Punchlines in Poetry

What’s the most important part of a poem for you?  Is it imagery used, the rhyme scheme, the length, the strength of the emotion, the rhythm?  For me, it’s the punch line.  No seriously, I mean it.  Regardless of whether the poem is intended to be amusing, satirical, or in any ostensible way comedic, having a strong payoff is key to making it all come together.  Here’s why!

When writing a piece of fiction, nonfiction, or even an academic research article, story is key to maintaining the reader’s attention and bringing home the point or conclusion you’re working towards.  In the same way, when writing poetry, it feels important to me to make sure to bring this idea to the table as well.

Let’s say you’ve decided to write a poem about a spider you’ve seen outside your window.  You could do a little couplet like this:

A thin thread hanging,
Swaying in the breeze.

I mean it’s technically fine. And it’s clearly too short to actually portray the spider you’ve seen, but you’ve set the scene. Good! But what to do next?  I mean one option would be to continue into the nature-y description:

A thin thread hanging,
Swaying in the breeze,
A spider swinging,
And all its legs.

And that would be fine. But couldn’t we go to something a bit further than this? Let’s say we didn’t want to be funny about it:

A thin thread handing,
Swaying in the breeze,
A spider was at the window banging,
Scared of the wind and saying “Help, please.”

What I’m getting at is it’s fine to set up a scene and travel in it.  There’s a place for that type of poetry, really.  My personal preference is to lean into using poetry to tell a story.  Even within a haiku, it’s possible to have an inciting incident, rising action, and climax.  Hence, have a punchline.  Sometimes it’s the literal punchline of a joke, other times it’s a twist that flips the rest on it’s head, and other times, it’s just the line that brings the important part of the poem’s plot to the forefront.  Regardless of what type of poem you are writing, ask yourself, what is the line or few lines that you think someone should walk away from remembering?

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