I have for some time now been fielding emails about my poetry writing process; how it works for me, what things I like to do, what things that I do not do, etc. Rather than keeping repeating these comments in hurried, inelegant email responses, I thought I’d take the time to really examine the topic. This, then, will be an article on the Book-of-Pain-influenced “dos and don’ts” of poetry writing, in the sense of being the things that at least somewhat work for me—what I dos—and the things that I would advise everyone to avoid—what I suggest you don’ts.
I will apologize in advance because I know this is going to be a long and boring post. It is going to be long because, to be honest, I am not writing it for you, I am writing it for me and I have a lot to say to me: all those things I have thought about for years but never condensed into a single spot. And boring because—well—there is a reason I prefer to write poetry, and generally brief poetry at that…
Let me start by pointing out the obvious: I am neither the greatest poet in the world, nor the definitive voice of the final, or learned, or careful, or knowledgeable, or published critic in the world. Nor am I academically trained in poetry writing. This posting is a personal review, not a definitive or authoritative statement. It may not be right for you and may not even be right at all, but it is what I have to say on the topic. Take its value as the price you paid for it.
Here, to start, is my basic premise: words strewn upon a page so that the resultant arrangement looks like a poem, do not a poem make. A poem is a thing of grace and elegance and is the result of thoughtful expression, keen insight and hard work. A poem should breathe with life and make an independent emotional appeal to the reader with an effortlessness that is impossible to deny. In saying this I do not mean that I judge other people’s work for these qualities—although I appreciate them when I see them—because I try not to judge anything but to accept what is written as it is. But having said this, it is true that it is by these standards that I judge my own work.
For me a poem starts when three things come together and begin uniting:
1) A key phrase or line: I hear something, or read something, or a line, or a phrase just pops in my head. And if it has a certain cadence, a certain twist and an appeal I cannot deny, it sticks with me. It is the anchor on which a poem is built. For example, in Here on the bridge, the key phrase was, “I wanted a cigarette so bad I thought I’d eat the pack…” a line my father said to me months earlier when he was describing how much he once anticipated a cigarette after quitting for a week on a bet. (He’ll be 88 on his next birthyday, so guess what…that next cigarette made him so sick, he decided to quit altogether.)
Key phrases may may take a long time before the seed germinates and the result coalesces into a poem. In fact many never do, or at least haven’t yet. Often they change in the poem and sometimes even get dropped out entirely; once the same phrase even migrated through a series of poems, starting one, leaving it and starting another and then even leaving it until it found its final home in the third poem.
But more than just starting the process, a key phrase, which usually ends up starting or ending a poem, provides that emotional bang that can either hook a reader at the start, or provide a satisfying closure at the end.
2) A vehicle, i.e. some unifying theme to carry the poem: it can be a metaphor, a story or an idea. It can even be the structure of the poem, or a consistent rhyming pattern or an overall poetic form. For me, however, it is generally the thing I am most talking about; the thing that I explore throughout the poem or use to move the poem along. But this is the point: the vehicle is not really what the poem is about. Let me give you an easy example: in The Candle, the vehicle is the voice of the candle itself, as this is what carries the narrative of the poetic idea. In colline is french for hill, the vehicle is describing Rwanda through time. But note that in both these poems, the vehicle is not what the poem is about. The vehicle is the method you use to get to your idea. That brings us to the last constituent part:
3) The idea of the poem, its raison d’être, or its justification, is the heart of any poem. If you have nothing to say in a poem then it has no voice, no passion, no meaning. Without a reason to write the poem, you as the poet have no grounds, or right, to stand up and say, this is me, this is my work and it has value and it has meaning and it has feeling and a heart—and most importantly, it has a bit of my soul in it. Other writers I have heard say that they start a poem with just words and let it grow into something meaningful. This just does not work for me; believe me, I’ve tried. The result was interesting and enjoyable, but for my own work the process is always the same: I have to wait until I have something to say and the desire to say it grips me. Then I can begin.
To this, you may well ask, “But where do these things, these ideas, come from?” To which I would answer, “I am not sure…everywhere!” It is true that I have gone through periods of not writing. But to be honest, I am not sure if this was real writer’s block or if it was more that the ideas were presenting themselves and I was just not trying to see them. I find ideas for poems because I am a poet and I am looking for them and have been looking for them for a long time. And, yes, I suppose, practice does help.
