The Blog of John Hewitt

Write poetry as often as you can

There are many excuses not to write. Try using writing as an excuse not to do other things.

This is a problem faced by all sorts of writers, poets included. There are many people in this world who think that they can be a poet or a writer. After all, learning to write is one of the first things you are taught in school. Most people know that they don’t have the skills to be a surgeon or an engineer, but almost everyone thinks they have the skills to be a writer or a poet. Most of them are correct. They can write. Nonetheless, they haven’t got what it takes to be a true writer or a poet, no matter what their writing skill is.

The reason they can’t do it is simple; they don’t do it. These people don’t sit down every day at a keyboard and try to write something. Most of them have ideas, and they might even be able to put words together in an appealing way, but they haven’t got the ability to make themselves sit down and do it day after day.

Doing something (anything) every day can be a challenge, even when the task is fun and easy. There are so many events that fill up a person’s day that even pleasurable things get pushed to the side. You may love to swim, for example, but a good movie on television can change your swim plans. That is life.

The challenge involved with doing something every day increases when that something is difficult and not necessarily enjoyable. I love to write, but there are days when it is a chore. There are times when ideas don’t come or words don’t flow. There are days when I just don’t feel like doing it. Those are the days that separate the serious writer from people who think they can write.

If you want to be a serious writer or poet, you have to stick those days out. Every poem you write helps you develop as a poet, even when it doesn’t seem like you are accomplishing anything. The person who spends an hour a month writing poetry is less likely to write a good poem every month than the person who spends an hour a week. The person who spends an hour a week writing poetry is less likely to write a good poem every week than the person who spends an hour a day. The person who spends many hours a week writing poetry, and reading poetry, and studying poetry, and going to poetry readings is the most likely to develop into a great poet.

That isn’t to say that you have to spend your whole life writing poetry to be good at it or to enjoy it. Still, you need to understand that time and effort leads to success. Time and effort separate a true writer from the people who think that they can write.

If you just want to write poetry for fun, then schedule a time each week to do it. Put aside at least a couple hours to write. If something better comes along, go ahead and do it, but schedule another time to write as soon as possible.

If you want to develop into a great poet, writing once a week is not enough time. You need to schedule more than one time every week to write, and schedule time to read and study. You need to get involved in the poetry scene and make the effort to connect with other poets and potential publishers. You need to value your time as a poet more than your time doing other things.

The challenges of imagery in your poetry

People will remember an image long after they’ve forgotten why it was there.

That one perfect line in a thirty line poem may be what makes it all worthwhile, or it may be what makes the rest of the poem bad. Keep an eye on it.

These two tips reflect both the power of vivid imagery and the problems images can present. A perfectly formed image can be inspiring, devastating, funny, melancholy, dramatic, or subtle. For me, one of the great joys of reading poetry is experiencing the vivid writing poets produce. This image from a Tony Hoagland poem, Here in Berkley, has stayed with me since I first read it.

Close your eyes,
swing a baguette horizontally
you’ll hit someone with a Ph.D.

The image sticks, probably because it is funny and sardonic and demonstrates a distinct view of a distinct community. The image the way I remember it, however, is incomplete. The full sentence is:

Close your eyes,
swing a baguette horizontally
you’ll hit someone with a Ph.D.
in sensitivity,
someone who,
if not a therapist himself,
will offer you the number of his therapist,

which — it may take you years
to figure out — is a hostile act on his part
designed to send you on a wild-goose chase
through the orchard of your childhood
to fetch the tarnished apple of your mother’s love.

Now, the short image is what sticks with me, but the overall sentence tells a somewhat different story. It is a much fuller and more melancholy image than the short version, and it describes more than just Berkeley.

No matter how well you write, most people will take away only bits and pieces of your poems. There are very few readers who memorize or even understand a poem in its entirety. If you are lucky enough to have your poem remembered at all, chances are that only one element of your poem will sink in with your reader. That element may not mean to them what it means to you.

When you write a poem, it is easy to fall in love with your own words. It feels fantastic to create a well-written line or to find a single perfect word. There are so many times when writing is a struggle, that the moments of success must be cherished.

The danger, however, is that your perfect line may not belong. Great words and even great lines do not automatically create great poems. When you edit your poetry, look hard at the lines you are most proud of.

Ask yourself if the best lines fit smoothly into the rest of the poem. Do they match the tone and intention of the rest of the poem? Do they add to the rest of the poem, or stand apart from it? What will the reader remember? Does it match what your intentions are? Read the poem without the lines you love the most. Compare the two versions to see which one comes closest to achieving your goals.

Chances are, those perfect lines belong right where they are. If not, the problem may be the line, or it may be the poem. If the rest of the poem does not live up to the best of your poem, then perhaps you need to rewrite the other lines.

