- Every horrible subject you can imagine has already been written about. There’s some brutal, brutal stuff out there.
- Writing about painful subjects is a great way to deal with that pain.
- Don’t be embarrassed about having problems or faults, everyone does.
- Don’t judge the importance of what happened to you by the quality of your poem. Some things are very hard to put into words, especially for the person who lived through them.
- Today’s reader is surprisingly hard to shock.
- As great as poetry is for dealing with difficult subjects, you don’t want to spend all your time dwelling on the negative. Find time to write about the good things in life too.
Most beginning poets spend too much time thinking about the intentions or themes of their poems. There are many different approaches to writing poetry. Some poets write highly structured poems. Some poets write poems about very specific subjects and have definitive goals about what they want their poem to do. While these approaches can produce great poems, I do not recommend them for beginning poets.
Young poets and those writing poetry for the first time often become frustrated because they cannot seem to say what they want to say. Many experienced poets have the same problem. Self-expression is not an easy task. The task becomes even harder when you start out with very specific goals or constraints. Writing a great sonnet is not easy. Writing a great villanelle is even harder. That does not mean you should not try, but do not expect immediate success and do not constrain yourself even further by deciding in advance exactly what to say.
You can sit down with a topic in mind. If you want to write about a certain landscape or situation, use that as a starting point. If it does not work, however, do not force it. Sometimes the poem you really want to write is sitting in the back of your mind, waiting for you to get out of its way.
This may seem to be the antithesis of the advice at the top of the page, but it must to be said before we can discuss the meat of my statement, which is that you need to feel free to write exactly what is on your mind. If you want to write about basset hounds or aluminum cans, you should write about them and say what you have to say. You may create a great poem or you may not. Not every poem you write will be great. No one writes perfectly. Even Shakespeare had off days.
Sometimes a poem will shift topics as you write it. Follow the new direction. The new direction may end up fitting your original theme in a way you did not expect, or you may decide to discard the first part of your poem to make way for the new thoughts. You may even find that the first part was right after all and what follows does not work. Whatever the situation, follow the direction a poem takes. You can always rewrite later.
Do not get trapped by worrying about whether a poem “makes sense”. If, when you finish, the poem feels right to you, then you have done what you needed to do. Feel satisfied with that. If you do not like the way the poem turned out, either rewrite it or write another poem. Do not expect perfection with every attempt.
At some point, if you are brave enough to let the world see your poems, you will discover that your readers do not recognize all the themes you intended for your poem and all the points you tried to make. They will also see things in your poem that you never intended. You need to accept that people can have different views about the same poem.
One of the great truths in creative writing is that a writer lacks the perspective to judge his or her own work. When you read your own poem, story, or any other piece of creative writing, you bring to it every thought that was in your head at the time you wrote it. When others read your work, they see the words on the page, not the thoughts you put behind the words. Your readers will also bring to your poem everything that is in their own head. Their interpretation of your poem can be valid, even if it does not agree with your interpretation.
Do not spend your time worrying about other people’s interpretations of your poetry. There will always be a difference between your intentions and other people’s interpretations. Say what you have to say. If people ask you what your poem means, feel free to tell them what was on your mind. If they try to tell you what they think your poem means, listen carefully. You do not have to agree with them, and you do not have to change anything about the way you write just because you think they got it wrong. Give their interpretation some thought and see if you think it is valid. If you do not, that is fine. Perspective is a wonderful thing. The more you have, the more you can use.
The more you read, the more you learn. The more you write, the more you develop.
The crux of this advice is simple, but far too few potentially good poets follow it. Poetry is a vast art form. In my opinion, it is a far more varied form than painting. Many different types of writing can come under the heading of poetry, from highly structured forms to free-flowing uncontrolled verse. The topics of poetry also can branch in a nearly infinite number of directions.
In order to comprehend the art of poetry, a person needs to study it. Just as a painter studies the old masters and the newest techniques, a poet must do the same. Poetry has been around as long as there has been writing. You can read poems that are over a thousand years old. You can also read poems that were posted to a website moments before. The key is to read, and to study. Get to know the poetry that is around you.
Don’t forget to keep writing, though. When you take in the knowledge and creativity of other poets, don’t forget that the end goal is to produce something worthy of the next poet’s study. Every time you write a poem, you push and expand your abilities — you gain new insights.
