Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 11, 2014

The Frame of a Poem

A poem may look like a box with clear lines that signal readers where to start and stop. Like the four sides of a photograph, the edges can move us or build tension as much as the picture. Even when beholders focus on the what’s in the frame, they should have a sense of life beyond it. Poets may create symmetry, but within the poem there are few hints of where a revelation, if there is one, might lurk. As in the best photographs, it’s not often smack in the middle. We want readers or onlookers to feel a bit off-balanced, because that means they’re awake. In the midst of writing, there’s little we can know for sure. That’s the game. Everything is possible, which is exhilarating when it’s not horrifying. We’re both lost, and holding on. Seeing the light within a tree, and the shadows.


How does a poet know when she’s reached the end of a poem? And does that mean a poem is finished, or only stopped for a while? Some of this is mystery, and its acceptance, which may not come with stars or whistles: Alexander Calder said that he knew a sculpture was finished when it was time for dinner. The end of a poem may be found in its beginning, with its inspiration and uncertainty. When I reach a place where I feel I’ve done all I can, I send my work to my writing group. After they point out holes or clumsily thick patches, I make more holes, then reconstruct. Finally I reach a point where I’ve explained some, but not everything. An end should keep some rips and empty spaces, a reason to look back, a sense we bring from our lives that everything might have turned out differently, while the last line is true to the drama of people or ideas touching and changing each other. There’s the satisfaction of a knot, but it’s a loose one. The poem articulates a moment or question, but what comes together can be undone again, bringing us back to beautiful uncertainty.



  1. Oh, lord, I’ve never thought about a poem this way, that a relatively staid shape can control little jolts. Thank you once again, Jeannine.

    • I like how you put that, Sarah. Thank you!

  2. “Finally I reach a point where I’ve explained some, but not everything.”
    This should maybe go up on my wall.

    • Yeah, that should go up on my wall, too. How I like to over explain, underline, and write, “Get it?” I usually do, but try to cross all that out somewhere along the line. I know I as a reader dislike being puzzled, but like to feel I have something to bring to the table.

  3. This is the *best* definition of a poem I’ve ever read, from a writer’s point of view. In my own classes–journaling, scrapbooking, writing–I’ve urged people to look beyond the frame of the photograph. What else is going on? Who’s taking the photo? The viewer of a photograph and the reader of a poem are so closely connected, which you brought out beautifully. Your post should be required reading for photographers and writers!

    • Candice, thank you, such a compliment from one whose stories are full of pictures, and whose photographs hint at so many stories. I like your goal as a teacher. That’s when we get to do the pointing — but step back when it’s time to create.

  4. You, madam, are a genius. For serious.

    • You are very (too) kind, Kelly. Thank you for making me smile!

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