Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.16: Poetic Structure: Part II

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

How does a poem happen?

Absent an external structure, what makes a thing a poem?

The key word in that question may be “external,” because ultimately the poem on the page will be the implicit definition of its own structure—even if it borrows a “non-poetic” structure from another form.

Structure is as structure does. “Unstructured” is just a way to say “I am unfamiliar with this structure,” or maybe “I don’t believe that this structure is fit for poetry.”

And that might be a thing you are currently saying.  After all, “blog post describing a podcast episode” is definitely a structure.

Does the embracing of that structure make this thing into a poem?

If this thing is a poem, how did that happen?

Liner Notes:

  • Girl Hours” by Sofia Samatar (via Stone Telling magazine),
  • The Hill We Climb,” by Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (YouTube from the Biden/Harris Inauguration)

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Write a poem inspired by the form with which you’ve chosen to structure it: take a numbered list of things, and use that numbered list to write a poem inspired by the list, and also organized according to that list.

Thing of the week: The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Chestnuts to chew on: implicit structures instead of explicit. Organizing principles, logic, instead of a schematic or blueprint. Instead of fitting your meaning into forms, let the topic suggest a form. Take a structure, embroider it, build outwards from it, elaborate on it, explode it! Instead of a single external large structure, look at microstructure, chunks of forms used on the inside. Invent a form. Transpose it!

[Season 16, Episode 16]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Poetic Structure: Part II.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Amal] I’m Amal.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] So, last week, in part I of this, Amal led us through talking about poems that had structures. This week, she has promised to talk to us about things that do not have a structure. Which is very exciting to me, because I see words in your outline that make me so happy, like the words short story. So, talk to me about this.


[Amal] Right. So, last week, I was talking about essentially explicit structures. The structure that you have a form, it’s kind of like a container, and you are pouring your poetic genius into that container and it’s taking on that shape. So something that has a rhyme scheme, something that has a specific meter, or something like that. These are received structures that you are using to shape your poem. They can be very useful and they can be paradoxically very liberating, because once you have eliminated the need to kind of figure out the shape of the thing, sometimes it can be easier to just write a thing. But that said, there are tons of ways to structure poems that don’t actually involve following a specific schematic for the poem. That’s what I want to talk about this week. So, it’s not so much that things don’t have a structure as much as that the structure is implicit instead of explicit, and that the structure is more of an organizing principle, more of a logic, than it is an actual schematic or blueprint for producing a poem. The way that we talked about memes last week. So I want to talk about this a little bit the way… The thing that Mary Robinette was saying was exciting. To me, this is how I think about short stories a lot of the time. That I… If I think to myself I want to tell a story about someone who is experiencing a kind of fracturing of identity. Or something that is breaking them up inside in some way. I might want to take that theme and reflect it in the form of the story. I might want to tell the story itself in fragments. That’s the kind of logic that I’m talking about here for a poem. Where, instead of fitting your meaning into a received set of forms, you instead let the thing that you want to talk about suggest a shape, suggest a form. That may or may not actually interact with the way that you’re writing the poem. I don’t know if you guys actually write short stories this way, though.


[Amal] Is that actually familiar or is that a totally off-the-wall?

[Mary Robinette] I mean, it depends, for me, on the short story. Which is, I suspect, like, so is that the way you write poetry? That it depends on the poem? And the constraints and the mood of the moment?

[Amal] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] So, sometimes I’m extremely structured with my stories, and sometimes I am… Much more explorational.

[Amal] Sometimes you can take the form that one thing tends to have… I find that a lot of the time when we teach short stories, or when we teach short story structure, we end up reaching for the structure of other media. We might reach for the three act structure of a film, or at least use it to kind of bounce different structures off of and stuff like that. Similarly, like, there are a couple of poems that I want to share with people. Not by reading them out on the podcast specifically, but perhaps in show notes. There’s a poem by Sofia Samatar called Girl Hours which is stunningly beautiful. I adore it completely. It’s about Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who I’m sure Mary Robinette knows about.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Amal] So, about the fact that girl hours was a way of talking about the length of a project, essentially, because women were computers who were crunching numbers all the time, so any kind of project that involved doing that was reckoned in girl hours. So, Samatar has written this tremendous poem about Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her life and her work. But the form that she’s chosen to do that in is the form of a standard essay. So the way that an essay would have an introduction, a body, a conclusion, and notes. She has taken those elements of an essay and use them to structure this poem instead. So, but she’s also turned it around. She’s also made it backwards. Which… For reasons that are in the poem. It opens with notes that start in prose, saying, in the 1870s, the Harvard College Observatory began to employ young women as computers to record and analyze data. One of them, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, discovered a way to measure stellar distances using the pulsing of variable stars. Then it goes into the conclusion. And instead, the shape of it is totally transformed.