Study your own poetry just as you would study someone else’s. Allow yourself to learn from both your mistakes and your victories. Above all, keep writing.
Here is a short list of poets, both classic and contemporary to get you started on the path or reading:
William Carlos Williams
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Percy Bysshe Shelley
A poem with Love in the title (or Destiny, Hate, or other HUGE themes) already has two strikes against it (and I like love poems).
One reason that people write poetry is because they have strong emotions that they want to release. That is a great reason to write! The problem is that a strong theme like love or hate has already had millions of poems written about it. Millions, in this case, is not an exaggeration. If you attempt to write a poem explaining love or another major emotion or theme, your will be walking a well-traveled path. It will be hard to distinguish yourself from what has come before you.
Robert Frost made the road less traveled a lasting metaphor, and in this case it applies perfectly to poetry. There is no reason not to write about love and hate and destiny. These fundamental human themes will stretch on long after we are gone. The key is to develop the theme in a way that has never been written before. This may sound daunting, but it is actually quite simple.
When you write poetry about a major theme, the roots of the poem should be in your experience. Tell your story. Love may be a difficult title for a poem, but The Way She Looked at Me Last Friday could easily be the title of a love poem I would want to read. The theme remains the same, but the path is more distinct.
I rarely set out to write a poem about a particular subject. I write what comes to me without planning. This is not the only way to write a poem. Many poets know exactly what they want to write about before they put anything on the page. My method, however, means that I almost never start with a title. Picking the title is generally my final task. In this way, I feel like I have a much better grasp on what the poem is about and how I want the title to reflect that.
To me, the title of a poem is like the door to a room. It is the first impression that you get, even before entering. It influences whatever comes after. Still, a large and forbidding door can lead to a comfortable room and a beautiful door can lead to a dungeon. Titles are the same way. A title can provide reinforcement or contrast. For an example, let me take the most overused poem in the history of poetry.
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sugar is sweet
And so are you
Now go back and read the poem, but imagine it had one of the following titles:
To My Love
Things I Never Wanted to Say
The Last Thing She Read
Each different title transforms the poem. Yes, the poem still stinks, but the meaning of the words must now be considered in their new context. The poem’s attitude and theme change under the influence of the title. This is why a major theme should not be the focus of your title. If we stick with the metaphor of a title being like a door, then the title Love is a sixty-foot high shocking pink door covered in roses. It is going to be hard to create a room that can match a door like that.
In the end though, the choice of title is up to you. Charles Bukowski used Love in the title of a poem, but the full title, Love is a Dog from Hell, certainly knocked the roses off the door. If you think your poem lives up to the name, call it whatever you want.
The acrostic poetry form is fun and easy to learn. For this reason it is very popular in elementary and middle school poetry programs. The key to the form is that the first letters of the first words of every line in the poem come together to spell out a word or phrase — generally the overall subject of the poem. For example:
Squid, eel and tuna
Upon a bed of rice
Sit ready to be eaten
Happily by those who can stand
There are very few other requirements to the form. Acrostic poems don’t normally rhyme, which can be a relief for teachers and can help prepare students for less lyrical forms such asblank verse and free verse. The form still requires students to think about language and word choice without having to rely on rhyme or meter. Because the form has a reputation as a beginner’s or children’s form, it is not commonly taught at the college level and is rarely used by published poets, but it is an excellent introduction to the world of poetry.
Acrostic poems across the web:
- Animal acrostic poems
- Color acrostics
- Repository of acrostic poems
- Sample acrostic poems
- Third grade MLK acrostics
- Important things acrostics
- Children’s Bible acrostic
Here are some additional articles about writing and teaching acrostics:
George Carlin released his first comedy album in 1967. For forty years he addressed topics that on their surface do not seem funny: obscenity, war, murder, religion, pollution, and natural disasters to name a few. Carlin made it a point to cross boundaries that other comedians (and the public at large) were afraid to cross. While his career was not always smooth, he had little trouble filling venues with people anxious to hear him speak. I watched several of his live concerts on television and saw him in person twice. I was frequently uncomfortable watching his shows, but I was always entertained. I believe that poets could learn a few things from George Carlin. Here are four of those things:
Play with people’s expectations
One of the most basic elements of comedy is the manipulation of expectations. Consider the George Carlin quote above. He leads the audience down a specific path in which people fight against something. This preconditions the audience to think in a specific way. He then manipulates that expectation by throwing in an opposite example. If he had instead continued with a list of other items that were exactly the same, there would be no punch line. In order to make the joke work, he changes the path of expectations.
