Poetry 101: Getting Started

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

  1. If you want to write poetry, you must read poetry.
    …and I don’t mean stuff posted on message boards by other amateurs.

In a recent Newsweek article, “Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?”, Bruce Wexler wrote, “[P]oetry is the only art form where the number of people creating it is far greater than the number of people appreciating it. Anyone can write a bad poem.” Oh, so true. When I was hosting a poetry forum and chat, this is the thing that bugged me most about the so-called poets who posted and chatted there. They didn’t read poetry, which meant they had only a vague idea what a poem was, let alone a good poem. Few owned a book of poetry and most were hard-pressed to name a living poet.I simply don’t understand this. Why would anyone want to write in a genre they don’t enjoy reading? Who’s ever heard of a mystery writer who doesn’t read mysteries?

If you want to have any sort of credibility as a poet, you must read poetry. Hokey verses in greeting cards don’t count. Focus on contemporary poetry, just as you’d read contemporary novels if you were a fiction writer. Many would-be poets, if they read anything at all, seem to stick exclusively to classics. I surmise this is because most pre-twentieth century poetry rhymes, and they see rhyming poetry as being “real” poetry. Reality is, poetry is comprised of many elements; rhyme is but one.

A good place to start is Poetry Daily, which features a new poem every day, culled from literary journals. Many literary journals have online versions, some featuring excerpts from the latest issue. We have an extensive listing of journals at Mustard & Cress. You can find print versions in the magazine section of most bookstores (keep in mind that most lit mags have small circulations, so which ones are available will depend on where you live).

If you find a journal you especially like, consider a subscription. If you find a particular poet whose work you enjoy, look for a collection. Reading an entire book by a single poet is a different experience than reading poems piecemeal. And, as John Hewitt says in his Poetry Writing Tips, it’s important to “[g]ive back to the poetry community by reading (and paying for) the works of others. If you don’t, what right have you to expect others to do it for you?”

Poetry 101: Getting Started

Background Photo: takomabibelot/Flickr (CC-by).

  1. Learn to analyze and critique.
    …and for the record, “I liked it!” isn’t a critique and “I don’t get it” isn’t an analysis.

A poet must understand how the genre works: how poets use and combine words to convey meaning, how the rhythm of poetry is different from prose. I guarantee that learning to critique will make you a better poet. Once you can identify what other poets have done right–and wrong–you’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to your own work.For many, this step will dredge up memories of bad high school English classes. It did me. In school, I had a love-hate relationship with poetry. I loved how the words made me feel when I read them aloud without thinking; I hated dissecting those words to find the “hidden meaning”–the shreds that were left were always so much less than the whole.

I knew there was something desperately lacking in this approach, but not knowing what it was, I simply scoffed at the whole process. My experience isn’t unusual. Rhia Perkins, freelance writer and Toasted Cheese host, says, “I hated studying poetry in high school, because all we did was tear it apart. When I got to university, I had professors who taught me to take it apart gently, then put it back together again, and I had a wonderful time with that.”

In his poem “Introduction to Poetry“, American poet laureate Billy Collins describes how he wants his students to gently probe poems, “But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”

Undoubtedly, these students were taught the machete-attack approach to understanding poetry in high school. But as Collins indicates, it’s not the only way, nor the right way. Karen Swank-Fitch, a poet who writes the Coffeehouse for Writers “Writing Perc” newsletter, has outlined six steps to understanding poetry: question, clarify, listen, summarize, paraphrase, and put it all together.

In my high school English classes we concentrated almost exclusively on clarifying the meaning of figurative language–something that’s not satisfying or meaningful without context.

Remember Dead Poet’s Society? Take your time approaching a poem. Don’t gloss over what the words make you see or feel. Read it, then read it again. Set it aside and come back to it. Read it aloud. Ask yourself what you think the writer wanted to say. Ask yourself what it means to you. Ask yourself how you’d approach the same topic.

When you’re done, don’t forget to put it all together. One way to do this is to write poems you like out longhand. When you do this, you’ll find your hand moving as the poet’s did, your breath as the poet’s did. You slide inside the poem and it becomes yours if only for a moment. Keep a notebook, and copy into it poems that inspire you, that make you want to write. When the book’s full, you’ll have your very own personalized anthology–one that isn’t just good reading, but is a document of your growth as a poet.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    …and then practice some more.

