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Poets Online Archive



March 2013  Issue #200

Poets have used verb tenses to manipulate time in their poems. The English language has many verb tenses to choose from, and a poet is always deciding when she begins a poem which tense is the best (or correct) verb tense to use. Focusing on choosing the right tense and knowing how and when to shift verb tenses is a technique that can add immediacy, or introduce tension.

Tense is the grammaticalisation of time. The basics are often all you need: past, present, future. But sometimes we need, or we accidentally slip into, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect or use simple or progressive verb forms.

I don't want to be the language teacher here, because, ultimately, that's not the prompt or point. And I have found that grammar is an almost sure way to lose the interest of the student.  But, here's the lesson in brief:
Present      I run (simple) - I am running (progressive)
Past           I ran - I was running
Future       I will run  - I will be running
Present Perfect    I have run - I have been running
Past Perfect    I had run - I had been running
Future Perfect   I will have run -  I will have been running

On our blog, we have a quick poetry and tenses lesson using William Blake's "The Tyger."

If you are familiar with with other languages, you know that some things about our English verb tenses are the same and other things are quite different.

For this month's prompt, you need to try a poem which very deliberately plays with tenses. But rather than create a verb tenses poem,

In the language the little boy spoke,
there was a promise the little boy broke.
In the letter the little boy sent,
there was a truth the little boy bent.

it would be far better to consider the bigger implications of time and tense, as Chloe Yelena Miller does in her poem "No Infinitive."

I like it right off that they met in Esperanto. Not a place, but a language, and a word that translates as "one who hopes." We could follow the thread of Esperanto's three tenses and three moods. Maybe your poem can work with the poetic and non-English jussive mood that is used for wishes and commands.

And her poem ends "reflexively" - a form that cause problems for English speakers learning a new language since this feature is practically absent in English. The literal reflexive means the agent is simultaneously the patient. That's grammar class talk meaning we do it to ourselves. How poetic is the reflexive: to enjoy oneself, hurt oneself, kill oneself, convince, deny or to encourage oneself.

Try a poem that deals with Time through tenses and grammar and that might play with time, as in the time traveling of past, present and future tenses, or it might play with the language of tenses changing in English or other languages.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


Here, in the present, I run
from you and the problems.
I run south, far away, to the warmth
of new places and new people.

In the past, I did not run
from what was happening.
I stayed in familiar places
and weathered the cold.

In the future, I will be running
on a beach with laughing children.
The water is warm and clear.
The horizon is pure blue.

I will have run all way
to a future perfect
in all the ways that the past
and present can never be.

Pamela Milne


He clutches time
lightly to his chest

but the shadows that
once danced across the sky
fall now on the lines of his face

and the tattered almanac of
all his days and nights
on this good earth,

held then in delicate embrace,
suddenly falls, quietly
discarded, to the ground.

At once he rises
weightless as a bird,
eager for flight:

the bonds of all the long
years inexplicably released
from his aged bones.

Maddison Ross


You say “we were never meant to be,”
That “we will never work it out,” that
“What has been is gone and cannot be”—
Yet past is present to the future, and

What we are is what once we were.
Time seems to flow, and so we know
That having been and being are never
What will be—that “might-have-beens”

And “could-have-beens” come not ever.
The past intrudes upon the present,
And though our tenses indicate it
Passes, time, itself, will not last.

Random fluctuations in the void
Create all that is, all that was; all
That can, or could, or shall be tumble
Out to evolve, and make us fall.

Robert Miller


The subjunctive makes you nervous.
It's so uncertain, you say - you
who have always loved extracts and numbers
and diagrammable sentences.
In the same way, I love the subjunctive.
More than a mood, it claims
every tense for itself. All time is possible
in a world where action
is but conjecture. My dog
leapt onto the bed
in a much simpler grammar,
occupying the place designated as mine;
flouting mood, tense, and possessives,
if not the timeless laws of physics.
Subjunctively, if she smiled at me in Dog.

Taylor Graham


Be here now—
as the words slip by
now has past
into the past,
leaving me leaping
for future moments.
At seventy,
the past looms large.
Trying not to tense,
I chase the elusive
ahora, maintenant,
agora, jetzt, nu, ora.

Jeanie Greensfelder


Our embrace
unbroken, with unspoken words
hanging in the air,
like the bedraggled remnants
of yesterday’s flotsam .
We pretend a forever moment,
our rhythmic breathing
in synchronised sadness .
Dreams tethered in another reality
of a future time
for cosy cardigans
and old-slipper loving

Jackie Darnbrough


My mother says I did not want to be born.
In last night's dream, I was giving birth,
crying out, pulling in breath. My babies
are adults now. They have long since
knitted themselves into what they would be.
In another dream, the way to the fruit market
is through a narrow passage: stairs
and yellow-painted bricks. The boy
ahead of me slips through the narrow
opening. I have to turn back.
My son, three years old, said: I remember
before I was born. I could feel you walking,
walking. Dark in there!
It is always dark in there. The black
passages of mind or womb will deliver
themselves of whatever resides inside,
stillborn or full of breath.
Which is the greater miracle,
the child or the words? The wonder
of deep desire, woven into the fabric
of speech? The small peach-fuzz head,
still blind, that opens its mouth in protest
against that first inrush of air?

Ruth Cassel Hoffman


fingertips, a gentle gesture
turn an angle, thumb perpendicular
a squeeze, a grasp, a firm shake

the wrists a sensuous spot
begin the slow crawl of intimacy
or pulsing the echo of breaths and beats

the elbowed nudge of a stranger
how brief the second
they passed in haste

whole arms stretched across the cushion
haphazardly placed, deliberately placed
around a friend, then a stranger
so tightly woven
face to face, heads bow in opposite direction
cheeks brush and blush in an instant

cuticles chewed, fists clenched,
elbows bumping, banging about
without the weight to strengthen their tenacity

body movement’s language
written and deciphered by scientists

the message in the movement
no dialogue is exchanged
their verbiage verbose
their caresses at attention
humanly showed the look of pity
a mise-en-place

keep them all at arm’s length.

Lisa Honecker


Before flash drives and laptops,
There was the Anthology of American Poetry,
All the verse a spindly armed English major
Could be expected to carry.

In order to make so much genius portable,
The poems were printed on paper so thin
It was translucent;
Hold the poem in question up to the light,

And the one on the next page was visible in reverse.
It didn’t take much skill to translate the next poem
Simultaneously as you read the first;
As in a pair of poems by a Mid-Atlantic author.

In the first a husband instructs his wife of sixty-five years
In which suit and shirt to bury him,
Which hymns he wants sung,
Which prayers are to be read,

And then makes her promise to go on living for his sake;
While on the back of the same sheet,
His other sample,
Has a GI in New Guinea,

Writing to his girl in Pennsylvania,
Proposing marriage,
And how, if he survives,
He will love her longer than forever.

Ron Yazinski