The lesson to be learned by poets is that predictability is not as interesting as turnabout. Listing the wonderful qualities of the person you love is a nice sentiment, but it rarely makes for an interesting poem. If their qualities are not the qualities that people would expect, however, that takes your readers in a new direction. Playing with expectations does not just apply to the whole poem. Be prepared to play with expectations even on a line by line basis. There’s nothing worse than reading a poem for the first time and still being able to predict exactly what the next line will be. Every time you take your reader some place new, you have the opportunity to increase their interest.
Can you go too far with manipulating expectations? Of course you can. Any technique can wear thin if overused. You don’t want to surprise a reader just to surprise them. You want to do it for a good reason.
Important observations are often hidden in humor
Going back to George Carlin’s line about freedom fighters, it is pretty clear that his point lies deeper than just showing people showing how language can fool people and definitions can be strange. Carlin was making a judgment about war and politics. Much of Carlin’s career was spent showing how groups of people (governments, doctors, activists, businesses, etc.) use language to manipulate people for a variety of reasons. Carlin has very definite social, political and religious beliefs and he expresses them in his act. People listen to him and remember what he says because he makes them laugh while he expresses his views.
You don’t have to be a humorist to write good poetry, but you do need to be a bit of an entertainer. It isn’t enough to just state your point in poetry; you have to do it in an interesting way. Humor is one of many tools that can be used to get your point across while keeping your reader involved.
Develop a relationship with your audience
You audience doesn’t have to love you, but they should have an opinion about you. There are many approaches to involving an audience in your work. Carlin did not go out on stage looking to make new friends. He probably did not mind if he did make friends, but his goal was to engage his audience. He was not afraid to make them angry or uncomfortable. At some points, he even stopped trying to make them laugh. He talked to the audience like was debating with them. While this approach may have turned some people off, it connected with enough of an audience to keep him working. I have seen many comedians (and poets) whose work appears to exist in a vacuum. They fail to form a relationship with their audience, either friendly or adversarial. You know nothing more about them at the end than when you started.
For poets, developing a relationship with your audience means several things. It means taking the time to open up about personal issues. It means taking stances and expressing opinions. It means performing. If you have an opportunity to do a reading, take it. When you do read, try to observe and remember the audiences’ reactions. If possible, make video recordings of your performances and have whoever is making the recording spend as much time filming the audience as they do filming you. Find out what makes audiences react to you. Look for ways to improve upon their reactions.
Keep working on your skills as long as it takes
One of the advantages George Carlin eventually had over an up-and-coming performer was that he had forty years of material and experience to draw from. This kind of advantage can only be gained from work, experience and time. The more you write and learn and explore your poetry, the better you will get at it. Carlin managed to find some measure of fame fairly early in his career, but he had plenty of low points that ended the careers of other comedians. His act continued to grow stronger and more distinctive as the years passed because he kept working to make it better. That persistence rewarded him with a long, successful career. He continued to fill theaters and concert halls years after most of the people who started with him had retired, given up or just faded away. Keep working. Keep improving. Keep writing.
One of the most severe problems poets face is perfectionism. Too many poets and aspiring poets feel they have to write a great poem every time they write a poem. They get frustrated when something doesn’t work or they don’t bother to write at all because they just don’t feel “inspired”. This sort of thinking destroys creativity. It stops many poets, and many other writers, from even putting the first word on the page.
Poetic perfection is a great goal, but a terrible standard. You aren’t going to produce a great poem every time you sit down to write. You may go for days or weeks without producing anything that you feel is good enough. It can be frustrating, but it shouldn’t be defeating. Writing bad poetry is simply a part of writing poetry.
Part of this poetry perfectionism affliction comes from elementary and high school when young people take English classes with poetry assignments. Turning a poem in for a grade is always a dangerous thing. You are giving someone else the right to serve as absolute judge over your work, and in elementary or high school there isn’t much you can do about it. A class assignment is a class assignment. Sadly, this destroys many potential poets before they even get started. One bad grade on a poetry assignment can convince someone that they have no talent, when the truth is that any good poet can write a bad poem, especially when trying to conform to someone else’s assignment.