Take time to just write. Creativity guru Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to simply write–fill notebooks–for two years before even thinking about publishing. In Wild Mind, she notes how her students often balk at this advice: “But I’m taking this time to write–I have to prove myself. I have to publish, do meaningful work. I can’t just fill notebooks.”But writing isn’t any different from any other skill–it requires practice. Think of it this way: if you were an athlete, would expect to make it to the Olympics the first time you attempted a sport? Of course not. It’s bizarre how many people seem think all they have to do is decide to write, and there will be an audience waiting to read what they have to say. The truth is, every conceivable topic has been covered thousands of times before. What’s going to distinguish your work from someone else’s is not what you have to say, it’s how you say it.

I’ve found that beginning writers usually fall into one of two camps: those who don’t realize that their writing sounds childish (or teenager-ish) and those who do realize it, and despair that they’re stuck there.

When the first group rushes to submit, it leads to bitterness and anger– they don’t understand why their poems keep being rejected. When the second group rushes to submit, it leads to doubts about their worthiness and writer’s block.

More than anything else, beginning writers need to realize they’re re-starting where they left off. This means if you haven’t written a poem since you were eight, you’re going to write poetry like an eight-year-old, not a 27-year-old or a 43-year-old or whatever your chronological age is. But also realize this: practice and you’ll improve, far faster than you did as a child, because now you have an adult’s intelligence and years of experience to draw upon.

There’s no money in poetry, so there’s no reason to rush to publish. You’re going to have to keep your day job regardless of how successful you become. So take your time. It will pay off in the end.

One more thing: Even if poetry is your primary genre, write some prose occasionally. Margaret Atwood’s “theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit.”

  1. Take a Class.
    …not because it will teach you to write, but because it will teach you about writing.

Pretty much the only things I kept from my first year of university were my Norton Introduction to Literature and the pieces I wrote in my creative writing seminar. It was my favorite class, even though my seminar leader, poet Patricia Young, didn’t like my writing, and I didn’t think she offered much helpful advice; her suggestions always seemed geared to making everyone’s writing–especially their poetry–sound like hers.

My writing back then was awkward, unpolished, trite. I was 18, had grown up in a series of small towns, and had never had the opportunity to take a writing class or discuss writing with anyone before. Anything of interest that had happened to me was still too fresh for me to have enough perspective to write about it in any meaningful way.

So why wasn’t it an unmitigated disaster? The class gave me my first opportunity to discuss the writing process with other writers, to workshop writing: read my writing aloud and feel the sting of criticism and, infrequently, the rush of praise. Almost subconsciously, I absorbed the names and work of various writers and poets. I even learned a little about the publishing side of writing; I’d been so green I didn’t even know literary journals existed. I also learned that writers can be cliquey and self-centered. That good writers don’t necessarily make good teachers. That “good” is subjective. The culture of writing I steeped in that year has lingered and resonated. It has ended up being something I could build on.

At its core, writing is a solitary activity. A class isn’t a substitute for long hours alone with pen or keyboard; it’s a supplement. A class can jumpstart your writing, or sharpen it. Sharing your work forces you to step back and look at it from an outsider’s point of view–it gives you perspective.

There are classes to meet every budget and schedule: night classes at colleges, summer writing programs, online workshops. Find one that works for you. And remember, even if the teacher turns out to be a pompous bore or your classmates don’t “get” your writing, you will have still learned something.

  1. Don’t sabotage yourself.
    …write poems that have a fighting chance at publication.
  • Write in free verse. Writing in rhyme and/or form is a challenge, and can be a great exercise — as Hewitt says, “[M]ost of my favorite poets learned how to write in forms before they discarded them. Writing in form is a challenge. It makes you think.” — but it’s not what editors are looking for. It’s extremely hard to rhyme well, and most poets who try to rhyme end up choosing words that aren’t the best choice just to force the rhyme. Instead of rhyme, try consonance (repetition of consonants), assonance (repetition of vowels), alliteration (repetition of initial sounds in words). To add form, try repetition of lines with similar numbers of syllables.
  • Describe a moment that implies a story, rather than telling the whole story. Consider what Marge Piercy has to say about a poem’s birth: “Poems start from a phrase, an image, an idea, a rhythm insistent in the back of the brain.” If you consistently find yourself writing complete sentences, narratives, or developing characters or plots, perhaps your ideas are better suited to prose.
  • Lie. One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is sticking rigidly to the facts. You’re a poet, not Joe Friday. Yes, poetry is often based in real-life experiences, and many poems seem autobiographical, but listen to Atwood: “About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true.” If you are willing to blend fiction with fact, you will write better poems.
  • Avoid tackling “big” subjects–e.g. love, hate, war, peace–head on. Instead, write about specifics that are representative of grander themes. As Hewitt says, “[t]he bigger your point, the more important the details are.” I think it’s best when a poem about something like love doesn’t mention the word “love” at all–and especially not in the title.
  • Show emotion in an understated, subtle way. Don’t be melodramatic, and don’t tell readers how to feel. An image of a woman pulling a blanket out of an empty crib and breathing in the milky baby smell is much more poignant than repeating ad nauseum how sad the mother is because her baby has died.
  • Don’t write poems so arcane an explanation is required before anyone gets something from them. On the other hand, do allow room for interpretation. Hewitt: “Say what you want to say, let the reader decide what it means. Don’t explain EVERYTHING”. I’ve seen poets get angry when a reader interprets the poem differently than what the poet intended. When you send a poem out into the world, realize that you let go of control.
  1. A first draft is not a final draft.
    …even if John Tesh steals it.

