How poet Shane McCrae learned to break the rules

Poems tend to have their own logic.

Discovering that logic is part of the writing process for Shane McCrae, whose poems are often an experiment in form, built from nontraditional metrics and a focus on sound and texture.

“I concentrate on the logic of the poem itself as a thing, rather than the message of what the poem is doing,” he said.

At a young age, McCrae was focusing on poetry as a craft of technical details. “I was very particularly interested in strengthening what I saw as weaknesses in my writing,” he said. “In some ways, subject matter was secondary.”

“A Walk as Bright and Green as Spring as Cold as Winter” is a poem two years in the making, a period that brought an unexpected narrative to the piece. “The poem starts in a place that it swerves violently from,” McCrae said.

The poem holds an expansive sense of time; the speaker, turning to the subject of a yearly butterfly migration, notes that “Biologists believe they / turn to avoid a mountain / That disappeared millennia ago.”

McCrae employs a tool commonly used in prose to denote the line breaks in poetry, inserting slashes to punctuate the middle of several lines.

The method is a technical one, used to denote the end of a metrical phrase while allowing McCrae to write beyond the boundaries of form. “I thought, if I took that out of poetry criticism and stuck it in my poems with the exact same thinking, I could use that to indicate where the line would end for metrical purposes,” he said.

The result is a mix of free verse and a metric form, written simultaneously in one piece. The act of blurring these boundaries is an important one in McCrae’s writing, he said.

“It’s easier for me to focus when certain questions have already been answered for me when I’m going into the poem,” he said. “It gives me something to push against.”​

You can read McCrae’s poem or hear him read it below.

A Walk as Bright and Green as Spring as Cold as Winter

At forty Illlllmost often neighborllllleven as / We walk together

Want everywhere we go to go home everywhere

but ohlllll/ Oh did you see the story

About the butterflies the mountain and the lake

thelllll/ Butterflies monarchlllllbutterflies huge swarmslllllthey

Migrate and as they migrate south as they

Cross Lake Superior instead of flying

South straight across they fly south

over the water then fly east

still over the water then fly southlllllagain and nowlllll/ Biologists believe they

turn to avoid a mountain

That disappeared millennia agolllll/ And did you

know I didn’t nolllllone butterfly

lives long enough to fly the whole

migrationlllll/ From the beginning to the end they

Lay eggs along the way

justlllll/ As you and Illlllmost often neighborlllll/ Migrate together in our daughter

over a dark lake

We make with joy the child we make

And mountains are reborn in her