I begin with an expansion of the side bar points, the first five. In future, the rest:
10 Quick Tips (Expanded) You can talk to me about any of these five points by contacting me.
1. It's unlikely that your poem is a "bad" poem, maybe it's only a draft that needs some TLC
We mostly write in an "off the cuff" way at first, getting the words down in some form or order. We are driven by a powerful idea or emotion. We want to make our point or we want to have our say. The First Generation Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey focused upon this notion of taking a powerful overflow of emotion (heat of subject felt by the poet) and cooling it off to make it available for the reader.
This cooling off period between draft and final poem is not a bad idea when writing. Sometimes poets get so fired up that they spew emotion onto the page (or screen) without considering how the reader will react to or understand the poem. This is where the TLC comes into play. What can be done to keep the passion without burning your readers' eyeballs?
a. Begin by looking at whether your poem has structured lines with a purpose or whether your poem is really a bit of prose cut into lines. Richard Wilbur* once told me that he calls that shredded prose. He is right. Poems need and want to have lines of impact and purpose. They want to do more than just speak out. They want to have a way of saying that is unique to them. It is rare, nigh unto impossible, to have a poem flow fully-wrought from your pen. Every line, every word, every arrangement on the page ought to be fair game for change.
b. Look at the poem as a whole, but be aware of its tiniest parts. Other than line breaks, what about syntax, diction, punctuation (or not)? And don't forget transitions between lines and between stanzas (if you have stanzas). If you have chosen a form like sonnet, pantoum, villanelle, etc., does the poem's idea fit the form or visa versa? Over and over, you must ask: what does the poem want?
c. Look at beginnings and endings very closely. You might try flipping them. What kind of change does that make to your poem? Sometimes the first impulse of a poem is just you trying to figure out what you want to say, a kind of introduction to the poem. Maybe you don't need an introduction to the poem, just get into it. Poems do not need a preview or preamble or intro. They just need to be present for the reader, let the reader experience them. There is a phenomenon of endings too, summation. A poem is not the typical five paragraph essay where the speaker summarizes (tell the audience what was said). If your poem has done its job, through all the devices you have in your tool box, the poem's readers will know what has happened. I think of those summaries at the end as the author telling me you are not smart enough to have understood this, so let me sum it up for you. Believe me, no reader wants to hear that.
2. Somewhere in every draft there is the ONE thing that wants to step up and have its say; find that and let it speak.
a. When you are looking at your draft, find the place where something is happening in terms of getting to the kernel of truth, the heat, the point of no return for the emotion of the poem or its speaker. It is that place where you know the poem is getting down to it. Capitalize on this. Make the rest of the poem live up to it. It's time to up the ante of the poem. Ask what you can do to make the rest of the poem THAT good.
b. Discern what it is about that point and ask WHY it is so important to the poem. Look at the rest of the parts of the poem and see how you might bump them up to the same level as the part that is hot. Is it the level of diction? Is it a daring revelation? Have you found out something you didn't know before you began writing the poem? now, your task is to let the rest of the poem lead up to or support that. Sometimes the hotspot of the poem is in the middle and the poem needs to turn on that and head off in a new direction to reach its end. Sometimes there is a need for a resolution that will come after it. (Remember, no summations here!) Try a few different strategies. Keep checking in with the poem to see what is working and what might not be working.
3. If you feel like giving up (on a poem), put it aside for a few days, then approach it with fresh eyes.
a. There is no reason at all to throw away whole drafts. Just keep a folder (on your computer or an actual folder) for your drafts and work back and forth between the drafts of several poems if it is making you crazy to keep working ad infinitum on one at a time. I find it refreshing to have two or three drafts in the hopper at a time. I don't get frustrated or bored this way.
b. Go from one way of writing to another; if you are writing in a notebook, try writing on the computer and visa versa. You will be amazed how this tiny shift in mode can make a difference.
c. If you really are in hate with a draft, consider cutting it up into pieces, bits, chunks. Separate the parts and let each part stand on its own for a while. Come back to the parts and see what is there. I never throw out whole poems, but often get rid of the bits that won't do.
4. Write as if you're already dead.
Marvin Bell, renowned poet and teacher, said this to a workshop full of poets at Iowa. We scratched our collective heads and wondered what the heck he meant. What he was suggesting was that we should write what we want, no matter how it might be received. If you are already dead, you cannot hear the criticism, right? So write that way. If you need to take on sensitive issues, take them on.
a. Risks are to say the least a touchy area in poetry. Do you write about family? Do you expose a part of yourself that might not be so wonderful? This is hard. Very hard. Some poets write in a risky manner but hold off on publishing the risky poems until the offending person is dead. Some refuse to name names, choosing instead to mask the offending person's true identity. Some write about themselves as someone else in order to save their reputations. Some poets, however, just let it fly. I admit to waiting until my childhood chum had died to write about the molestation I endured at the hands of her grandfather. Why hurt her? On the other hand, she never got to know and therefore could not share with me if he had ever hurt her. Should I have told her? Could we have helped one another? I will never know.
