Writing poetry, like all art, is about making choices. You choose one word over another, how to begin lines, end lines, the length of the line, rhyme, meter, imagery, verbs, adjectives, stanza length, tone, theme, language - and you have to balance each of these elements against the others simultaneously. It’s complicated.
This time around we’ll be looking at how a poet makes choices, which will of course differ from poet to poet, so to be more accurate, we’ll be looking at how I make choices when I write. But these tips should be illustrative of the general process that goes into creating a poem. This particular essay could be easily adapted to any creative endeavor - it’s just that my particular area of interest is poetry.
Whatever interests is interesting.
I think it’s generally agreed that a poem should be interesting. No one wants to read a poem that is mind-numbingly dull, whether intended or otherwise (I believe that most poets would not intentionally write dull poems). So how do you write a poem that’s going to fire you up enough to want to work on it, while at the same time be worth reading to someone else?
Know your audience.
If you’re writing only for yourself then you don’t have to worry about any of these guidelines because you’re already you - so anything you write is bound to please you.
But if you’re like many poets, you have the ambition that someday, somewhere, someone may actually read this stuff. With that in mind, you have to make a choice: for whom am I writing?
You probably won’t be able to answer that question, but just asking it will help guide your writing towards something worth being read. An audience for your poem may not exist. You may not know anyone who would be interested in what you have to say. This is possible, but more often than not a poet will not believe this - usually a poet will believe that everyone will want to read her poem. Why wouldn’t they? After all, you wrote it! It must be great!
If this sounds like you, then please try to get over yourself. It’ll make things easier later, and make you a better poet in the meantime.
Most likely, you’re going to have to invent an audience. What I mean is that you have to decide the type of reader that you want, try to imagine what they’d like to see in a poem, and then craft the poem to fit their needs.
Since you really can’t know what someone else likes in a poem unless you ask them, and since people usually write poetry in solitude (unless you’re one of those schmucks who puts on your turtleneck sweater, grabs your pleather-bound ‘journal’ and goes to sit in a coffee shop so other people can see how cool and artsy you are as you put pen to paper), and especially since your first responsibility is to satisfy your own needs as an artist, I suggest that you write for a hypothetical audience who is much like yourself.
But I thought you said that we shouldn’t write for ourselves?
Actually, I said that you can write for whomever you’d like, but if you want me to read it, you’re going to have to make your poems intelligible enough to be understood by someone other than yourself and immediate friends & family.
While you shouldn’t write for you and only you, it may help you to write to please “someone like you” - write the kind of poem that you’d like to read - write the kind of poem that you’d read even if you didn’t write it.
I’m repeating myself for a reason. This is very important. You must write poems that you yourself want to read over and over again. This is important not only because you’re going to be spending a lot of time reading, writing, re-reading, and re-writing your poem, but also because if you can work on your poem to the point where you aren’t sick of it, the poem may stand a chance of being read all the way through by someone else.
If you can’t stomach your own work, that’s even worse than writing poems that you alone can bear to read. Essentially, I’m suggesting a little objectivity. Try to be your own critic - stand outside your poem as much as you can and ask some questions as you write.
What kind of questions should I ask myself?
You’re off to a good start. I’m not recommending a Fight-Club-esque duality whereby you argue with yourself - I’m saying that you have to be at least semi- conscious of what you’re doing and how you’re going about it.
The kinds of questions that you ask yourself will vary depending on context, but there are some generalities that you can consider.
When you begin to write a poem, you’re initiating a process that many have begun before. There’s a grand tradition of poetry, and poets have made many mistakes made long before you were even born.
It’s exciting, in a way, to think that whenever you write a poem, you’re not only drawing from a long tradition, but also contributing to one. Your voice is no less distinctive or important than T. S. Eliot’s - but your poems are likely less accomplished (disagree all you want, but if you’re just starting out and haven’t much practice you should accept this as a fact - even if I’m wrong, and you are naturally a brilliant poet, it never hurts to be humble). So what did Eliot do that you aren’t doing?
The Individual Talent
Let’s get started. We’ve already covered question #1 (see, I tricked you!), which is For whom am I writing? or Who is my audience?.
