Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 7, 2014

The Poetic Tense

A colleague recently referred to the poetic tense as distinguished from the past or present tenses, with the latter being what I usually use for poems. I asked if he invented the term; he demurred. A quick Google search didn’t bring me more information. I suppose there are things than even Google doesn’t know, but also a verb is a verb. On the other hand, time slips. Maybe there is a particular tense that moves beyond or within the moment in attempts to gently snag attention, then let it go. That slipping away again may be as important as the meeting. A good poem has loose hinges or rattling windows. It invites, but doesn’t crowd. A poem may remind us that we are always in the midst. We are on our toes, which, as any ballerina will tell you, takes a lot of strength.

Being in the present takes trust, like that poets ask of readers. In biographical poems like those I wrote in Borrowed Names, I don’t show the whole lives, but parts. The weight of too much information can get in the way of intimacy. There’s that balancing again for the writer who sets aside much information to put forward a few images. All writers depend on wordlessness as much as words, making choices about both what’s said and what’s unsaid, and what will be the most powerful. But poets in particular may teeter as we try to determine how much is too much, and how much isn’t enough. We don’t want to over-inform or bore, but we also don’t want to leave readers in the dark or some sort of dream world; at least I don’t.

Trust is a form of love. It’s holding on, but lightly. The way we read poems may be similar to how we write them, with images or ideas coming our way, then vanishing within the time it takes to read a line. Writers need to find our balance between the past and present, what seems certain and what is possibility, what is graspable and what may forever slip away, before presenting words to readers. The reading and the writing may seem to happen all at once, somewhere in the poetic tense. If there is one. Do you know?



  1. Re: poetic tense

    I was moved to look into this last night because I found the coyness of your demurring colleague somewhat annoying, and also because I had never heard the phrase “poetic tense” before, and was curious. I spent about two hours searching around on the Internet, and encountered a few “false positives” before coming to the conclusions that (a) the term “poetic tense” has been around for quite a while, even though it is impossible (at least I found it so) to figure out HOW long, and (b) the actual USAGE of what is considered “the poetic tense” goes back quite a ways.

    {Note: I wrote the first part of what follows before reaching the above conclusions, and decided to leave it as is, as kind of a “work-in-progress” series of revelations, rather than change it to reflect my final conclusions.)

    Perhaps your colleague sincerely believes he invented the phrase “poetic tense”, and is merely being modest in demurring, or maybe he is being coy because he actually knows it is a phrase which predates his use of it by many years, but likes the idea of being at least considered a candidate for the position of inventor of that phrase, and thus prefers to leave the question open by neither denying nor claiming that position.

    However, my quick Google search for “poetic tense” returned 942 hits — not a huge number, to be sure, but enough to demonstrate conclusively (unless your colleague is the heretofore unrevealed “world’s oldest man”) that the phrase was in use at least one and a quarter centuries ago, in the pages of the July-December 1889 “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine”.

    Here’s the URL for that:

    I have to say that in giving this scanned page (which is the eighty-third page of the original publication, apparently either transcribed manually, or by scanning and the use of OCR software, so that its contents could be turned into readable text and thus accessible via a Google search) some closer , more careful scrutiny, the phrase “poetic tense” is perhaps a bit suspect, as the shape of the putative “t” in the word “tense” is a bit muddled, and could easily be an “s”, which would make the word in question “sense” instead of “tense”. It’s hard to tell, having only this scan and not the original in front of me.

    So that one might not be of great use, but it is somewhat instructive in considering the fallibility quotient of these publications scanned to create searchable databases — it might behoove the searcher to carefully examine the scanned original to attempt to ascertain whether the scan and conversion to text are as accurate as can be.

    In any event, a quick look a little further down the list of Google hits, on page three, revealed another scanned page, this one from a publication (I believe it was a newspaper) called “The Ithacan”, circa 1868 (and again — not to state the obvious, but stating the obvious — over a century and a quarter in the past).

    in the first page displayed, scanned from a copy of this vintage newspaper, is a review of a book titled “No Love Lost: A Romance of Travel” by W.D. Howells, a review which contains the following line (with its mention of “the poetic tense”):

    “Having read its brilliant pages, in which often the prose is poetry and the poetic tense is everywhere distinguishable, one is prepared to expect much in a new poem from the same source.”

    Here’s the URL for the page if anyone is interested:

    Unfortunately, upon further review, this page has the same problem as the previous one from “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” — the supposed “t” actually looks a lot more like an “s”.

    Let’s try again: Also on the third page of my Google search is a link to a page from a book apparently published in 1903, which has the following sentence:

    “A number of verbs form poetic tense-stems by adding -0″/e- to the present or second-aorist tense-stem.”

    And how about this, apparently published in 1967:

    “lt appears to me that the French imperfect is a pre-eminently poetic tense : it expresses actions that last, that do not stop; it is a tense whose vibrations last a long time.”

    And finally, this:

    “Like others before and after her, Sutherland sees poetic tense usage as “a matter of style rather than syntax” (1939:333), with style understood as being “limited to a specialized literary technique” while syntax is a “genuine reflection of a development in the colloquial language.”

    The above is a quote from a book by Suzanne Fleischman titled “Tense and Narrativity: From Medieval Performance to Modern Fiction”, published in 1990.

    Here’s the URL:

    I also found the following interesting bit about “verb displacement” on Wikipedia:

    “Verb displacement as it relates to prose, is a technique used to impart a lyrical or poetic feel to a phrase, sentence, or paragraph.”

    (see full entry at:

    I’m not sure if this is the “poetic tense” about which you are writing, given that it is said to apply to prose, but it seems to be connected, somehow. Of course, not being a poet, I could be completely wrong about that.

    All things considered, this was a frustrating search… but as is often the case, while searching for one thing, I encountered another, perhaps even more interesting thing — in this case, the problem with trusting Google’s vast archive of scanned books to be 100% accurate to the originals. — PL

    • I’m fairly certain the phrase with spoken with less research than you gave it. It might have even been, for all I know, a slip of the tongue. It did make me curious — though I think your curiosity exceeded mine; or I just spun a little reverie on it, being not so smitten with Google. But, like you, I like the “verb displacement.” Not such a pretty term, but evocative.

  2. “A good poem has loose hinges…” Love this post, Jeannine! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Loose hinges, rattling windows… how much do I love this? Also makes me think about what draws me to free verse rather than metered & rhymed, which makes me feel hemmed in. Thank you, Jeannine. xo

    • We don’t need to be hemmed in. I like the frame of free verse, without the tape and nails: let those windows rattle!

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