You were not the only deaf woman there.

Annie Cannon, too, was hard of hearing.

On the day of your death, she wrote: Rainy day pouring at night.

And then it just kind of goes on from there. It’s this tremendous poem that I cannot enough recommend. But it takes as its structure something that is very much not a poem, and then incorporates it into the poem to reflect on many of the themes that are present in the poem.

[Howard] I had a fun experience about a week ago as of the time of this recording. Sandra and I sat down to watch a movie called Along with the Gods, which is a Korean film that sort of a fantasy afterlife epic thing. We were about 15 minutes in… It’s subtitled, not dubbed. We were about 15 minutes in. I don’t speak a word of Korean. We were about 15 minutes in when suddenly I realized, “Oh, wait a minute. None of the cadence of the voices tells me this. None of the subtitles tell me this. But this is about 15% comedy.” Suddenly I had to rewrite in my head all of the receipts… All of my receipts for lines of dialogue and it completely changed my understanding of what was happening. So, this idea that an implicit form can change the message. The person receiving the poem has to know the form. You have to have that piece. I’m not regretting my experience at all. It was great fun. But I love the idea that form is that important, and that sometimes we rely on it without knowing it.

[Dan] So, here’s what I hope is a really great example of what you’re talking about. Amal, if I’m totally off base, just shut me up. But the TV show WandaVision…


[Dan] Is doing this, and doing this brilliantly. Because what they are trying to tell is a story about a woman who is searching for a family, and trying to build and find a family. So they are using these received forms of sitcom structure and they’re going through out… Every episode is a different kind of sitcom model from a different period of history, but they are very specifically doing detailed pastiche of family sitcoms, like Bewitched, and like The Donna Reed Show, and Dick Van Dyke, and Brady Bunch, and all these things. Because within that form, they are able to tell all of these extra facets of family life and what is perceived as normal, what we expect to have, because we’ve seen it on TV, and there’s all these layers because of the form they’re using.

[Amal] I’m literally covered in full body chills as you brought that up, that example, because it is everything that you said, and I’d argue it’s even more than that, in that one of the things about WandaVision… Zero spoilers, obviously, because it’s magnificent and really should be experienced in the form that it has chosen, which is the weekly episode. It is doing something extremely brilliant, which is that it’s not just about a woman wanting a family, it’s about a woman processing enormous grief.

[Dan] Yes.

[Amal] Within the context of the past year that we’ve all lived through, one of the ways that people have been managing their situation, reckoning with their grief, has been through binge watching television.

[Howard] Wait! What?

[Amal] I know…

[Mary Robinette] Shocking. So confusing.

[Amal] But this is the… For it to be about a relationship between grief and television, but also to forestall the ability to binge it. You can’t binge this show, unless you wait for it to be over and then binge it. You have to actually experience it one week at a time, the way that the sitcoms that it is engaged with are doing, is a brilliant use of the form to both, like, to engage and transform the thing that it’s about, and to use things like commercial breaks to explore these different elements of everything that the meat of the show is about. It is doing… That show genuinely feels like poetry to me, in the way that it has layered meaning on meaning on meaning.

[Dan] Yes.

[Amal] Within the structure it has taken for itself.

[Dan] Well, the moment for me when it moved from a thing I really loved to a thing that I consider to be genius is when Wanda wants to avoid an argument, and so she rolls credits.


[Dan] And Vision has to chase her into the next room. He’s like, “No. This isn’t over. You have to talk to me.” And the way that it uses that form. Although, to go back to what Howard was saying about how you kind of have to know the form, my children completely bounced off of this show.


[Dan] Because they did not grow up with the Dick Van Dyke show. So episode one meant nothing to them.

[Mary Robinette] So, harking back…

[Dan] Yeah. Go for it.

[Mary Robinette] To last episode, they were missing the meme.

[Dan] Yes. Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Let’s take a moment to pause for our book of the week, which is The Space Between Worlds by… Which Amal has recommended.

[Amal] Yes. So, I apologize if I’m mispronouncing her name. It’s Micaiah Johnson or Micaiah Johnson. I’m not sure because I’ve never heard it spoken. I apologize if that is not correct. But, The Space Between Worlds is a magnificent book. Talking of pandemic stuff and our processing thereof, this was the first book that really enabled me to read again last year. I’ve observed that lots of people fell into different camps of either reading a lot more than they normally did or reading a lot less than they normally did to manage the situation. For me, I basically lost the ability to read for about three months. The book that snapped me out of that was The Space Between Worlds. It is about… It’s high concept science-fiction. It is… The premise is that someone has figured out how to access hundreds of alternate realities, but the… In order to go to that alternate reality, in order to actually be there, you cannot have a version of yourself alive there. So people who… The people who become traversers, as they’re called, the people who are actually able to do this, are people whose lives are so contingent and vulnerable and volatile that the fact that they have survived into adulthood is basically a miracle, and they can go to all of these other worlds. So the protagonist, Cara, is someone who is only alive in seven worlds out of… Eight worlds… Seven or eight worlds, I can’t remember, out of like over 300. So as a consequence, she’s able to go to these other worlds.