It may behoove you (I use the word “behoove” every chance I get) to make a list of your favourite poems - and then make a list of what you like about them. You don’t have to explicate like a pro - just try to put into words what you like about the poem - it could be something as simple as “I like the way every third line ends on a colour” or “I like this poem because the poet used the word ‘cucumber’ and that’s my favourite salad ingredient!”
Once you’ve looked at some of your favourite poems and figured out something about why you like those poems (it’s expected that you may find something different to like about each of them) you may have some idea about what appeals to you in other people’s poems. This knowledge will give you an advantage in writing your own poems.
Naturally, you aren’t going to try to copy someone else’s poem (although writing a poem “after” someone else’s poem is a good exercise - and the subject of a future installment of this series). However, why not take every advantage that you can? Every technique you learn, and everything you can learn about yourself and what you value about poetry, will inform your writing and help you write better poems.
Learning a new technique is like adding a tool to your toolbox - it gives you the ability to do something new. Whether you use it or not, there it sits, waiting for the day that you need it.
So how do I incorporate a new technique I’ve learned from a poem into a poem of my own?
Let’s look at an example and add a new technique to our toolbox. This technique is a simple one that you’re probably already aware of (if you’ve read this series of articles in order): using a line break as punctuation (or rather, instead of punctuation).
from To A Poor Old WomanThey taste good to her They taste good to her. They taste good to her William Carlos Williams
You’ll notice that the second line of this stanza is not punctuated, but rather the line “spills over” to the next line. This is called enjambment in a poem. Note that the lack of punctuation itself does not signify enjambment (although most enjambed lines are not end- punctuated). Enjambment occurs when a syntactic unit is carried from one line to another without a formal pause (punctuation).
So the “trick” here is to create an informal pause, where the enjambed lines cause the reader to pause, but the line would make sense (although perhaps a different sense) if the line were read as if the two enjambed lines were written as a single long line.
However, even without punctuation you may notice that you pause for a beat at the end of the line because it forms a whole syntactic unit by itself: “They taste good” is a complete sentence, but so is “They taste good / to her.”
You can use this technique in your own poem as a trick to change the meaning of a line through enjambment. The following example is a very simple implementation of this technique:
I will stop at nothing, to make you understand
In the initial sense of meaning, the speaker is saying that she will stop, but continuing the line over the enjambment you’ll see that the true meaning is that she’ll stop at nothing, meaning that she’ll never stop (whatever it is she’ll stop).
Verbs are inherently lazy. It’s true. They don’t want to do any work and will fight you at every turn. But you must whip those lazy verbs into working! Active verbs are the little engines that move your poems along. Put active verbs to work in your poems.
“Being verbs” (is, am, was, were) tend to kill the effectiveness of a poem by making adjectives handle the heavy lifting in a poem.
A phrase such as “The stove was hot and my hand was burned” isn’t nearly as descriptive and active as “The stove scalded my hand.”
By using creative verbs to power your poems, you can engage your reader and draw them into what’s happening.
Adjectives on Welfare
While a well-placed adjective may help to clarify an image and better sell it to your audience, precise verb use will kick those adjectives to the curb. While you’re writing you can ask yourself if an adjective is absolutely necessary or if you can enact the adjective through good verb use.
An example of this would be changing “The fast car drove past me” to “The car whizzed past me.” It’s a small change, but saying that the car is “fast” isn’t nearly as effective as showing its speed.
Of course, the most effective way to show the speed of the car is through an “image,” which is the subject of a future essay in this series. Practice writing with more active verbs and we’ll work up to sublimity.
Death to Adverbs!
Adverbs are words that modify a verb and usually end in “-ly.”
So instead of writing “The boy walked leisurely down the lane” you could eliminate the adverb “leisurely” and instead use a more precise verb: “The boy ambled down the lane.” Now the verb is doing the full-amount of work and needs no modification.
What’s the big deal about verbs anyway?
I cannot stress enough how important verbs are in a poem. Here’s an example of excellent verb use in a well-known poem:
from ArielBlack sweet blood mouthfuls, Shadows. Something else Hauls me through air—— Thighs, hair; Flakes from my heels. White Godiva, I unpeel—— Dead hands, dead stringencies. And now I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas. The child’s cry Melts in the wall. And I Am the arrow, The dew that flies, Suicidal, at one with the drive Into the red Eye, the cauldron of morning. Sylvia Plath
This poem uses verbs very effectively. “Something else / hauls me through air.” “Thighs, hair; / Flakes from my heels.” “I unpeel” “I / Foam to wheat.” “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” [my emphasis]
The resulting effect of using active verbs in a poem is that your reader will be able to experience the action of the poem in their head, rather than just hear about it. So many poor poems are reported. “This happened. That happened. Something else is happening.”