The appeal of poetry to beginning writers is simple: one can sit down and write a poem in a few minutes. It seems easy. Or, at least, far easier than writing a novel.In On Writing Poetry, Atwood remembers how the day she became a poet “a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of [her] head. A poem formed. … It was a gift.” While I don’t remember anything as dramatic, I am sure my first poem came to me whole. I suspect many poets had a similar experience, which is why they later confuse initial inspiration with polished poetry.

If you’re writing for yourself, as a way of freewriting, journaling, or even therapy, write what you need to. But if you plan to inflict your poetry on anyone else, you have to edit. Writing poetry for publication is work. Inspiration is just the beginning. Therapeutic poetry can be a stepping-stone, the writing practice Goldberg speaks of, a way of getting in touch with your “wild mind”, but it is never a finished product.

The conciseness of poetry means there is little room for error. We can forgive a few ho-hum paragraphs in a book; after all, there we’re talking at least a couple hundred pages. A lame sentence or two might not ruin the overall effect of a short story or article. But one misplaced word can destroy a poem. Poems must be rewritten and revised until each word is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of poems being composed today are dashed off by amateurs in moments of “inspiration”, and then shared, posted, or submitted without further thought, much like the “Seven Minute Poem” John Tesh has been accused of plagiarizing. This, what Piercy calls “overvalu[ing] the spontaneous”, is rampant on poetry forums.

Resist the urge to share your work immediately upon its completion. Instead set it aside for a time after writing. Write something else. When you return to it, give it a first edit. Cut clichés. Eliminate unnecessary words; be ruthless with adjectives and adverbs. Make sure that your nouns and verbs are strong, and that you’ve used fresh images and comparisons.

Piercy: “When I rewrite a poem, I go back into the space of the poem and contemplate it. I read it aloud. The only other time when I work on revising a poem is the first or second time I read it to an audience, when all the weak and incoherent parts suddenly manifest themselves big as the writing on billboards.”

Trying it out on an audience can mean posting on a forum or sharing in a class, as well as the literal audiences of poetry readings. But with poetry, reading aloud is an essential part of the editing process. Word order, line breaks, and punctuation all affect where breaths are placed, which in turn affects the cadence of the poem. If you can’t read for an audience, consider recording yourself reading the poem aloud so you can play it back and listen.

  1. Be Discriminatory.
    …no one’s going to give you $20K for a 20-line poem. Honest.

Always read at least one issue of a journal before you submit to it. You’ll be looking for a journal that’s a good fit style-wise, but also ask yourself if you’d feel comfortable or even honored to have your work featured amongst the other work you see there. If no, strike that journal off your list and look elsewhere. The last thing you want is for publication to be an embarrassment.Avoid journals that publish indiscriminately; a credit in one of these does nothing to enhance your credibility. It’s okay to publish in this type of journal once or twice just to get some practice querying and submitting, and to build your confidence, but take them for what they are, and move on once you’ve got the hang of it.

Beware of poetry scams, in particular the kind that promise big prize money, tell you’re a finalist in a competition, and try to seduce you into buying an expensive anthology, e.g. the International Library of Poetry (poetry.com). A good rule of thumb with poetry: if you’re promised more than a copy of the journal or an honorarium, be skeptical.

Don’t be afraid to publish poems individually, but make sure you retain the right to republish your work. Poetry collections usually consist of previously published poems. The market for poetry is small, and a publisher generally won’t consider publishing a collection until the poet has established herself, unless she’s already famous for some other reason (e.g. Jewel). A reputable print or online journal will explain what rights they want up front, usually in their submission or writer’s guidelines.


References:

Margaret Atwood, On Writing Poetry
John Hewitt, Poetry Writing Tips
Marge Piercy, Life of Prose and Poetry — An Inspiring Combination
Miriam Sagan, Write Poems That Get Published!
Karen Swank-Fitch, Six Tactics for Understanding Poetry, in Coffeehouse for Writers “Writing Perc” newsletter
Bruce Wexler, Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?, Newsweek (May 5, 2003)

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