The Blog of John Hewitt

Include a verb in every line of your poem – 31p31d

Day 24 of 31 poems in 31 days

Let the Reader Decide

On October 15th, 1995, when the Internet was first getting noticed, I sat down and wrote a list of tips for poets. This was long before poewar.com, when I had a little spot on a newspaper’s server and dial up access that went out whenever it rained. I don’t quite know what made me think I was qualified to give advice. I was five years out of college with a degree in Creative Writing and I guess I thought I knew a thing or two.

The funny thing was how popular that article got. It was soon after I wrote that little article that my site started getting noticed. When I transferred my pages to poewar.com, the article stayed popular. Since 2005, (a full ten years after it was published and well after its peak popularity) the article has generated 215,000 unique page views.

Twenty years after writing it, I still pretty much stand by my advice. I was young and a little too sure of myself, but I was on target for the most part. I may have been a little too strident about unnamed poems (I still get angry comments about that) but overall I think the tips were helpful and I have reinterpreted a few of them for this project. One of the best pieces of advice that I gave was this:

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

The advice was so good that I eventually turned it into a whole article. The essential point though, is that you can’t spend all of your time worrying about what the audience will think of your poem. They may love it or they may hate it. They may understand what you are saying or they may interpret it in an entirely different way. You need to accept that and let it happen.

You also need to respect your audience. Don’t waste precious lines by trying to make things obvious. Don’t be purposely vague, but don’t try to tell people what to think about what you write. If you do, be ready for them to disagree or worse, wonder why you thought they wouldn’t get it. A poem isn’t an essay or a manual. It is an attempt to capture a piece of the universe and save it on paper. That piece of the universe may be beautiful or ugly, amazing or mundane, but chances are it can’t be explained. If that sounds too philosophical, so be it.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Include a verb in every line of your poem.