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I've seen people indent their poems like below:

Writing on wall

It was just plane writing on wall
I must have taken it a serious call
She was on and off repeating same thing
There was hidden message through something

There may be long wait
All dependants on fate
How can one think and rate?
It is difficult to state

Or I've seen some like this:

Writing on wall

It was just plane writing on wall
__I must have taken it a serious call
She was on and off repeating same thing
__There was hidden message through something

There may be long wait
__All dependants on fate
How can one think and rate?
__It is difficult to state

Is there other possibilities? When should I use which?

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Mar 15 '11 at 10:56

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

    
@Martha, @Robusto: Is indentation less a part of language than punctuation, capitalisation, paragraph breaks, etc.? –  ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 7:23
    
@ShreevatsaR: yes. Indentation doesn't change meaning. (Ditto for paragraph breaks, really, except insofar as they make things easier to read. You can't even say that about indentation.) –  Martha Mar 15 '11 at 7:53
2  
@Martha: Interesting… (I don't consider "language" (or the scope of this website) to cover only those aspects that change meaning.) What is your opinion about english.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/typesetting and english.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/typography ? –  ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 8:02

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Because a poem is more compact than prose, indentation (and line breaks, spacing, leading, and anything else you can think of) can add additional meaning to the poem. So unlike prose, go ahead and indent however you like... as long as there's a reason for it.

In your second example, if the poet likes the idea of pairing the couplets visually, that's the reason for the indent.

In John Smithers's excellent example, you can see how breaks and indentations create a much different poem than the plain straightforward verse in your first example. Neither is wrong. They are just expressing slightly different things.

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The obvious is that there is no rule, apart the ones set by the poet.

Let us generalise what you call 'indenting' as 'positioning text' in a poem.

Some observations:

A visual 'movement' of the text can be a hint to the specific meter of the poem, hence strengthening what could be not so blatant to the reader.

Moreover, while most of western/middle-eastern tradition produces poetry working on sound, meaning and rhythm (aforementioned meter), the cultures whose writing is based on ideograms rely more heavily on how and where to place signs; in poetry this sometimes is essential.

Think about Japanese haikus, as well as how text is interwoven with images in classic Chinese poetry.

Maybe it is not 'indenting', but for sure it is 'placing' following the author's needs.

Last but not least, in more experimental poetry, often text is developed not in a linear fashion (i.e. pear shaped poems, Oulipo automatic poetry and so on).

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A short answer: The rule is there is no rule.

Now, saying some useful stuff:

Unless you want to fit some "standard", the indentation, as most of the punctuation, is yours. Emily Dickinson was heavily criticized for her use of punctuation in her time, although she's widely appreciated nowadays.

So, a bit on the standards: every now and then a group of people say "Hey! What if we write poetry that conforms to this and that rule?" And start writing poetry that fits together, and can be recognized as similar. They may or may not include indentation as part of the requirements for the poems to "belong" in the movement (or to be acknowledged by the group).

Other such requirements may be case rules (such as starting every verse with upper-case), punctuation rules, or even require a refrain (or lack of one). A particular such rule I've used consists in repeating the same phrase at the end of every stanza.

As far as I can see, you aren't trying to "fit". So write it as it flows best, as it feels best.

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It's poetry. So it is totally up to the poet how to indent the poem.

It was just 
     plane writing 
  on wall
I 
       must 
   have taken it 
             a serious call

If he thinks that's the way it should be, then that's the correct indenting.

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1  
Beware of falling into cliché or other horribleness when you leave such big holes in your writing. –  naught101 Aug 22 '12 at 4:14

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