[Mary Robinette] Wow.

[Amal] It is so pacey and action-packed and also gorgeously written. Is that it basically just lit me on fire from within. It flooded me with gasoline and struck a match. It just… Suddenly, I could experience color and heat and wonder again. I just love this book so, so much. I really want everyone to read it.

[Mary Robinette] That sounds amazing. So that’s The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson.

[Amal] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Ah. So good.

[Mary Robinette] So, I have a question. I hope this doesn’t take us to far off course. But one of the things as you’ve been talking that I was thinking about is the poem that we have all just heard, which is Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb that she read on the inaugural… The day of the Inauguration. Like, I’m in awe of that kind of poetry, because it is not a structured poem. I… The only poetry that I have really written as an adult has generally been in service of a novel, one of which was in Valor and Vanity. Lord Byron was a character. I needed him to recite some poetry that he had written about glamour, which is clearly not a poem he has ever written. So to do that, I took one of his poems and I used that as my structural template. I understand how to do that. I understand how to interrogate the text and figure out why he was placing the linebreaks where he placed them, why he was…. I don’t understand, when we’re looking at this implicit form with poetry, how to articulate and go after the structural goals of the language. Like what… So when we’re talking about this implicit structure, like, how do we… What are we… What am I doing?


[Amal] So, like with a short story… Obviously there are lots of variables there, right? But I love what you’re describing about what you did with a Byron poem. Because… So… I mean… Can I ask, how did you choose the Byron poem that you chose?

[Mary Robinette] I looked for something that was at least thematically linked to the topic and the mood that I wanted him to be going through. So that there would be… So that, I guess, that tonally it was still… It was in the right ballpark for what I was going for. I wanted to be able to kind of retain as much of the original structure as I could. But it… That was… I looked at a lot of Byron poems. But that was mostly what I was looking at, was the emotional tone.

[Amal] Right. So, similarly, I think that when you want to be writing something that is following again, like a certain organizational principle, there’s going to be a certain amount of chicken and egg in terms of figuring out what poem you want to write on this theme versus what theme this structure suggests and stuff like that. There’s some back-and-forth there. But in terms of like how do you do it. So, what I…

[Mary Robinette] Specifically, like with unstructured things.

[Amal] Yeah. Exactly. So, with unstructured things, a lot of things come into play. I love that you brought up Amanda Gorman’s poem, because a great deal of what’s going on in that poem is the room she allowed herself for its performance. If you see that poem on the page, it is experienced very, very differently than when she reads it. A big… And I don’t just mean in terms of like her charisma and her ability to perform it. I mean the… There is a lot of internal rhyme in that poem. If you don’t… It’s internal rhyme that you won’t notice on the page, because it’s not structured with linebreaks where those rhymes are. They’re occurring almost like commas in a sentence. Like those rhymes, there’s a layering that’s happening. I would also argue that, like the layering that’s happening with those rhymes is not dissimilar to building a ladder on a hill that one might climb. For instance, like, there’s a kind of upward motion in that poem that follows… So the form of it is sort of following the function of it.

[Mary Robinette] Got it.

[Amal] It’s following the idea of it. But those are kind of day brain concerns, right? Those are kind of structural, thoughtful, logic-based elements that you’re bringing to something which in its conception tends to be a bit more numinous and a bit more strange. So I want to give a different example of a form that I think is essentially exploding a certain structure in order to build itself out from it. This is possibly… Possibly the kindest, most generous poem I’ve yet read. I love it so much. It’s by Kaitlyn Boulding, and it’s called Questions to ask yourself before giving up. It’s a bit too long to read on the podcast, but what I want to say about it is that it was sparked, as the biography says… It appears in GUTS magazine, and I’m sure we will link to it. But there was a certain text that began to be circulated, I think on Tumblr, that was a series of questions, a kind of self-care checklist, essentially. It goes like this Are you hydrated? If not, have a glass of water. Have you eaten in the past three hours? If not, get some food. Something with protein, not just simple carbs. Have some nuts or hummus. Have you showered in the past day? If not, take a shower right now. So, Kaitlyn Boulding encounters that article and explodes it. What I mean by that is, if you take that, just that first line, are you hydrated? If not have a glass of water. What she does is

Are you hydrated?

