"Present tense is cliched,” the young man behind the mike said, and I straightened in my chair. Really? When had this happened? I thought of the last several poems I’d critiqued with a gentle “Try this in present tense.” This man behind the mike wasn’t writing poetry, as it turned out, but it made me wonder. Was writing poetry in the present tense a beginner trick that I had somehow failed to outgrow? Worse than that, was I teaching people to use something outdated and amateurish?
I went to my bookshelf. Billy Collins, American Poet Laureate, 2001–2003. Sailing Alone Around the Room, a collection published in 2001. A sampling of first lines:
Comforted but still curious, I moved on to Mary Oliver, Luci Shaw, Dave Margoshes, Robert Frost. Present tense poetry in all of them, spanning generations. (It is important to note that there are also poems in past tense, and other complicated tenses that I frankly have a limited understanding of, such as simple past and present continuous and maybe even future perfect continuous, but that is beyond the scope of the this article.) Here's a link to a more comprehensive discussion of various verb tenses.
Having established that I am not the only poet writing present tense poetry, I revisited my reasons for doing so.
Immediacy is always the word that comes up in critiquing sessions when looking at a poem written in the past tense. Websters Online describes “immediacy” as “immediate intuitive awareness.” Present tense has a way of engaging us on a visceral, experiential level that other tenses simply do not.
Consider the poem “Harvest”1 by Shirley Serviss. Pay particular attention to how the first few lines make you feel, or what your expectations are, as a reader, after reading the first few lines.
A couple kept vigil by a daughter’s
railed bed, listened to the hiss
of the respirator.
Note your reaction.
A couple keeps vigil by a daughter’s
railed bed, listening to the hiss
of the respirator.
Again, note your reaction. Any differences?
The present tense version (which is the original unedited poem) brings the reader to the bedside with the parents, evoking hope and sorrow and faith and exhaustion and terror, whereas the past tense version moves the reader past the bedside, out of the hospital, to the end of the story. The “railed bed” is most likely imagined as empty, and the reader does not have to stay with the many complicated emotions of a bedside vigil. In the first example, the primary emotion evoked is a sort of generalized sadness, a sorrow without a specific focus.
Robert Root, Professor of English at Central Michigan University has this to say about using present tense. “The present tense captures the energy and excitement of the immediate instant. What we read is always happening now. On the page, at least, it will never be history, be what once happened. Present tense tells us what is taking place as we speak, and pulls us into the instantaneous experience.” (Read his full article, an interesting read about “lyrical tense.”)
2. Narrative vs Experiential
This one is a bit trickier to nail down. In the example above, the past tense moves the reader past the bedside to…what? To whatever comes next, and certainly creates an expectation that there is something more to come. While poetry need not have the same narrative structure as short story or novel (ie “something has to change”), a poem does need to have a reason for being there. In other words, a poem doesn’t have to have a plot (although it very well may) but it does have to have a point. The usage of past tense can create the expectation that the focal point of the poem is yet to come.
Consider "Where I Live," by Billy Collins (from Sailing Alone Around The Room), which opens with the lines
The house sits at one end of a two-acre trapezoid.
There is a wide lawn, a long brick path,
rhodendrons, and large, heavy maples.
When I read these three lines, combined with the title, I am satisfied that this is a “snapshot” poem. It may or may not be (as a matter of fact, it isn’t), but as a reader, I am comfortable enough with being shown this memory. The present tense gives these lines a relevance that do not depend on the rest of the poem. Changing it to past tense:
Where I Lived
The house sat at one end of a two-acre trapezoid.
There was a wide lawn, a long brick path,
rhodendrons, and large, heavy maples.
...creates a different experience for me. It raises the question Why? Why are you writing about this house? What happened here, was it sinister, or benevolent, or both?
Let me be clear. Setting up a narrative expectation is not necessarily a bad thing, and may, in some cases, present a good reason for using past tense instead of present tense. Past tense does often have the effect of hurrying the reader through the lines to find out what happened, however, and should be used sparingly.
There are certainly cases in which past tense does not set up a narrative expectation. A good rule of thumb is to try a poem both ways, and assess the effect. If there is no discernable difference between the two, then which tense is used is nothing more than a matter of choice.
3. Willing Suspension of Disbelief
A third, less common, reason a poet might choose to use present tense over past tense is the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. When I read American poet Jane Cooper’s lines:
Things here have their own lives. The hall chairs
count me as I climb the steps.
... I can easily buy into the idea of the chairs being watchers. I get a prickle at the back of my neck, and an urge to look over my shoulder to see who is watching me.
However, if those lines were to read:
The hall chairs
counted me as I climbed the steps…
I would probably roll my eyes and say “And you knew this how?” I haven’t quite worked out why this is—it may be that personification is more effective in the present tense. Bearing in mind that “your reader is your creative partner”, it may also simply be that personification is more effective in the present tense if I am the one reading it.
While I am certainly not the only poet using present tense, and it does indeed seem to be widely accepted as a valid approach, there are those who disagree with me. For an argument against the present tense, and an interesting discussion of what the author calls “poetic present tense”, there is an interesting article in the online magazine Intercapillary/space by editor Michael Peverett.
1. from hitchhiking in the hospital by Shirley Serviss