in the middle of the poem then focus on the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. Never does the speaker offer an opinion or interpretation of the fire, but the length of time spent on this scene and the intimate, human way he describes the final acts of three of its victims speak volumes.

Many poets might stop there, but Pinsky reels us back out again to two more episodes of garment-related oppression and injustice: Britain’s subjugation of Scotland and its subsequent cultural appropriation of traditional Scottish tartans; and the cotton industry built on the backs of slaves, which fueled the textile mills of the industrial revolution.

Awareness of these techniques has already proved useful to me during revisions, but I’ve discovered it’s best to put the problem of time aside during initial free-writes. Each poem must deal with time in its own way, and that way becomes apparent as the poem matures.

Works Cited 

Kasische, Laura. “Bike Ride with Older Boys.” Dance and Disappear. University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. Web. 10/30/2016.

Mnookin, Wendy. “My Mother Turns Ninety.” Dinner with Emerson. Tiger Bark Press, 2016. Read an interview with Wendy Mnookin here.

Pinsky, Robert. “Shirt.” The Want Bone. HarperCollins, 1990. Web. 10/30/16.

Further Reading

Weigl, Bruce. “Song of Napalm.” Archaeology of the Circle: New and Selected Poems. Grove/Atlantic. Web. 10/13/16.

Lowell, Robert. “For the Union Dead.” Life Studies and for the Union Dead. Noonday Press, 1964. Web. 10/30/16.

Barot, Bruce. “Brown Refrigerator.” Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Web. 10/30/16.

Note: If you find this essay helpful and wish to cite it, please attribute appropriately with a link back to this page.

Photo credit: JD Baskin via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0

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