The Blog of John Hewitt

Break the rules – 31p31d

Day 22 of 31 Poems in 31 Days

Doing What You Can’t

“Can’t” is a word that should rarely be applied to poetry. There is very little that “can’t” be done in a poem. The beauty of poetry is that the risks are so low. While it would be stupid of me to say that you “can’t” get on the bestseller’s list with a book of poetry, I can tell you that the market for poetry is significantly smalleR than the market for fiction. You can choose to be saddened or frustrated by this, or you can embrace the minuscule size of the market. If you

aren’t writing poetry to get rich, then you don’t have to worry about the demands of the market. You don’t have to write “marketable” poetry, because most poetry isn’t very marketable anyway. You are free to indulge you wildest and most experimental ideas (or your strictest and most conventional ideas) precisely because the consequences are so minor.

So what if most poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore? If you like the way it sounds, do it.

So what if nobody reads epic poems anymore? If you have that much to say about one thing, then you should say it.

So what if sestinas don’t sell well? Nothing sells well. Write it if you like it.

There is nothing wrong with taking risks and breaking rules. Just remember that broken rules don’t make a poem good or bad. You aren’t going to impress someone with your combination enjambment, alliteration and tetrameter unless the poem is actually good. you don’t break rules just to break rules. You do it because it is what produces the poem you want to produce.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Try something that scares you (just a little) and then write a poem about it.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Ken Rumble’s book, Key Bridge, is either an epic length poem or 79 different poems about the same subject, depending on your point of view. The subject is Washington DC, and he captures the life and spirit of that city in just about any way you can imagine. He plays with style, language, line, rhythm, placement and any other poetic concept you can think of as he weaves through the city from multiple perspectives and styles. Whats more interesting, to me, is that shortly after it’s publication he moved from Washington DC, the city of his birth, to Greensboro North Carolina. I guess he was finished.

Write a three stanza poem that shows a progression with each stanza

On the Move

Poetry, unlike prose, is not reliant on plot. While it is possible to create a poem with a plot, a plot is by no means a requirement for a successful poem. It is merely one option out of many. Progression, however, occurs whether a poem has a plot or not.

There should always be a reason why one line appears before or after another. There should be a reason why the first line is the first and the last line is the last. Even in an Imagist poem, the description of the image needs to progress. The readers shouldn’t feel as if they are being fed a series or random but related facts. They should feel as if the poem is leading them towards a shared goal or destination.

For many poets, progression is second nature. They automatically write in a linear style and it comes through with very little effort. That doesn’t mean that they can just assume the progression of the poem is perfect every time, but they often find little reason for change. Other poets spend much more time determining the order for their poetry. They consistently move or change lines simply because the original version (or even the revision) doesn’t seem to move forward or evoke the right impression. Determining order can be especially difficult in longer poems and in Imagist poems, which are not intended to tell a story so much as to develop an impression or feeling in the reader.

Many Means of Progression

There are no quick and easy solutions to the problem of progression. Every poem is different and has different needs. It is fairly easy to judge the progression of a poem with a plot, but a poem about an image or an issue can be harder to interpret. Below are some ways to measure progression. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it probably covers 90% of poems.

Chronological: Progression through time.
Spatial: Progression through a physical position.
Process: Progression through a sequence of events.
Size: Progression from the large to the small or the small to the large.
Climactic: Progression through levels of importance.
Relational: Progression that shows a relationship such as cause and effect, problem and solution, comparison and contrast.

When reading and editing, try to determine what sort of progression is taking place and how successfully that progression is shown. Once you determine the type of progression you can judge each part of the poem by how it relates to the intended progression.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write a three stanza poem that shows a progression with each stanza. The three stanzas should serve as a beginning, middle and end respectively. It might help to picture the poem as a three act play.

Today’s Recommended Poet

John Kinsella is a poet and environmentalist who purposefully pursued a rural existence in the style Thoreau’s Walden. His themes include the relationship of people to the land, to indigenous people, and to the world as a whole.

Books of Poetry

Write a poem that begins a negative and ends with a positive – 31p31d

Day 20 of 31 Poems in 31 Days

The Other Kind of Stress

Poets can be a sensitive lot. In a way, that’s what poets are known for. Unfortunately, it can be a poet’s undoing. Writer’s block, in most cases, is simply a lack of confidence. A person gets so wrapped up in negative self talk, that no matter what they put on the page, it never seems good enough. When it reaches the point that the poet can no longer put words on the page at all, it has become a severe problem. Try to recognize when you are being overly self critical. Here are some ways that all people, including poets, sabotage themselves. Please note that I am adapting material from Walt Schafer’s book, Stress Management for Wellness.