The point of this is that every poem is an exercise in brevity and focus. There is, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a scene where the protagonist is teaching a writing class. One of the students is having a problem finding something to write about and so the teacher tells him to imagine a building, but the story of all of the people who live or have lived in the building is too big for the student and the block remains. Then the teacher suggests imagining the building itself, how it came to be there; but this story is also too big. Eventually they wind up down to considering a single brick in one of the walls: where did it come from? Who laid it? When? And with that the student’s imagination and creativity opens up like a floodgate and idea after idea comes pouring out, so fast he can’t grasp them all.
My point is that things to write about are everywhere, you just need to start looking at them and for them and recognizing them when they show up. Every feeling you have, every event in your life, every idea you discover, each turmoil you see, or experience…each has value and you should examine them to determine if there is some unique, or hidden, or fantastic, or sad, or glad, or amazing aspect of it that interests you and can be the heart of a poem.
Given that the three constituent parts are at least partially together, I can start a rough first draft. As I have often said to friends: I do not consider myself much of a poet, but I think I may be making some headway at becoming a decent poetry editor. By this I mean that I do not write great, rough first drafts. I do not even try to write great, rough first drafts. I don’t even care about writing great, rough first drafts. I merely want something concrete that I can start to work with. The poem will grow, shorten, lengthen, deepen, lighten, darken—go somewhere!—but only if I start it and only if I keep editing it.
And that’s the key: to edit it, over and over and over and over again, literally dozens and dozens of times. Examining each word, each phrase, each idea, each punctuation mark, trying to ensure that it not only says what I wanted it to say, but that it says it in the best way that I can express it. What I am most trying to do with each re-reading is to hear what it sounds like to the reader who doesn’t know what’s coming, hasn’t yet read the poem and is doing it for the first time “cold.” This sounds easy but is, in fact, hard to do.
This is not to say that I haven’t written a poem in a single day, because I have. But it was an obsessive day, I confess. As to the average length of time to write a poem…I would guess anywhere from one to four weeks and in some cases, much longer. On the other hand, I am generally working on two to four poems at a time and like to leave any one poem alone for several days at a time so that when I come back to it I am reading it with fresh eyes—again—as a reader would read it on the first attempt.
And finally, I confess that I will shamelessly edit even my oldest of poems if I happen to read it and want to make a change. In my defense of this ignoble act, let me point out that Dylan Thomas did the same, sometimes totally re-writing a poem in the galleys he would receive from a publisher just prior to final type setting. Not that I am any Dylan Thomas, but still…
I do try to hold specific targets in mind as I write:
1) Rhythm – I tend to write in iambic feet, phrases made up of repeating hard and soft sounds. This is the meter of a poem and is traditional with blank (i.e. un-rhymed) verse. I do not generally try to work in fixed syllable line lengths or to hold to a particular rhyming pattern. (The classic poetic forms, sonnets or villanelles, for example.) What I am striving for is that the poem seems to read itself, that the reader can move effortlessly through the poem, dealing with the ideas and not hindered by the way the poem flows. This requires maintaining a difficult balancing act: writing with words and phrases that come easily to the readers lips, but at the same time not slipping into the banality of common parlance and saying nothing new.
2) Emphasis – there are many ways of emphasizing a phrase: generally I use a sudden shift in rhythm (short line, enforced punctuation, etc.) or a rhyming couplet. Other great methods, but harder to achieve deftly, are a sudden change of topic, repetition, or the introduction of something way off topic, or the use of alliteration. Too, there is the eye catching metaphor, or even better, the ‘odd’ metaphor: talking about the ‘sound’ of a color, for example.
3) Sensible punctuation – in other words, keep it to a minimum so as not to get in the readers way, but add enough to guide the reader to discover the rhythm you feel best suits the idea.
4) Intensity and brevity – let’s be honest, a poet can only can hold a reader’s attention for so long unless they are a poetic genius. And I’m not. And nor are you. Modern poems are about intensity and brevity: the maximum said or implied with the fewest, well chosen words provides an explosive experience. Ian Hamilton, who readers of my recent posts know that I am championing as one of the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century, once described it as important to ‘maximize the suffering’ conveyed in a poem. Many of the poems I read would, I fear, be better if 50% wasn’t being said at all and the other 50% was condensed down to 10 to 20% of the words. So say less, but work hard to make it mean more.
