Thoughts on Writing Poetry

  1. Writing is about communication. Yes, poetry is art (or should be). Yes, poetry emotionally expresses the things that prose cannot (theoretically). Yes, poetry is allowed and encouraged to be ambiguous. But first and foremost, poetry should adhere to the central rule of all good writing. It must communicate. If your poetry is esoteric and gorgeous but completely incomprehensible you have failed in the number one goal of writing. Better to be slightly pedantic and comprehensible, than to be beautiful but as vague as a Charles Williams novel. [1]
  2. There is nothing wrong with established forms. Only in modern times is it necessary to write this. There is nothing inferior about writing a sonnet or a pantoum or a clearly defined villanelle. Yes, it follows rules. Yes, that can be limiting. But feeling like you’re not a real poet if your writing isn’t a blank, free-verse, meter-less, angst-driven fog is also limiting. All poetry follows rules of some kind. And perhaps no rules are more constraining than the demands of “free” art.
  3. Write you. There are certain kinds of poems I won’t even try. I would be faking, spoofing, or both. [2] More importantly, there are subjects that I will not write about, and certainly not in the acceptable “poetic” way. Poetry does not have to speak about unrequited love. Poetry does not have to deal in depression and fear and frustrated puberty. Write what you believe. Don’t worry about whether or not it is “poetic” enough.
  4. Try new kinds of poetry. Expand your horizons. The first pantoum you write will probably not be much good. That’s okay. You learned the rules. You know a little of what goes into that kind of poem. Your next pantoum will be clearer because you know exactly what you are facing. Familiarity with different poetry forms gives you more tools to choose from. Some ideas are tailor made for sonnets, some for free verse. Have enough knowledge that you can choose the form that will most enhance your idea.
  5. Write down thoughts as they occur to you. Or as soon as possible. The longer you write poetry, the more phrases or rhythms will start popping up in your head. Some of these things will last a long time. But don’t count on it. The moment you think your memory will retain a great idea, will inevitably be the moment the little man inside your brain presses the delete button.
  6. Show people your poetry. You will not improve your writing by never seeking out or listening to criticism. Show your poems to friends and family. People whose good sense and literary judgment you trust. Remember, good sense is a more valuable judge of quality than deep literary analysis.
  7. Don’t try to be deep. It is an unalterable law of the universe that the harder you work to appear wise the more convoluted and vapid your writing becomes. This goes for poetry too. This is not to say that the answer is to try NOT to be deep—if you are a person you will manage that well enough. The goal is to clearly state some thought, mood or experience that has been clearly impressed on you. If you try to fake experiences or knowledge that you do not have, people will notice. Write the discoveries and thoughts you actually have, not the ones you wish you had.
  8. Don’t be afraid of deep. Poetry can be very powerful when dealing with themes like death and pain, life and eternity. Don’t worry that your thought is too deep for poetry. It may take some work to make your idea clear. You may need to try several kinds of poem till you get the right form, but don’t be afraid of saying something really significant. Let your experiences flow out of you.
  9. There is value in beauty for beauty’s sake. Not all poetry should have a moral. Some poetry was written because it’s just fun. Because the phrase and the cadence catch your mind and spark your thoughts. The Father of Lights gives his gifts as much to please as to invoke service, and we do Him a disservice when we look down on what is beautiful simply because we don’t understand how it is useful. [3]
  10. Tell the truth. Emily Dickenson said “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Problem is, that’s the definition of a lie. Your poetry should be honest. Honest about pain, yes. But honest about pleasure as well. Honest about trees and salamanders and the smell of rain before a storm. Honest about humility and sacrifice as much as greed and corruption. And because poetry aims directly at the heart, the implications of your worldview have that much more impact. And perhaps the greatest truth of all, love life. Little else has as much impact as reading an author who has clearly come to the conviction that life is not only livable, but worth living. Not because of the glories of what we see, but because of what is unseen, perfect and more real than anything we can imagine


[1] This is not to say that poetry should be held hostage to the Utility School of reasoning—that poems are only valuable if they have an immediate bearing on how you live your life. Only that whatever a poem is doing should at least be appreciable by ordinary readers. They may not grasp all symbolism, craft or intentionality, but they can get the general gist of what your poem is about. Bloviating, however large a person’s vocabulary, is not admirable.

[2] For example, I cannot do e.e. cummings’s style poems unless I am being very sarcastic about the form.

[3] Some will feel this point is a contradiction of point one. It does not need to be. If the goal of your poem is to create beauty for beauty’s sake, that should be clearly evident. If the reader is left scratching his head in frustration at what in the world you are saying, then your poem has not created beauty but confusion. Of course it is possible to create both beauty and confusion (that would be a good title for many volumes of modern poetry). In that case, my argument is that the confusion hinders, and to some extent tarnishes the beauty. The beauty is there, but would shine more brightly if it stood out in a poem that was at least comprehensible to people who do not have a degree in advanced Babylonian literature.


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