On Writing…

poetry rocks!

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.

The Basics

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.

Genesis

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.

Process

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…

Target

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!

Summary

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!

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “On Writing…

  1. Very informative John, thank you so much.

    With regards,
    mei

  2. Lyn Tolar

    Aha, the vehicle is not what the poem is about! I’ll remember that as I read your next poem.

  3. Barbara Minor

    Incredible amount of teaching, my friend. This explains where some of the words, ideas, and creativity occasionally comes from when I write. Didn’t know all these magical things happen in everyone’s mind. I thought something weird was happening to me, only me and that you had this smooth talent goin’ on that only happened to poets or gifted writers whenever you felt like writing something. Such a surprise.

    • Oops! You mean I gave all my ‘secrets’ (meaning ‘drudgery’) away? The truth is I am not, I think, very special but that I do love to work and work a piece until I am either thoroughly sick of it, or can’t think of another thing to pare off. As I noted about Beethoven in the poem The Moonlight Sonata (not that I am on par with his work, but still…) he too worked and worked his pieces to get that effortless flow feeling.

  4. John, your post was very interesting as an insight to how someone works their pieces. I can’t say I do most of those things, though some religiously. I often have three or four poems juggling at once, and inspiration almost lives next door it seems sometimes. But I am turned on by many different factors. Certainly a phrase but also visuals. As for reading other poets–I don’t with the exception of Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Dickey, Auden to name a few. Mostly I read prose. The reson I don’t read other poets is that I really feel that my style or styles are very eclectic. Yes I use cadences, internal ryhmes and such , and use both long and short line together. For me it is a matter of function. I detgest forms, have no use for them. There the function is crammed into the form and the form is center stage–this is a sonnet. I don’t care–is it a good poem. My styles run the gamut but I am comfortable in all of them. If there is a ‘style’ in all of it, it is to be found in the voice which is what makes the meat of a poem. My theory about my own poems is that though they do well standing alone it is when read together they form a sum larger than the parts. Anyway, just thought I’d share wityh you.>KB

    • KB, it is true that I have to take care when reading some poets. Nemerov, for one, as I then tend to go off and write a lot of bad sketch comedy, as opposed to poetry; and Dylan Thomas for another, where I can end up being seduced into writing anything that fits the rhythm, regardless of what it says. Not that that is what either of them wrote…my point is that even mediocre authentic Etheridge is better for me than bad Nemerov or Thomas imitation. On the other hand, the great poets are that for a reason, and I do believe that trying to understand their style, and use the tools they use, but in your own hands is a valuable lesson.
      I guess the issue is finding your own voice; you obviously have and it suits you: strong, driven, clear, assured and meaningful, your poetry is who you are. I think a lot of poets need to find that.
      And I have to say that I agree with you on the idea of poetry by form. While a poem that transcends its form (well, since we are talking about Dylan Thomas, how about his “Do not go gentle into that good night”) is divine, all too often the form is the poem. In the end, I am typically too lazy to fight long enough to make the poem more important than its shape. Others have a knack for it, I don’t.
      Here’s a question for you: does the presence of the ‘like’ button help or hurt poets? I am old enough and snarly enough to trust in my instincts in evaluating my own poetry and in picking those few other poets whose work I admire enough to trust their evaluation. Other than that, the number of likes I get is nice, but they are not a driver for my sense of satisfaction for the work. But I am not sure that is true everywhere and I am not sure that it helps younger poets develop.

      • John, Likes are a nice shot in the arm regardless. Speaking formyself, all ego aside, I am aware that my poetry is good, maybe up to snuff, and it runs the risk of people being intimidated by it with regard to their own sense of writing as if what could they say. While others may not read the poem just see it on the reader and hit like. Still they are nice to know that someone has taken an interest in at least supporting me in their way. The comments I get fall into two distinct categories. They are either remarks of what the poem made them feel, which is what I whant to know, particularly from those who don’t understand why it works for them–it means that what I’m doing is working, touching someone who is truly moved by it. Theen there are those whose work I appreciate and their seriousness in writing. To get a heads up from them is truly gratifying. I rarely get any constructive criticism, but there again is the intimidation factor besides the fact people don’t generally wewant to give such criticism unasked for. In the end the whole thing comes down to a popularity thing. I see poets getting praise for writing things I wouldn’t even begin to start much less publishe in public. Here is not the place to get reviewed. For me it is nice to see it online with the graphic. Yes, I would like more followers, who doesn’t want to be liked as someone they feel says something to them. I long for a workshop situation. I though Dverse would offer that but there it is a mutual admiration society. I only post there to get some exposure but still get little of that. I don’t knoww the answer accept to say f–k em all I know what is good.>KB

      • I really admire matt’s work on Shadow of Iris (highly recommended!) and I confess one of the things I like is the fact that he has a custom site which excludes the use of a like button. That aesthetic just rings true to me. If I wasn’t so darn lazy I’d look into doing the same thing. As it is, well, it is as it is…

      • John, I want a work shop, but to work it has to mesh not in style but in intent. I know I turned down your offer in the past. What I need to know from you is, 1. are you still interested and 2. knowing more about my work, and me to a certain extent, am I someone you think you can work with and feel I would benefit. I’m not sure if I would be a plus in a way you might not consider. I write. I know nothing about poetry except metric feet of which if I had to I might ber able to guess at a description of an imamb, enjambment–I go by instinct. In fact with me it is all instinct. I don’t give a s__t about forms, rules, hell I make up my own words. I also donb’t care about explanations. As far as I’m concerned if you have to explain a poem to the reader why bother writing the poem. I’m being as blunt as I can be, hell as blunt as I am–I come from the kill em all school let god sort them out. Anyway give it some thought. I’m still mulling it over myself.>KB

  5. John, WOW! Thank you so much. Yes! It was long. No! Not boring! Loved it… all. I have so much to say but I will try not to blah blah blah your poetic ear right off! I read an old poem recently that I think is perfect expression of your section on Target Point 4. Blake’s Auguries of Innocence – there is one verse in that poem that could stand alone and yet, was buried deep.
    Every night & every morn
    Some to misery are born
    Every morn and every night
    Some are born to sweet delight
    Some are born to sweet delight
    Some are born to endless night
    Even if you did write this for yourself John, it was great to have shared the inner tinkering’s of your mind with us, for that I say thanks. I also feel happy to realise, that I am not ALL wrong with my approach to poetry, and I am beginning to feel proud to have found my way onto this path. Although, it can be heart wrenching and frustrating as hell at times, I realise that tends to produce the better work. Wow, blah blah blah I have! Forty.

    • Forty, Thank you so much! I am pleased that you enjoyed this post and your Blake quote was quite apropos…Blake is one of those intense poets who packs much emotion in a few lines. This is an interesting quote too; the only thing I know from that poem is the famous quote about ‘seeing a world in a grain of sand’. Obviously there is much more to it than that. And I look forward to more blah, blah, blah!