The shortest poem I have read would probably be Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”. It’s only two lines: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Merely describing an image, this poem doesn’t need to be any longer. It gets the message across in a poignant manner. To me, it poses the question, when should a poem be longer or shorter?
Shrinking or stretching a poem might happen in the midst of writing, or during your editing stage. By “shrink” or “stretch”, I mean cutting lines and ideas or expanding on images and themes, respectively. If you’re working on a free verse poem and can’t decide whether or not it’s the right length, consider these recommendations.
SHRINK: When you have too many ideas in a poem
When writing a first draft, it’s totally fine to vomit words onto the page. Get as many ideas on your topic down as you can, then cut out the clutter later. Of course, that means identifying the clutter from the core of your poem.
Comb through your poem and find the strongest idea and image. Maybe it’s the one that inspired you to write the poem to begin with, or maybe it’s a thought that occurred to you as you wrote. Either way, your poem should center around that concept. If some of your other ideas pull focus or detract from the main message, cut them out and tuck them in your pocket for another day.
STRETCH: There’s more of a concept worth exploring
If you’re writing a poem and the ideas keep flowing forth, it’s okay to run with them. An idea can evolve — dare I say, it should evolve — beyond its original form during the writing process. If you make a discovery along the way, by all means, implement it. But as mentioned in the point above, make sure it adds to the central concept instead of detracting.
You may possess an infinite amount of ideas on a subject. In this case, write multiple poems, or a poem with multiple sections, like “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot. What originally started in your mind as a sonnet may blossom into a collection of poems, or even the next great epic.
SHRINK: To fit a format
This one’s a bit of a no-brainer. If you’re writing in a specific structure or meter, you might need to cut things down to maintain consistency. It can be a challenge, especially when you’ve written a line you really like, but the nice thing about poetry is that you can easily recycle snippets from other work in progress.
Of course, there’s an argument for breaking structure as well. It allows for dramatic flair and experimentation. However, if you’re set on aligning with structure, discipline yourself and stay true to the guidelines provided.
STRETCH: To complete a story line
Storytelling applies to poetry as well. If you introduce a change in stasis, show the results. How does the world change? How do people react? What happens next? Will anything be the same again?
If you’ve created a character for your poem, it might help to give them their own mini-arc.
Even if your poem just personifies a tree, the reader may feel disappointed if they haven’t gotten a complete story, or at least a full glimpse of your character. Think about what they do, and where their action will lead them. If they’re an inanimate object, consider how the world around them interacts with them.
SHRINK: You have unstoppable writer’s block
When you keep running into a mental block as you write a poem, maybe it’s time to take a step back. Think about what your poem is about, then jump back in. Cutting a few lines — perhaps even every line but one key phrase — can force yourself to reconsider what you’ve written and what’s truly important.
Have you heard of “significant details”? The same applies to poetry. Not all details are created equal, and it’s okay to purge them. By focusing your attention on what’s truly significant to your poem, you clear a path towards clarity.
EITHER OR: Trust your gut
It’s your poem. Nobody knows your writing better than you. If you feel like a poem is getting too long, pull back on the reins. If your instincts urge you onwards, charge forth full steam ahead. There’s no right or wrong answer, but pay attention to how you feel about the work as you write it.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for feedback. They can give you an audience perspective on the poem and advise you on the length. But once again, it’s your poem. You’re allowed to dictate how you follow that advice.