Here is that poem:
At Our 20th Class Reunion
If you mention him, your grandfather,
speak of his beautiful garden, of the tall corn
where we played
as children, I’ll have to tell
you about the rows
of thieving stalks with their pale silk flags —
warnings of the approaching storm,
the shaft of lightning
that split my childhood in two.
If you talk about his stubbled jaw,
say it smiled, say it was kindly,
I’ll think of crooked yellow teeth
like misshapen kernels of corn, grimacing
through open husks, a sudden
split in the green of August.
If you go so far as to say
he loved you, and you miss him,
I’ll glance away, remember the day
you strode from the rows
to brush your teeth over and over, to scrub
garden dirt from your face, your knees,
your pretty lace socks.
If you utter a single word
about his sad end, twisted with palsy,
rotting bit by bit from cancer,
I’m afraid I will laugh, twirl madly
with my skirts up around my waist,
letting the stench of his garden
fly off me into the wind.
b. Writing about secrets is another way to go. Are there things you know and have held close? Do you want to get them off your chest? Bell would say write it. I believe it is the how that counts here. How much risk are you, as poet, willing to take? Again, you get to choose. You get to decide what you say and how much you reveal. Writing obliquely is the key. You can come at the secret from the side, not directly. You can dig right tin a blow the whistle. Naming it is not necessarily the same as shaming it. Here you need to make some pretty serious decisions:
Is the secret something that, if revealed, could hurt someone who cannot do anything to change it? If so, maybe don't do it. Or write it and abstain from publishing.
Is the secret something you just have to spill in order for youth sleep at night? You ought to write about it then, taking the hurt factor into consideration.
Will the secret revealed get misunderstood and cause embarrassment to the other person or yourself? Write it, but think about HOW to write it. Don't throw yourself under the bus.
I know a serious secret, told to me by my mother in 1964. I wish I did not know it, but I do. My mother was wrong to tell me. Lives and relationships could be ruined by this. I choose not to write about it.
I kept my abuse a secret, as I mentioned above. But once I felt I could reveal it, without hurting anyone, I chose to write about it. See the difference? Be careful.
Tell me what you fear revealing.
5. Write as if the poem is alive.
Why do some poems seem so alive? Why do others seem a bit moribund? I am of the opinion that it has to do, in large part, with verbs.
a. Screw the being verbs. I read a ton of poetry, all the time. The first thing I look at when reading a new poem is its verbs. If there is an abundance of am, are, is, was, were verbs, I am likely to discard that poem. The whole thing seems static and uninteresting, lying there on the page waiting for life support. I want to see something happening in poems. I want to get inside the poem and feel it whoosh or bang or click or sing. Make noise. Make a ruckus. Take action. Look at this small poem and see how there is something up. Verbs in bold illustrate this:
At the End of the Dock
is that you coming across the bay
in the yellow boat? Will you arrive like Gatsby?
Or like a fairy tale prince in a yellow doublet?
Hello, are you coming
with the tide like a great catch pulling the current
we thought was slack? Is that you I touch in every dream?
My voice in the wind, on the wings of the owl,
the train that passes, moans your name —
Is the yellow boat gone to bits on the rocks?
Is the tide run amok upon the shore, my dreams only breath
like the wind? Is the owl a mistake
for the sound of the train? Sometimes there’s music
that rustles the hair on my neck
like a ghost in the rain.
See how the right verbs, verbs that make something happen, can get there reader to SEE or FEEL something. Yes, there are being verbs, but they are given life by action verbs.
b. Place the verbs where they will do some good for the poem. This is about syntax, poets! How are your "sentences" (lines) structured? Subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb. Boring, predictable, deadening. Mix up verb placement in your lines and phrases so that there is a greater tension between subject, verb, and object. your poem will seem more alive. Look at the variation of verb placement in this small poem (shown in bold):
Be deep and green all day, surging and dark. Show your full sky of words. Full
and fearless, let words spill like stars out of your mouth. Be a little dangerous.
Let them talk about you in the street or in bed tonight with the lights out,
covers tight against their chins.
Let the detractors detract against you
and the liars spread their false cloths,
shouting J’accuse! J’accuse!
Like moths they will soon burn,
like Icarus they will fall into the sea
where, in January, no one knows you are.
You grow barnacles on your humor, you‘ve eaten
all the words the sea tossed onto the beach.
c. Write in present tense. Even if you are writing about something that has already happened, using the present tense makes the incident more immediate. This lets the reader experience it too. Puts the reader inside the action of the poem.This is one of the hardest things to understand or employ. You may say, but this happened in the 1940s, not now. Yes. But what is lost by writing it as if…. nothing is lost. The past is history, but history is always happening. Think about that. Let's discuss.
He curved into her like a fish, an embryonic fish
that waited for her to warm him. He remembered
feeling like this in his mother's arms the day he was born.
He curves into her like a fish, an embryonic fish
waiting for her to warm him. He remembers
feeling like this in his mother's arms the day he was born.
See the difference?
