Archive of Articles about Writing

Don’t explain everything in your poem

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.