A line in your poem isn't working? This might be why.

A line in your poem isn't working? This might be why.

You read your poem out loud and something doesn't quite fit. You read it again, and a word, or a sound, or a rhythm, irks you, but you can't quite put your finger on it.

You ask yourself: Is it this line? Is it this word? What's bothering me?

You rewrite portions of the poem, read it again, and repeat until the poem sounds right.

Does this sound like you? Do you think to yourself, 'There's gotta be a better way!'

(Does this sound like an infomercial? I promise it's not.)

Here's the way I go through my poems, when I feel like something isn't working but it's not readily apparent what.

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NOTE: I believe these tactics are *only* useful when something isn't working. Your ear, and your personal taste, will always be the best way to judge a poem.

If you're happy with what you've written, the word choices you've made, the balance of each line, the overall rhythm of the poem, them I do not suggest using these tactics.

With that said, let's dive into prosody, or the science of rhythm and sound in poetry.

The first thing to check: syllables

This might seem obvious (and is probably obvious to a lot of people), but it must be said, because the syllable is the smallest speech sound we have, and is the building blocks of the poetry we write.

Personally, I went three or four years before I started counting syllables, and I'm sure I would have saved myself some time if I had been counting from the beginning.   

Let's take a look at an example.

For the purposes of this blog, we'll be working with a poem I wrote called "i walk home alone at dawn." This was a free verse aubade, which is written about daybreak or dawn.

Here's my first draft:

I walk home alone at dawn

just a drink, I said, this time

not wanting to spend my last dime

but before long I hear the chime

of a birth, first light, daytime


then the wonder of the night begins to wane

your friends now look on with disdain

the sun has become midnight’s bane

and your hedonism has come fully into frame

so you walk home alone at dawn

once again a fool’s lonely pawn

realizing you’re anything but Don Juan

walking barefoot on a stranger’s lawn.

An okay first draft, but some parts felt awkward and a mouthful, so I counted my syllables.

Stanza 1: 7, 8, 8, 7

Stanza 2: 11, 8, 8, 13

Stanza 3: 8, 8, 11, 9

There are outliers there, so let's try to tighten it up.

DRAFT 2 of “I walk home alone at dawn”:

I walk home alone at dawn

7 Just a drink, I said, this time

8 not wanting to spend my last dime

8 but before long I hear the chime

7 of a birth, first light, daytime

10 the wonder of the night begins to wane

8 your friends now look on with disdain

8 the sun has become midnight’s bane

9 your hedonism has come into frame

8 so you walk home alone at dawn

8 once again a fool’s lonely pawn

8 you’re anything but Don Juan

9 walking barefoot on a stranger’s lawn.

Okay, that's tighter, but still not perfect. I’m mostly happy with stanza 2 and 3, but the beginning feels a little sloppy.

What's the next step?

STEP 2: MAP YOUR PLOSIVES

First, what's a plosive? They're hard consonants that force you to stop and reset your breath and generally include B, C, D, G, K, P, Q, T.

If these force you to stop and reset your breath, and there's a lot clustered together, you can see how that can trip up a reader and / or wreck the rhythm of your poem.

When you read, they’re almost ‘explosive’ and too many explosions can really trip up a reader.

Let's take a look at my example again, but this time highlighting (bolding) all the plosives.  

7 just a drink, I said, this time

8 not wanting to spend my last dime

8 but before long I hear the chime

7 of a birth, first light, daytime

10 the wonder of the night begins to wane

8 Your friends now look on with disdain

8 The sun has become midnight’s bane

9 your hedonism has come into frame


8 So you walk home alone at dawn

8 Once again a fool’s lonely pawn

8 you’re anything but Don Juan

9 walking barefoot on a stranger’s lawn.

So, looking at the plosives listed and feeling out where there’s awkwardness, I’d look to lines 2 and 3 in stanza 1.

8 not wanting to spend my last dime

8 but before long I hear the chime

It’s those 4 in a row, “not wanting to spend” that trips me up as I read it and immediately throws off the rhythm of the piece, then the next line starts hard again, with a double b.

So I changed the lines to

a reckless man on one last dime

hiding from that final chime

And the final, completed poem becomes:

i walk home alone at dawn

just a drink, you said, this time

a reckless man on one last dime

hiding from that final chime

of a birth, first light, daytime

the night’s wonder begins to wane

your friends now look on with disdain

the sun has become midnight’s bane

your hedonism has come into frame

so you walk home alone at dawn

once again a fool’s lonely pawn

you’re anything but Don Juan

walking barefoot on a stranger’s lawn.


So, there you have it. One way to edit a poem that you feel is *almost* working, but you’re not sure where it’s going wrong.

Easy two-step process:

  1. Count the syllables

  2. Check your plosives.

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"Please Don't Touch The Art" by Ian Canon

"Please Don't Touch The Art" by Ian Canon

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