Sticky: Suggestions for poetry writers

Started by Amie, January 21, 2018, 06:29:57 PM

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Frequent comments/suggestions for new poetry writers

Certain types of feedback come up again and again, so rather than keep repeating the same advice, I thought it might be useful to summarise the most common of these.  I don't want to imply that these form any sort of rules which cannot be broken, but on the other hand, people keep telling me that this is useful stuff to know, so...  (this is an ongoing draft, so please feel free to comment and I will amend as required) :

1.  Writer- as opposed to reader- focussed writing (eg, poem as diary-entry)

Many people say that they write poetry for themselves, to express their emotions.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  But once you give the poem to someone else to read (whether on an internet board or writing workshop or to a friend or family member) and ask their opinion, the implication is that there should be something in the poem to interest the reader.  So, rather than simply spilling out all your emotions on the page, you should consider, "What is there here to interest an outside reader?"  If someone is a close friend or family member, chances are that your raw emotion will be enough to hold their interest, because they know and care about you.  Those of us who don't know you however will normally require a reason to be interested in your feelings.

That's not to say that you can't write an I-poem that would be of interest to others.  There are loads of them that I like.  For example, I really like Anna Who Was Mad, by Anne Sexton.  But in this case the writer interests me in the feelings of the narrator by her use of imagery and repetition.  She doesn't just say, "I am anguished and given to disturbing and repetitive thoughts", she re-creates the experience of craziness so I can start to feel a bit of it myself (which may or may not be a good thing, but at least it holds my interest and makes me want to read to the end).

ie interesting poems will tend to engage and involve the reader, rather than just talking at them.  Which brings us to:

2.  Overuse of abstract language

By abstraction, I mean anything that cannot be experienced directly with the senses (for example, "beauty", "hope", "love", "tenderness", "cruelty", etc).  So much has been said about abstractions and why they are bad for poetry that rather than going into a lot of detail myself, I'll provide some links to essays on the subject.  The short version is:  poems tend to be more effective if they recreate an experience rather than simply telling us about it.  We can only experience the world through our senses, not directly through language.  Therefore, the further your language is from describing something that the reader can see, feel, hear, taste or smell for themselves, the further you will be from re-creating that experience.  No one knows what "love" looks like, but we've all experienced the thud of our own heartbeat (or that of your loved one, if you hug them close), the smell of your partner's skin, the sensation of warmth in your belly.  Describing these things will tend to involve your reader more directly than simply saying, "I love you".

And just as for the I-poem, I don't mean to suggest that all abstractions should be banned from poetry.  I particularly like Poetry by Marianne Moore, which is crammed with abstractions.  But she illustrates each abstraction with specific imagery which brings it more to life.  If you cut out the sensory images, you'd just have a mini-lecture, and it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Abstractions can also take the form of clichés (see section 4 below).  For example, once you've heard the expression "fluffy as a cloud" or "rosy fingered dawn" a thousand times, you stop visualising the intended textural description, stop imagining rays of pink light breaking in shafts stretching out from the horizon, and the words become a sort of mental placeholder, a way of not having to think about the imagery (which is the opposite of what you would normally want to achieve in a poem).

I actually interpret the poem "Poetry" as a very useful comment on abstractions, but more direct essays can be found here:

Advice I Wish I'd Been Told (dreadful title, great advice)
Wiki article on clichés
Notes from Ezra Pound's "A Retrospect"

3.  Excessive generalisations

Consider that you want to write a poem about your mother, and your first line is "My mother is a wonderful woman, she loves me more than anyone".  We'll assume for the sake of argument that the poem carries on in this generic way, without providing any specific detail relating to your mother as an individual or examples of how her love was demonstrated.  For you as the writer, no more imagery is required, you already know lots and lots of specific things about your mother.  For you, the word "mother" will therefore conjure up lots of images:  her face, the way stray hairs escape from her ponytail when she's spent the day in the garden, her range of expressions, perhaps the scent of her perfume or the Gauloises she smokes, the flowered apron she wears when she's doing the washing up and her pink rubbery gloves, the way the tendons in her hands flex when she kneads dough (if she kneads dough), etc etc.  But to a reader who doesn't know her personally, "mother" is just a word, and "wonderful" a generic adjective that could apply to pretty much any mother (or at least about 80% of them, according to their children).   There's nothing particularly unique or interesting about it, nothing that creates a distinct image, unless you fill us in on a bit of the detail.  Generally speaking, if you don't provide specific images that set your mother (or your lover, or the first time you had sex, or the time you nearly died or whatever) apart from the generic concept of "mother" (or lover, sex, NDE etc), the poem will be a bit faceless and less likely to engage your reader.

4.  Clichés and lack of novelty

I've found the following definition of cliché:  "a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, such as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox." 

So this is fairly simple:  if the intent of a poem is to engage and excite your reader, you have to ask, why would someone want to read something they've read a thousand times before?  Why bother to write about something if you don't have a fresh perspective or something new to offer the reader? 

There are a few links for sites listing clichés here.  Note that it isn't just stock phrases;  themes and imagery can be clichéd as well.  So, if you're tackling one of the big themes (love, friendship, birth, death, god, loneliness, "man's inhumanity to man", etc), you need to think more carefully about how you can offer a fresh perspective, because millions of poems have been written on these topics already.

5.  Strained or nonsensical rhymes

Poems don't have to rhyme.  Very often it's better if they don't.  There are lots of ways of creating music in a poem that don't involve end rhymes.  But it's particularly dreadful to see a poem with tortured syntax or which makes a nonsense statement simply to accommodate a rhyme.  When you first start writing, it's probably better not to attempt rhyming – it's quite difficult to do well, and it's a constraint that places unnecessary limitations upon the writer. 

If you're absolutely desperate to rhyme, you should ensure that a) it sounds natural and you haven't had to resort to an awkward placement of words to achieve it (eg, "When in the morning I first wake, a cup of coffee I do take" would be an example of some fairly spectacularly tortured syntax) and b) you haven't strangled the meaning just to achieve it  (eg, "You know it's you I truly love, You are special like a dove"). 

Rhymes tend to draw attention to words, so ideally the words you draw attention to should be interesting ones that add meaning to the poem.  You may also wish to experiment with rhymes in the middle of lines rather than at the end, and other sonic devices such as assonance and consonance, which tend to be a bit more subtle than end rhymes.

6.  Use of self-consciously poetic or antiquated language

I think because many of us had mostly 17th and 18th century poetry fed to us in school (and some never read beyond this for some peculiar reason), occasionally you see people using words like "ere" or "ne'er" or "naught" or even "doth" in modern poems.  No one speaks like that these days, so if you use that sort of language in a poem, it will draw undue attention to itself.  That's fine if you want the focus of your poem to be the word "ere", but otherwise, use modern English.  The idea is to make the ideas and imagery the focus of the poem, not to jar the reader out of the experience by using unnatural language.

7.  Novelty formatting

Standard formatting for a poem is for the lines to be left-justified and for punctuation and capitalisation to follow the normal rules of English grammar.  If you deviate from this, or use weird fonts or bolding or colours, then it should be because you want to create an effect that adds to that particular poem, not just because you think it looks cool generally.  Otherwise, the effect will be to draw attention away from your poem to the format of the poem.

Final note: for anyone interested in seeking out really bad poetry, check out the following  ;D :

Worst Verse
Vogon Poetry Generator