The second version is more immediate and more dramatic. Always TRY present tense to test the difference in immediacy for the reader.
NOTE: sometimes you can (and maybe should) mix past and present tenses, but it can be a bit tricky. Check out the mix of tenses in this third version. They work.
He curves into her like a fish, an embryonic fish
that lived along the Sea of Galilee in the time of Christ.
He waits for her to warm him, remembering
the feeling from when he was a babe, newly born.
Which version is best for you? Please comment.
Here are some notes from the final 5 tips:
6. Never stop learning how to write
There is always something new to try. I like to browse writing sites to find invented forms. Another way is to take classes or attend workshops. You can find them near you (libraries and community organizations have these from time to time) or you may have to travel a bit. Some are a little (or a lot!) pricey, but others are inexpensive or free. If you attend a free workshop, be kind to the poet who is teaching you something…buy his/her book. Get a friend to go along to support the poet and to learn right along with you. You might even be serious enough to enroll in community college classes, or to go back to school for a MFA. That is what I did.
7. Read poems all the time. Read out of your comfort zone.
I do not care for some kinds of poetry. I will not likely write language poetry, cowboy poetry, or the new thing, Insta[gram] Poetry. I am not a fan of Charles Bukowski's poetry or Dara Wier's. I am not into poetry about pets. But I will read some of all of that. I cannot possibly keep growing as a poet if I don't know what is out there. Oh, sure, I may still not like or not understand or not prefer… but at least I know. And there have been some surprises along the way.
It is also helpful to read across cultures, both here and abroad. I have read poetry from at least 30 other countries, usually in translation. I am made wiser by reading those words. I am a deeper poet and a better human being by reading those words. I keep learning. I keep getting fresh ideas.
BH Fairchild (read HIS poems!) once told me that poetry itself is the teacher of poetry. I have come to know that he is right. I now have favorite poems and favorite poets. I go back to them again and again for my refresher course in poetry.
8. Learn the techniques (and language) of poem-making; learn the rules.
What is it that makes a sonnet a sonnet? How does one make an ode? What is the rule for rhyming? Is there one? What is a sound device? What is the difference between a tercet and an heroic couplet? How does one count the meter of a line? What the heck is pentameter? The question you may be asking yourself right now is why do I need to know this stuff? Why can't I just put down my feelings?
There is so much to know before a poem is really a poem. It is NOT taking a sentence and breaking it into lines. Richard Wilbur referred to that as shredded prose. This goes back to tip #6 a little bit, but the ways to learn the technical lingo and structure of poems can be done on your own in part. You can find books and search the internet. Still, there is no better way to learn these things than in person. Find a writing group, go to a workshop that focuses on technical aspects of poetry.
9. Break the rules.
Once you have gotten a pretty good sense of the how-to and the what, you are ready to break a few of the rules. You may even may be ready to invent some of your own, including a broken sonnet or two! My foray into the world of prose sonnets is a good example. I had learned how to make a sonnet. I knew its technical aspects and there reasons for using that form other than just to use it. I wanted to write sonnets without all the rules and restraints, most especially the way it looks on the page, and the subject matter.
Here is a sonnet that is not the typical subject matter. It's not about love or loss or lofty emotions. Notice that there are 14 chunks (as evidenced by the 14 numbers) which fits loosely with the "rule" of 14 lines in a sonnet. Notice that there is a shift at chunk 9. this corresponds to the turn or volta in the middle of a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. Notice that the last words of 13 and 14 rhyme. This corresponds to the rhymed couplet at the end of a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. I have invented! I have broken and yet honored rules for a sonnet.
Stage 4 Case of the Heebie-Jeebies
1. The diagnosis is certain. The women at the Black Duck Emporium knew before anyone else. It’s a fantod, Mary Ann confides. 2. Well, I told Donna just last week something was up. 3. Not wanting to intrude, I drink my latte, study the bird observations notebook: Indigo Bunting, Green Warbler, Brown Creeper. 4. I think of the girl I saw yesterday creeping along by the church in the rain. 5. The Black Duck quackery saw her too. Green sickness, Ginger said. Didn’t Mr Spock have that? Or was it Dr. Spock? 5. The diagnosis: contagious. 6. Wasn’t she in here a few days ago? Did she touch anything? They speculate that you have to kiss someone to get it. 7. But, a fantod. You don’t see that every other week. 8. Spasms. Nightmares. Nudity in church. Bats and bell ropes at all hours. 9. There are spells for casting aside a fantod. I keep this news to myself. 10. I am pretty good at enchantments and spells. I’ve officiated at Viking funerals. I’ve been up a tree to cure birds of panic attacks. 11. Donna’s hair is a spell, scarlet tanager feathers. No Fantod for her. 12. Still the island’s in a dither with worry. 13. Someone spits and says Jinx. 14. Stage 4 case of the heebie-jeebies on the way I think.
NOTE: this poem is from my new book, coming out in May 2018
10. Look into the mirror right now
Claim your place as a person of purpose by saying I can do this!
It's time to build your confidence as a writer!