5) Subtlety – this is closely linked to brevity. A poem that barefacedly states its meaning is really just a short, poorly written essay. It is a poet’s responsibility to find words that make the poem seem fresh and different to the reader, but that convey the idea of the poem in a subtle way, thereby enhancing its impact.
6) Originality – there already exists “at least” a few poems on the concept of, say, “I’m feeling sad.” Or glad, or confused, or lost, or in love or whatever. So if you are going to write about your feelings, your chances of writing anything new on the subject are next to zero; so work very hard to find a unique way to express these emotions to a degree and an intensity that calls a sympathetic and mutual response from your reader.
Dos and Don’ts
Do read other poets; the art of writing poetry is equal parts inspiration and equal parts sound mechanical construction using an historically developed toolbox of well-honed techniques. Never hope (or try) to imitate any other poet, but look at what they did and how they did it and ask yourself, “Why is this working for me? What can I learn from their technique?”
Don’t change person (go from “I” to “he” with no rational explanation of who’s talking) or tense (I “am” to I “was” because of a time warp that no one else understood just happened) in the middle of a poem. I have to be really careful of this as I am prone, while trying to capture a mood or subtle idea, to make these sorts of mistake often.
Don’t start a pattern and fail to keep it up; stay consistent. I read a poem recently which was made up of four, four line stanzas. The first stanza’s second and fourth lines ended in a matched rhymed, but this pattern was not repeated in the rest of the poem. As I read on I kept thinking to myself, “Why didn’t they keep that rhyming pattern up?” I cannot even tell you what the rest of the poem was about, although I recall it started well.
Don’t over use set ‘key’ words. I tend to want to use the words “and”, “yet”, “but”, “so”, “just”, “then”, “than”, “that” and a few others more to balance the rhythm than to say anything meaningful. Which is cheap. Obviously these words have specific uses in the language and need to be used when they are necessary, but look for your overused key words and try to keep them out of your work. And if you have used one of them once, don’t re-use them again unless absolutely necessary.
Do practice, a lot. An awful lot. Not every one of Keat’s poems was great, but many are for the ages. But I often wonder at how many he must have written and thrown away even before he shared one with a friend, let alone a stranger. Like any activity, writing poetry must be exercised to become better at it.
Don’t drive two vehicles at once. Often in an early draft I will expand on multiple metaphors in different parts of a poem to try and drive my idea across. Eventually, one of the metaphors has to go and the other to grow or there is no unity of process in the poem.
Do know your letter sounds and manipulate them: b, g, j, k, t and d – these are driving and hard. S, l, m, n are soft and sweet. R growls, while p is hesitant or unexpected.
Do get a trusted friend to read your poems to you. Listen to how they stumble and how they fail to read the poem as you do. How can it be re-written to help the reader read it like you want it to be read?
And finally, do share your poems with other poets you trust and ask them to give you their honest and fair critique. This isn’t about your ego, except in the sense of suppressing it. This is about giving your poetry life.
And remember, above all else: edit, edit, edit!
Writing any old poem is easy. Writing a good poem is hard. And it should be that way, because anything as wonderful as good poetry should only be the result of us applying the best of ourselves to the most undefinable part of ourselves and wringing the goodness of what we can be, from the dross of mostly what we are. Which, in the end, is as good a description of the poetry writing process as there exists, I think.
Hmm, that last bit wasn’t said half bad…maybe there’s a poem in that somewhere…
Enough! I’m done…
Thank you for reading On Writing Poetry. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.
Apparently, I Wrote Too Soon…
2013.07.26 edit: a friend recently described in an email the things he looks for in a poem. It was so well stated that I thought I’d add this short addendum:
…my technical understanding of poetry is not that sophisticated; I’m more interested in the way poems sound in the ear, their pace, and the message they try to deliver. [Good poetry is] accessible, oriented towards the real world (and not just academics), and doesn’t try to set itself up as being too fancy for what you could call regular people.
I cannot agree more!
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