Negativising: Focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation. For example, if someone reads your poem and has mostly positive things say, but you focus only on the criticism, you are negativising.

Awfulizing: Focusing too much on a problem or obstacle until you build it up into a disaster. For example, you decide you can’t write today because you can’t find your favorite pen and without that, you won’t produce anything good.

Catastrophizing: This is when you go into a situation expecting the worst. For example, you decide not to submit your poems to a poetry magazine because you “already know they are going to turn you down.”

Ovegeneralizing: This is when you take a single negative event or piece of data and apply it to a much larger situation. For example, if you write a bad poem, you decide that you must have “lost it” and you might as well give up. Plenty of good poems get written right after bad poems.

Minimizing: This is when you downgrade praise or an accomplishment. For example, if you get published by that magazine you thought would never publish you, you decide that it must have been a fluke or they didn’t get very many submissions.

Perfectionism: Setting impossibly high standards for yourself or for a situation. For example, deciding that you have to have the perfect word to finish a line and you can’t move forward until that word comes to you.

There are other ways to sabotage yourself but I think you get the point. Don’t focus on the negative aspects of your writing. Its good to want to improve, but don’t paralyze yourself with unreasonable expectations or poor self image. Just write.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write a poem that begins with a negative image or statement and ends with a positive image or statement.

Today’s Featured Poet

Sherman Alexie is a Native American poet, novelist and stand-up comedian. He is a prolific writer who probably doesn’t know the meaning of the words “writer’s block”.

Books of Poetry

Write a poem that has a variable line length rather than a set meter

Day 19 of 31 poems in 31 days

Get in Line

The first and most recognizable difference between poetry and prose is the line. Poetry is written with line breaks and prose is not. While it is possible to write “prose poetry” without line breaks the reason it is called prose poetry is because it is written in a prose style. All other types of poetry rely on the line.

There are many ways to play with and manipulate the line in poetry. The most established way to define your line is the use of meter, which we have discussed several times already. Even when you use meter, it is far from the only consideration in the creation of a line.

One of the primary considerations in the use of the line in poetry is to determine the line break. Even if you use meter, you have to determine the number of feet in the meter you choose. Pentameter (generally a ten syllable line depending on the length of the feet) is going to have a much different feel than trimeter (generally a six syllable line). The first is around the length of the average sentence while the second is closer to the length of a phrase. Each creates a much different feel and rhythm.The line is open to other sorts of manipulation beyond meter. One is the use of the enjambed line versus the endstopped line. An enjambed line breaks in the middle of a phrase or thought. An endstopped line finishes at the end of a sentence or a thought. The use of enjambment changes the rhythm of a poem and gives it a feel that is more like prose. It often results in readings that ignore line length entirely.

Other line tools

Another way that poets manipulate the line is through placement. They indent or otherwise displace a line, often to emphasize that line or to show a progression. These placements can often get quite intricate, with lines appearing in all sorts of locations on the page.

A final way to manipulate the line is length. With meter, there is generally (though not always) a consistent line length. When meter is not used, line length can be much more variable. Some poets manipulate this, following short lines with long lines, or combining line length and line placement to create shapes on the page. These poems are often called shape poems or pattern poems.

The key point, in my opinion, with any sort of line manipulation is that it should be done for a reason and it should enhance the reading of the poem. If a poem uses lines in a disruptive way, it can harm the overall experience of reading the poem and often says more about the poet than the poem. There is often a fine line between art and artifice. The more manipulative you get, the more you risk creating the latter.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write a poem that has a variable line length rather than a set meter. Use either enjammed or endstopped lines.

Include the words “formal” and “casual” at some point in your poem

Take your Place

One of the great things about this poetry project so far is that we have started to develop a community. We have regular contributors, occasional contributors and readers. A sense of community is important in poetry. Because the market for poetry is so small compared to the fiction market, it needs constant support to keep going.

There are many benefits to joining or creating a poetry community. You gain the support of your peers. You have the opportunity to compare yourself with and learn from other poets. You encourage each other to keep going. You meet the people who can help you down the road.

The people who publish other people’s poetry do it because they love it. There is no great financial benefit, and it is certainly easier to make money publishing something else. The best way to get noticed by these people is to get out in the poetry community and start introducing yourself. Attend poetry readings. Take poetry classes. Attend open mic nights and poetry slams. Get up on stage if you can. Support other people’s poetry by buying their books and magazines. The more you support poetry the more it will support you.

Today’s Assignment

Include the words “formal” and “casual” at some point in your poem.