The Blog of John Hewitt

Say what you want to say and let your readers decide what it means

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.

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.