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.