While I strongly support teaching poetry to young students, I am not a fan of grading poetry, especially at that level. It has the exact opposite of the intended effect. Instead of encouraging young students to embrace poetry, it discourages many of them. Writing a good poem is hard, and it is even harder if your first poem comes back with a C minus written across the top.
Wherever you are at in your poetry writing now, you should feel free to shake off poetic perfectionism. Allow yourself to write a bad poem. Allow yourself to write ten in a row or twenty or thirty. Writing poetry is a skill, and people improve when they allow themselves to make mistakes and learn from them. A poet who writes a good poem every time may be incapable of writing a great poem, just because they haven’t allowed themselves to take enough risks. Think of every bad poem you write as a step toward the next good poem. If you keep working at it, sooner or later the good poetry will flow. From there, you might even reach the great poetry. If not, at least you wrote a poem, and that’s a pretty good way to spend your time.
Epistle as a Form
Epistle (pronounced e-PISS-ul) is a poetic form that dates back to ancient Rome and to the Bible. It is a poem written in the form of a letter. The term epistle comes from the Latin word epistola, which means letter. Epistle was used to express love, philosophy, religion and morality. In many cases, the epistle would go on at great length. Many older epistles were thousands of words long.
Most people who think of epistles think of the Bible. Many of the books in the New Testament are epistles, especially the Epistles of St. Paul. The poet Robert Burns also frequently wrote epistles, as did Alexander Pope. There are contemporary poets who use this form, but it will always be associated with The Greeks, the Romans, and the Bible. Nonetheless, it is a fun and loose form to write in if you can get away from the ancients.
Your Poem as a Letter… or Tweet
Over the past hundred years, as the telephone took over for letter writing, letters became less personal and more formal or business related. The concept of writing letters to relatives, friends, colleagues and lovers went out of fashion. In the last few years, however, letter writing has had a rebirth of sorts as the Internet grew in prominence and people began to send e-mail to each other. Over time, this has grown to include tweets, Facebook posts, text messaging, and more. Today, a long letter is an unlikely gift of time and effort. An epistle is an even more unlikely gift.
Luckily, the epistle is a very adaptable form. If you want to write a poem as if it were a series of tweets or updates, that is still within the realm of epistle. I’m not sure if Burns or Pope would agree, but time passes for everything.
No Meter or Rhyme Needed
There are no meter or rhyme requirements for an epistle. Epistle is more a form of voice and persona. A poet can address their epistle to a real or imaginary person and express their views or take on the character of a different writer. The wonderful quality of an epistle is that it can be such a freeing form. The tone can be formal or use very personalized voices. The poems can be many pages long or as short as a post card.
Some things you should keep in mind when writing the epistle are:
- Who is writing the letter?
- Who is the letter being written to?
- How you would address that person?
- What would interest the writer and the recipient?
- How formal or informal would the writer be when addressing that person?
Below is an epistle I wrote several years ago. I think it is a good example of how fun and flexible the form can be. An epistle doesn’t have to sound like a formal letter. This one takes the form of unsent notes.
Notes To Shelly
Anyone who would give me
A Winnie-the-Pooh book for Christmas
Deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Still, what will it be
To have you disappear?
Don’t make it forever.
Got your postcard today.
Read all twenty-four words
Saw Rocky Horror again tonight.
And I thought about your first time
And your devirginization.
Afterwards I drove under
Every overpass I could find.
First date since you left.
Took her to dinner
At the Mexican restaurant
You told me gave you food poisoning.
I never told you I’d wait.
But I didn’t want to take her
Anywhere I’d go with you.
I had a feeling this morning
That I would find a letter from you
In my mailbox.
You know better than I
That it was empty.
That sounded bitter, didn’t it?
Love in the Time of Cholera.
Wanted to recite to you the passage
About the ship captain and the Manatees.
Instead I read it to the palo verde in the yard
Much to Mr. Parra’s consternation.
It is important to maintain my image.
Ran into Maria at the mall today.
We asked each other about you.
Must be fun to be so mysterious and everything.
Maria and I ate lunch together.
She told me she’s marrying Jimmy.
She took my address
So she can send me an invitation.
On your behalf
I spray painted the walls
Of my living room black.
And splattered little specks of color all over
To make it look like space.
The effect was different than I expected.
I feel like I’m in one of the less exiting rides
The invitation arrived today.
John and guest.
There’s nobody to take though.