The poem is in the details

You need more than a big point

Many poets choose to write poetry for political, social or philosophical reasons. These poets have a specific point-of-view that they want to express. There is nothing wrong with writing poetry to express a viewpoint, but I have found it often results in poetry I have no interest in reading.

I do not want to be told that the genocide in Sudan is deadly and awful. I already know that it is. I do not want to be told that child abuse is terrible and hurtful. I already know that it is. I know that war is terrible and I know that it is sometimes necessary. I know that people can be hurtful and they can be kind. Most people understand these things.

I am not telling you what you can or cannot choose as a subject. Write about Sudan. Write about child abuse. Write about war. Write about cruel people or happy people. I am willing to read a poem on just about any subject. The key is to focus on the details, not the general point. The poem will fly or plummet based on the details. If you want to tell a story about a war, focus on a single moment, person, or visual. Dig into the details of your subject.

Show the little details

I do not want to read a poem that tells me war is bad, but I might be interested in a poem about a truck that has survived a war — a poem that describes the dents, the scratches, the burn marks on the surface of the truck and how each mark got there. Those are the details of a poem. The point of a poem is usually expressed best when it goes unstated and readers draw their own conclusions.

The key is that no matter what the subject of a poem is, great or small, the goal of the poet should be to make every part of that poem as interesting to the reader as the subject is to the writer. Blanket statements can kill a poem. The same is true of overly obvious or overblown images. Often, when people think they are being dramatic, they are being melodramatic. This is another case of focusing on the subject rather than the details.

Use images over statements

When developing an image, make it a goal to veer away from emotional descriptions and look for literal descriptions that match the emotion. Compare these two lines from my hypothetical war-torn truck poem.

The angry bullet hole was dark and frightening

An irregular circle burn surrounded a bullet hole close to the driver’s door

While I am not claiming either line is art, the first image aims for an emotional effect and (I think) fails. The second line keeps emotion from the overt description, but demonstrates the menace involved. I am not saying to keep emotion out of your poetry, just be mindful that your readers would rather feel something on their own than be told to feel something. That said, there is no doubt the second line carries emotion. The words burn and irregular evoke negative emotions and the location of the bullet demonstrates the possible consequences of the shot. The line is more subtle, but it still creates an emotional effect.

Your point of view will always come through

Writing a poem that sets out to express a particular idea or opinion is difficult and often unnecessary. You already have a point-of-view, and it will come out in your poetry. You do not have to set out to tell how you feel or what you want people to understand. If it is inside you, it will show up in your poetry. All you have to do is keep writing.

Writing the tercet and triad poetic forms

Tercet Stanzas

The tercet is a poetry form with Italian roots. One of the most famous examples of the form is Dante’s The Divine Comedy (aff). At heart, this is a stanza form more than a form for a complete poem. In most cases, multiple stanzas are combined to create a single poem. The poem may be be a string of several tercets. In other cases, the tercet is one component in a poem composed of other stanzas such as couplets or quatrains.

The Divine Comedy was composed of three line stanzas. Every first and third line ends with a rhyme. This is the classic version of the form. It is a three-lined poetic stanza in which the first and third lines rhyme. The second line is blank (unrhymed) verse.

Today, we call this rhymed form an enclosed tercet because the two rhymed lines enclose the blank line. Most modern tercets employ unrhymed or blank verse. An even more stringent form of the tercet is the Sicilian Tercet. The Sicilian Tercet incorporates the enclosed form, but also requires that the poet write in iambic pentameter.

The tercet is rarely a complete poem in itself. Instead, poets write multiple stanzas to create longer works. A famous English example of a poem using tercet stanzas is Percy Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which includes:

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

 

Triads

The triad is a specific form of tercet. The origins of the triad are Irish and Welsh. A triad is a poem composed of three tercets. It is a consideration of three things and their effect on a person. Welsh versions of the Arthurian legends make heavy use of this form.

Here is a sample triad that I have written:


Cold Comfort

My favorite glass folds upward.
Three curved echoes.
Growing large enough to hold comfort.

My blender can spin ice to powder.
Gentle as snow in my hair.
Eager to provide relief.

Parrot Bay and pina colada mix.
Turn snow to sweet cold liquor.
And I can smile now.

The triad is one of the lesser know poetry forms, but it is an enjoyable outlet for expression. You can add as much challenge as you wish. You can simply write in three-line stanzas or you can use iambic pentameter and enclosed tercets if you wish to increase the writing challenge.

Additional Reading

Six Tips For Writing Poetry About Difficult Subjects

  1. Every horrible subject you can imagine has already been written about. There’s some brutal, brutal stuff out there.
  2. Writing about painful subjects is a great way to deal with that pain.
  3. Don’t be embarrassed about having problems or faults, everyone does.
  4. 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.
  5. Today’s reader is surprisingly hard to shock.
  6. 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.