When did you last glut your thirst with a handful of spring?

Have you eaten anything besides emails or your fingernails in the last three hours? 

Have you pulled the protein out of an oak tree or palmed an avocado pit this month?

She just takes these straightforward questions and embroiders them and builds them outwards and elaborates on them. She takes them and she… To return to a previous episode, she sings them, in a way. It feels to me very much like she’s taken that checklist, which was the source of some controversy. I remember at the time, this was several years ago, but I remember this checklist kind of being denigrated by a lot of people. Not unjustly in terms of this is not how you solve depression. You cannot solve depression in this way. But in different contexts, with different degrees of distress, this may be helpful to someone, essentially. What Kaitlyn Boulding does, and in the biography, I think she says specifically that she wrote this poem for a friend going through a difficult time. That checklist becomes transformed into a gift. It’s like taking yarn and knitting. It’s like taking some kind of initial fiber form of something and build… Using it as material to build something else.

[Howard] Mary Robinette and I have both talked in the past about times when we just needed to fall back on craft in order to get something done. Without the assist of an external large structure, it’s difficult to fall back on craft. I think part of the answer, Mary Robinette, that you may be looking for lies in the microstructure of some of these poems. The opportunity to use an internal rhyme, the opportunity to use something that sounds like two lines of a sonnet, because they have the same meter. As I listened to The Hill We Climb at the Inauguration, I kept hearing chunks of forms in the presentation. That’s not to say that that’s how it was composed. But I think with a lot of these formless, or absent an outlining form, poems, you will find lots of these little forms on the inside. So, as I’ve done with, for myself, when I’m trying to write humor, coming up with a list of tools, things that I know how to do. Oh, I know how to say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…


[Howard] With Wikipedia titles. I know how to do all of these things. You make a list of these tools, and you said it in front of you. Then you take your topic, and now you might have the pieces you need to fall back on craft and write a formless poem that is borrowing from a dozen different forms at once.

[Amal] Well, this is actually… You’ve hit on a much more succinct way, I think, of talking about, like, how do you do the poem that has a non-traditional form. It’s basically that you invent a form for it. You can… I’m reminded here…Shweta Narayan, who I’ve mentioned before, has a stunning poem called The Bone Harp Sings Nine Moods. To write that poem, what they did was they took a fairytale which is like The Bonny Swans or The Cruel Sister, the tale type where one sister murders another because of some jerk. But, anyway, took that basic story template and took the fact that there was a harp in that story and thought what if I transported that story not from a European setting, but like transposed it into an Indian setting via the medium of Carnatic music. So what Shweta ended up doing was structuring the poem in nine sections to reflect different ragas, essentially. Like different musical modes in Carnatic music. And had each one title the section. Then, within each of those sections, has a very free verse engagement with the meat of the story of that fairytale, essentially, that they were retelling. But it’s structured within this totally other context now of ragas and of the different moods that a different raga refers to. As a consequence, you’ve got this like multi-vocal poem that isn’t in a strictly speaking recognizable form, but is very, very structured nevertheless. Very, very formed.

[Mary Robinette] This is all incredibly interesting. I’ve let us run long because of all of… Like, I just want you to keep unpacking things. But I know that we have homework and we have two more episodes in this topic.

[Mary Robinette] So, your homework, I think is going to give us some exercises to actually try and take some stuff out for a spin. So, will you tell us?

[Amal] Absolutely. So, today’s exercise involves basically writing a poem inspired by the thing you’ve chosen to structure it. I want to make this easier. I’m going to use the medium of the numbered list, okay. So I want you to take a numbered list of things, and use that numbered list to write a poem inspired by the list, and also organized according to that list. If that seems complicated, let me unpack it. Consider, for instance, if you used the four cardinal directions. So you have, the form that I am giving you is, 1, North, 2, South, 3, East, 4, West. Use each one of those headings to write a piece of a poem that is going to make a whole that is in some way involved with north, south, east, and west. But once you have those four directions, you can apply them to whatever you want. Do you want to make it relevant to a map, to some geography? Do you want to make it relevant to the body? With, like, North as the head, and South as the feet? Do you want to make it be about a compass? So, having that numbered list of four things should be a springboard for you to then write a poem about something related to that list. Some other examples can include the elements, four or five, depending… According to whichever tradition you choose. The periodic table might be slightly too long for your purposes. Or the three laws of thermodynamics. Or the neighborhoods in a city. Or anything else that you make up. It just has to be a numbered list where each number is the heading to a different section.

[Mary Robinette] Ah. This is great. Thank you so much, Amal. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.