The Blog of John Hewitt

Read poetry if you write poetry

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
Tony Hoagland
Sherman Alexie
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Jon Anderson
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Pablo Neruda
Nicanor Parra
Kenneth Koch
Denise Levertov
Charles Bukowski
Carolyn Kizer
Allen Ginsberg
Ai

Leave love out of your poem’s title

A poem with Love in the title (or DestinyHate, 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

Code Talker

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.

How to write in the acrostic poetry form

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:

Sushi

Squid, eel and tuna
Upon a bed of rice
Sit ready to be eaten
Happily by those who can stand
It.

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:

Here are some additional articles about writing and teaching acrostics:

Feel free to write a bad poem

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.

How to write an epistle poetry form

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.

Epistle Guidelines

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

One

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.

Two

Got your postcard today.
Read all twenty-four words
Twelve times.

Three

Saw Rocky Horror again tonight.
And I thought about your first time
And your devirginization.
Afterwards I drove under
Every overpass I could find.

Four

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.

Five

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?
Sorry.

Six

Reading Marquez.
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.

Seven

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.

Eight

Happy Birthday.
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
At Disneyland.

Nine

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.

Ten

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.

Eleven

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.

Twelve

Of course your postcard
Would arrive today.
From Arkansas of all places.
Your message simple.
Just wanted you to know I’m alive.
Don’t worry.
I know.

Fourteen

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.

Fifteen

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.

Sixteen

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.

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