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This topic sheet was originally devised for the Verse Technique and Poetry course. There is a table of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.



The repeated emphasis placed on sound in this course is perhaps ironic, since poetry is essentially a written medium. Often there is much to gain by being able to study the written text:

  • reading it at one's own pace,
  • re-reading as appropriate,
  • pausing for thought.

However it is perhaps worth considering what is absent in written text: the true, spoken voice, with all its suggestions of:

  • emphasis,
  • character,
  • emotion,
  • social context,
  • etc.

The reader makes the poem "complete" by imagining elements of the spoken voice, in effect as part of the subtext.



Insofar as written words are the only truly inalienable fabric of the poem, the meaning must be conveyed exclusively by the written words. The characters in the poem (including the person or object that is "speaking" the poem to the reader as well as any characters created or evoked in the text) must therefore:

  • either be described
  • or else describe themselves through the things they say.

Descriptive narrative enjoys the freedom of being able to explore situations at great length, using as many words as it takes to create an appropriately detailed picture for the reader.

Written speech, by contrast, must be concise, avoiding explicit description of facts or emotions that would not normally be explicitly expressed in speech. For example, readers would probably not believe in a character who greeted another with the words "Fancy meeting you here on the crowded pavement of Oxford Street this rainy Wednesday afternoon when we haven't met since we were at university together in Berlin in the late 1960s". Such factual information must be conveyed elsewhere, whether through descriptive narrative, true dialogue or subtext.

In short, writing for voices is a considerably more challenging task than descriptive writing.



Because written voices must express their characters concisely, writers must pay careful attention to the use of subtext in written speech. The more tantalising the subtext, the more likely the reader is to become engaged with the character, even to the point of imagining the spoken voice with all its intonations and inflections.



Convincing written voices are invariably underpinned by convincing characterisation. For a character to be truly convincing, the writer must have a detailed knowledge of the character: history, motivations, emotional set, etc.



Dialogue in verse and poetry follows similar rules to prose dialogue. Specifically:

  • Convincing speech depends on depth of characterisation. Even the most minor characters must be well thought through if they are to be credible.
  • The dialogue must flow naturally between the characters as if they were having a real conversation.
  • Dialogue may be progressed and "brought to a head" by establishing and pursuing a conflict of objectives between the characters. For example: A plans to seduce B while B plans to rob A.
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