Looping and stretching

Earlier this month, during my final residency of graduate school at the Rainier Writing Workshop, I presented my critical paper on how time works in poetry—how, by changing our perceptions, sound and image in poetry create a space where we can step outside of time. Because I’m drawn to music, I started out with sound and then repetition—including refrain and anaphora. While reading poems for this paper, I came across looping and stretching. Someone asked where I found those terms. My answer? I made them up, as a way to talk about these specific moves.


Looping is where a line or a sentence starts with one actor or image and leads to another. Line (or sentence) two starts with the second actor or image and leads to a third. My favorite example of this is Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s poem The Possibilities, which appears in her book In the Badlands of Desire. The poem begins:

After a wife’s death a man may talk
to his horse with a great tenderness
as if, just this morning, he had tried on
her pink slipper. And if he has no horse
he may crack his window a little
wider when it lightly rains to confirm
the roofs and trees are made
of paper. If there is no rain
he may make himself a meal at midnight,
sweet artichokes and Danish cheese,
a glass of red wine. If there is
no red, then white. . . .

See how she starts with the man talking to his horse, and the next sentence starts with the horse (or no horse), and moves to the window and rain? The third sentence starts with rain (or no rain) and moves to, finally wine. The fifth stanza switches from red to white wine. The use of “if,” combined with negation (no horse, no rain, no red), add instability, while the repetition of “may” sets up a pattern (“may talk,” “may crack,” “may make,”), which Goldberg breaks in the fifth sentence. Throughout the poem, she continues to return to the “may”/”there is no” pattern and then break it. I find this kind of movement deeply pleasurable. Two other examples of looping are Goldberg’s poem “Black Fish Blues”* (In the Badlands of Desire) and Jay Hopler’s poem “Winter Night Full of Stars”* (The Abridged History of Rainfall).

Try it for yourself! Here’s one way: Start with “If a” or “If you” and write a conjecture, then continue looping and see where it takes you. I tried using looping when I was struggling with how to progress through one poem. While my looping was not as tight, the patterns not as visible as Goldberg’s, the effort did help me to pull the poem together.


Looping plays with pattern making and breaking. Stretching breaks and extends outside the image-rhythm of the poem. My favorite example of this, so far, is in lines 15-19 of James Wright’s poem “To the Adriatic Wind, Becalmed,”* from his collection This Journey.

Already the golden horses of San Marco
Have stepped carefully down in the darkness,
Placed their frail ankles one after another
Over the damp cobbles, whickering lightly,
And gone. . . .

The image could easily end with “down in the darkness,” but Wright keeps stretching it, leading our eye to the “frail ankles,” their movement “one after another,” bringing our eye all the way to the “damp cobbles.” He keeps stretching the image, adding a sonic experience with “whickering lightly,” and he ends the image with the horses’ departure. The image extends, keeping our attention, expanding our experience, until we’re left alone in the empty street. It’s a kind of camera work, but as this example shows us, it can also be multisensory. Stretching an image also disrupts the pacing of a poem (or prose), and that causes a disruption in time.

What images can you stretch? And which images want to carry the attention, to hold the heightened focus, of that disruption?

*I was unable to find these poems published online.

Rye diary: Day fourteen, what feeds us

Slowly, the rye is ripening. Or just staying damp. It was raining softly when I took this photo.

rye patch

Note that tall stalk just right of the center. Here’s a closer look:

headless rye stalk

That intricate, jewel-like seed head seen in earlier photos is gone. Just gone.

This is the mystery: The rye heads have been disappearing. You might think they’d fallen off from their own weight. But the ground shows no evidence of fallen seed heads. Something must be coming in the night and dining on the rye.

And trampling the center of the patch.

Maybe multiple creatures: one that rampages through low, and one that attacks from higher up.

I say attack, but I’m trying to mean feast. I had nurtured ideas that I might be able to harvest my tiny crop of rye and make something of it. I could cook the berries like rice, or grind them into some trace amount of flour to use in muffin. Now, that looks unlikely. By the time it’s ready, it will be gone. But it seems I’m pleasing my uninvited guest.

It’s got me thinking about what we feed and what feeds us. When you’re in your day, how do you nourish your writing? And how does it nourish you? The rye patch reminds me to make better choices, to feed and be fed by what’s important to me.

And to take time to enjoy the few stalks left.

rye seed head close up

Rye diary: Days eleven, twelve, and thirteen

I confess that I spend all day watching the rye stir and lean in each slight breeze. But it’s when I zoom in, pay close attention, that I notice the changes.

Here is the rye on June 29. You can see that small grains are beginning to form.

It’s hard to see (apologies on my lack of photography skills), but on July 6, the kernels are becoming plumper, so that the surface is bumpier, less tidy.

Now some of the rye is falling over, and some of it has aphids. The seamy, seedy (!) side of the patch. But this evening, I spotted one ladybug, a small red gem.

And that is my reward for close attention. I’ve been reading about how close attention can lead to reverie. In my case, I’m hoping for stronger, more startling metaphors. In the meantime, I get practice looking, and the joy, occasionally, of seeing.

Rye diary: Days eight, nine, and ten

As I walk past the rye, sometimes I have to stop and just watch it. The smallest breeze makes it sway, which is one reason it’s so hard to take pictures that aren’t blurry.

This morning, a mizzling rain falls, but I’ll share photos from some earlier days. I’ve wanted to draw grand, insightful parallels to writing, but lately the rye has felt more like a meditation, a graceful and ragged silence.

Day eight:

rye with bloom and expanding spikelets

This was last Sunday, June 16. See how the bristles are spreading? I was thinking of a parallel with writing, how to grow in my work, I need to open up. It’s true, but it also sounds cliche. But the rye is beautiful in a tattered way.

Day nine:

Tuesday, June 18. An early morning rain left the rye jeweled. It’s so tall and slender, I imagine that a really hard rain could take it out. So on my way to work, I stop to capture this one picture. I’ve been doing a little research, and I learned that, for soil benefits, you’re supposed to till it under much earlier. But this sowing was more for beauty.

Day 10:

rye patch

Thursday, June 20. Another blurry picture. I’ve focused (!) a lot on the seed heads. Sometimes I like to look at the whole patch, down into the slender forest of it.

Rye diary: Day seven

A lot has been changing, and I have not been fast enough with my camera. You can see that the winter rye has grown taller.

backyard with rye patch

The seed heads grow larger and more defined.

close up of rye seed head

This is why I planted the rye in the first place—for these jewels. And now they’re starting to bloom!

Still scraggly looking, but it’s a work in progress.

On day five of the rye diary, I talked about free writes—how all the writing I’ve been doing in my notebook feels like a scraggly patch, leggy and with nothing standing out.

The seed heads beginning to develop made me think of work, or more exactly, energy. The energy it takes to make these intricate structures, and the work I need to put in to make a few notes or a free write into a first draft—even a rough first draft—of a poem. This past week, I started that work.

My writing group was going to meet, and I wanted to have something to bring, at least a reasonable facsimile of that rough draft. I took a little time away from homework for poem work—going over some of those earlier writings, grouping them together, splitting them apart again, pulling out lines or paragraphs, going back, starting over, trying to make two or three poems into one, going back again, until I thought I had one idea I could work with.

Emphasis on “work,” because I realized how much I needed that, how easy it is for me to lose confidence when I’m not in the thick of it. The meeting was later postponed, but I’m grateful to have a poem started, grateful for the reminder that immersion and attention nurture the writing, and grateful for this funny little patch of winter rye.

What do you do when you feel rusty or fallow? How do you start on a poem?