Dating really didn’t work out
After you left.
I expect I’ll send my regrets.
Went to the wedding after all
Because I thought somehow
You would make an appearance.
It would have been a good moment.
Like the mail though
The appearance didn’t come.
Instead I started talking to Tammy.
We started dancing together.
Drinking half the punch.
She’s getting over somebody.
She said I can call any time.
I won’t though.
Called Tammy today.
We got even drunker than at the wedding.
We had to walk back to my house.
She took off her clothes
In the bathroom
And slept on the couch.
Of course your postcard
Would arrive today.
From Arkansas of all places.
Your message simple.
Just wanted you to know I’m alive.
I didn’t answer the phone today.
I sat in the living room.
I watched the walls.
Late in the day I decided
It’s time for me to buy a TV again.
I repainted the living room today.
My lease is up and I decided
That I didn’t want to stay here.
I’ve been sending out my resume
For a couple months now.
And I heard back from a company in Sacramento.
It seems everybody is leaving California.
Which makes it probably
The most appropriate place for me to go.
Tammy came over last night.
This time we didn’t go drinking.
This time she didn’t sleep on the couch.
This morning, just to be different
I asked her to come with me.
Just to be like you
She’s quitting her job
And jumping lease.
For the first time in a long time
I know I will see you again.
But then, I’ve been wrong before.
Don’t treat poetry like prose
One of the key differences between poetry and prose is exposition. The nature of prose is expository. The prose writer tells a story. Generally speaking, the story progresses along logical lines as the reader discovers more and more about the subject and the plot. For this to happen, the writer must explain elements of the story so that the reader can follow the action and make sense of it all.
Poetry does not have to be expository. A poet can explain, but it isn’t necessary to the form. In many cases exposition can be a detriment. One of the beauties of poetry is that a poet can and should cut out everything that isn’t essential. The reader should bring their own experiences into a poem. The more a poet tries to explain, the less the reader has to think about. A little explanation can be good, but too much explanation can leave your poem lifeless.
Say enough to be clear
There is also a danger in saying too little. What starts as concise can become vague. There is a path that each poet must navigate between what should be cut and what must remain. It is a path that each poet must determine on their own. Some poets write as if they are telling stories, and others write as if they are painting an image. Neither is wrong.
Exposition should be necessary and interesting
When you edit your poetry, go through each line and ask yourself if it is both necessary and interesting. Is it a line that the reader will remember, or does it merely serve to move the reader into the next moment? If the line is not necessary or interesting, it should either be cut or rewritten.
Don’t try to control your reader
Don’t waste the time and effort of your reader and don’t try to control their experience. Say what you want to say, but don’t tell your reader what to think about your poem. Allow them to think what they want, even though their interpretation may differ from your intention. The poem is not the poet. Once created and brought into the world, the poem stands only on its own. Unlike a college text or a how-to article, a poem is not created to explain. It is created to involve. Allow the reader to determine their own involvement.
Your writing voice will be influenced by others
Over the years, I have found many poets and writers I wanted to incorporate into my writing. Early on, I was a big fan of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.In college, I grew to admire Ai. I have been a big fan of Charles Bukowski for years and more recently I have been reading Tony Hoagland.
As much as these people influence my writing, however, I don’t write like any of them. I can see some elements of each in my writing, a Ferlinghetti-like flight of fancy or a Percy-influenced malaise for example. Still, as my voice has developed (and it is still developing) I have learned to incorporate rather than emulate. While pieces of my writing may echo that of other writers, I have my own system of expression and my own style.
Developing a writing voice takes time and effort
There is no quick route to developing your own writing voice. The key is to keep writing. Write your way through the bad moments and the cheap emulations. Don’t make a conscious effort to write like someone else, no matter how much you admire their writing. Be honest with yourself. Whatever else you do, keep writing, and then write some more.
As you keep writing, you will grow more confident in your style. This isn’t a process that takes a day or a week. This is the process of a lifetime of writing. Your voice will evolve long after you have stopped worrying about developing your voice — if you keep writing.
Influences will become more subtle over time
Once you become comfortable with your writing voice, you won’t be as susceptible to outside influences. You can learn from a poet without copying that poet. You can add the best of other people’s influences to your style. There is value in reading and learning from great poets and great writers. Just as musicians incorporate new sounds and styles, so can poets and writers. Just remember that your voice is the influence that matters most.