Erin's Poetry Tips

40 tips to poetry and poetry forums

Friday, April 01, 2005

Shiftless Tenses

Past, Present, Future

Verb tense, as in yesterday, today, tomorrow,
we all understand the concept of conjugating a verb based on time
-- (yesterday) I ran, (today) I run, (tomorrow) I will run –
right?

In poetry, consistent verb tense is important, because generally speaking, poems are much shorter than, say, an essay. This leaves the reader with more opportunity to get confused about when something happened, because of the lack of context from which to make that decision. In a story or essay, we can shift tenses a bit more easily, especially in the case of dialogue, where people in the present tense discuss events in the past tense for example. The length of the piece gives the writer time and context enough to explain which tense applies to which part of the story. However, in poetry we lack that opportunity, it’s very difficult to shift tenses within a poem without leaving it with a case of jet lag, though it can be done, if the piece is fairly long, or in a case where the writer uses some form of formatting to clarify.

Each tense can give a piece a different mood.
Past tense can feel wistful and nostalgic – reflective.
Present tense tends to give you the feeling of being solid and current and tangible.
Future tense can give you a feeling of uncertainty perhaps.

Each tense can serve its own purpose, add its own effect. The important thing is that they don’t shift and confuse your reader. It is much more effective to ensure that your tenses always agree, from one stanza to the next, throughout the entire piece. Give your reader solid footing to walk on while he reads. Don’t give him reason to stumble or become perplexed.