The reason using “being verbs,” adverbs, and adjectives to depict the images in your poetry is ineffective is that it unnecessarily removes the reader from the experience of the poem. When a poem is reported rather than enacted the poet serves as an intermediary between the poem and the reader.
Think about it this way: would you rather look at a beautiful sunset or have someone describe one to you?
This will be covered in greater detail in an upcoming installment (this phrase is becoming a mantra of this series).
For the remainder of this article we’re going to assume you’ve completed a poem and want to make a first-pass at improving it.
Tips for Revision
Why do people tell me that a poem feels “too long”?
I’m glad you asked. Generally economy of language is important when writing a poem. You don’t want to write eight words when five would do. But you don’t want to shorten something that shouldn’t be shortened either. Here are a few basic tips to keep your poem moving along so that it doesn’t feel too long:
Vary the length of your phrases
Regardless of the length of the line or the number of lines in a stanza, you can make your poem flow better by mixing up the length of consecutive phrases. Try re-writing your poem by writing each sentence on a new line, ignoring line and stanza breaks for the moment.
Are all or most of your sentences of approximately the same length? Are sentences of similar lengths clumped together? Try changing the sentence length of every other line and see if that improves things. You’ll most likely have to re-work your lines and stanzas once you “re-fit” the lines into a poem, but think of it this way: the extra work in re-building the lines and stanzas out of that group of sentences will allow you to take yet another pass at the poem, hopefully improving it with each revision.
Remove any word, phrase, line, or stanza that is not ABSOLUTELY necessary to the success of the poem
This seems obvious, but most poems will have at least some superfluous lines. This excess baggage will bog your poem down and distract readers from the full appreciation of the poem. Reading through lines that seem irrelevant to the poem will distance your reader from the work, and make reading the poem feel like work. If your poems are a chore to read, they’ll feel too long (a one-line poem that’s a chore to read is one line too long).
There’s a big difference between a poem being challenging and being difficult. Critics often use these terms interchangeably - but in general you want your poem to be clear, precise, and as direct as possible.
Nix the flowery diction and archaic vocabulary
But lo! Whatfore I shalln’t wish this so? Hitherto mine verse doth herald the diction of poesy, from Jove’s nectar sup itself!
Um, yeah. Modern poetry doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, sound like 16th century poetry. Your poem will likely be far better received if you write using common diction and phrasing. Shakespeare used fairly common diction (at least, common for the theatre) of his day - it only sounds poetic and flowery now because it’s a language of a different time.
And Shakespeare, brilliant as he was, could have used an editor, too.
Be your own best editor by eliminating the “use twenty archaic, obscure words where a simple common word will do” writing method from your toolbox.
On a related-note to the tip above, don’t over-explain your imagery. If you can use just ONE precise word, that more than makes up for a dozen vague and inaccurate words that do nothing but detract from the poem.
In a semi-related note, my friend Chris’s father once remarked of Henry James’s novels: “James? He’s the guy who takes fifty pages to open a door, right?”
Don’t take fifty pages to open a door unless you’re Henry James.
Isn’t it harder to revise when writing in form?
Why yes it is! However, it is still very much necessary. Just because you’re writing in a standard form (where the beats, syllables, meter, or length of a line is pre-determined) doesn’t mean that you can’t use the above techniques to improve on your poem - it’s just another aspect of the poem to keep in mind.
When you’re struggling with a poem, it may help to ignore the form for awhile and write your poem. You can always re-work the poem into the form in a later revision. Revising in form is like trying to hold a bookshelf together while you attempt to hammer a nail into it - you could probably use an extra hand or two to keep everything from flying apart - and revising in form is like that - you have to keep everything together poetically while keeping everything together formally.
No one ever said it was easy, and if they did, they were wrong.
In our next installment we’ll look at more tips for revising and improving a poem. Until then, keep reading and writing.
Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Poetry X, an online poetry resource for your little dog, too. In his spare time he enjoys working on his second book, tentatively titled Poems 2: Iambic Boogaloo.