Perhaps you’ve heard of “If” poems? These are poems characterized by conditional clauses (“if clauses”). Such clauses can be used to get a poem started or may be inserted in various places through the text of a poem. Poems of this type are not the typical “what if” sort of poem. They do something more.
Note: A conditional clause is a type of adverbial clause that states a hypothesis or condition, real or imagined, and their consequences. A conditional clause may be introduced by the subordinating conjunction if or another conjunction, such as because, unless, provided that, or but. Like other adverbial clauses, a conditional clause may before or after the clause on which it states a condition.
One of the most famous “if poems” is “If—” written by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling begins with a conditional clause and goes on to add interest by creating a kind of causal tension when he contradicts his “if” clauses with details, contradictions, and contrasts. There are also “result” clauses that follow the “ifs.” Here’s the beginning of Kipling’s poem:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
In “King of the River,” Stanley Kunitz does much the same thing and keeps us, as readers, waiting for what will come next. His long sentences create suspense and a sense of mystery and expectation as the poem’s momentum begins and is sustained. Here’s the beginning of “King of the River:”
If the water were clear enough,
if the water were still,
but the water is not clear,
the water is not still,
you would see yourself,
slipped out of your skin…
Adrienne rich begins her poem “For this” with a conditional (“if”) clause:
If I’ve reached for your line (I have)
like letters from the dead that stir the nerves …
Her third stanza continues:
If I’ve touched your finger
with a ravenous tongue
licked from your palm a rift of salt
if I’ve dreamt or thought of you
a pack of blood fresh-drawn …
As you can see in the three examples, conditional clauses create mood, conditions, limitations, dependencies, and expectations. Along with “if” clauses, others that work similarly include “but,” “although,” “when,” and “because.”
1. Begin by writing a list of “ifs.” Think about things in your own life, in the natural world, etc.
2. Follow with a list of “then” statements so you have “ifs” and “thens.”
3. Reflect on your lists for a while. Do any of the ideas link or match up?
4. Begin a poem with one of your “if” clauses, add an appropriate “then” and continue. See where the poem leads you.
5. Remember to start out by thinking in terms of “ifs” and “thens,” but don’t be limited by them.
6. Try writing a poem like Kipling’s in which you set up the characteristics or necessary qualities for some personal kind of success.
7. Using my prose poem below, write a poem that looks at something which made an awareness occur. Create a setting, configure a truth, move from the specific, individual experience to something more universal
If It Hadn’t Been
We wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the rain, the wind-loosened trees (this quiet shelter); and I wouldn’t tell you how nothing wonderful ever matches its memory, how not going home is a sadness we all carry. I wouldn’t tell you what I know about losing, how what we keep is never all that we need.
1. Simply writing an “if-then” poem isn’t what we’re working toward. Conditional clauses, yes, but we need to expand, switch gears, make a point, and create striking imagery.
2. Try a little anaphora—repetition. You may want to use several “if” clauses within the text of your poem. read the examples and see how they use but don’t overdo repetition.
3. A really good poem almost always has two subjects—the obvious subject and the implied or suggested subject. Think about that.
4. A good ending is one that readers will remember—an ending with punch and purpose, an ending filled with meaning. Work on creating a powerful “dismount.”