|Basic Rules to Writing Poetry
I grow older.
One might say this is a fact. I consider it a declaration. But this matters very little. The significance is that as I grow older, I find myself changing. I am growing (and one hopes in a positive way) and through this, my poetry has changed greatly. I signed up for this website in November of 2002 when I was 14, looking for a bit of praise and criticism on the novel I had been writing. Now it’s 2009, I’m 20, the novel’s finished, and I’m in college.
I have decided to take writing seriously as a life-long pursuit. I am a Creative Writing major at the University of Denver. As I fall deeper into the rabbit hole of the nuances of creating literature, I realize how much I never knew and how much other people could benefit from what I’ve learned. I have been looking around at the poetry and prose this website has been offering, and I see great potential, but potential generally stifled through several common tendencies. This essay/instruction guide/critique is a general piece of writing that will help anyone who wants to improve their poetry (however, prose can benefit from its ideas as well).
I realize it seems contradictory to make rules for writing poetry, for isn’t poetry the one medium of words that should be unregulated, to be freed from the mind and soul in a flurry of disjointed letters and symbols? In a sense, I agree. Writing is, on at least a base level, an emotional release. But what separates the emo kid holed up in his rock star-postered room from Allen Ginsberg, William Blake, Poe, or Jo Ann Wasserman? Through my (still continuing) experience of writing, the following items are all prevalent.
1. Avoid clichés like the plague.
(Yeah, I meant to do that.) Clichés are the first thing that separates an amateur wannabe from a real poet. Webster defines clichés as “something that has become overly familiar or commonplace.” The problem with clichés is that they once weren’t. There was a time that they were original, fresh, and their ideas and unfamiliarity were praised. They were used again, and then again, until they have basically destroyed themselves.
Clichés come in two forms: a phrase that has been too overused, such as “broken heart,” “diamond in the rough,” “look at the bright side,” or “ice cold hands (or stare, or anything ice cold, really),” or an idea that has been too overused. Ideas are more difficult, because even if the wording is changed, the image portrayed loses a lot of its poetic charge. Examples of clichéd ideas? Look at 99% of Hollywood movies. Any chick flick, horror flick, or drama flick uses the same holds time after time. The stories generally don’t change.
As aforementioned, the problem with clichés is that they are often so true. But as poets and writers, we have a responsibility to CREATE, not simply rehash, reheat, and serve. Leftovers aren’t a new meal if you put them on a new plate. Don’t give your readers leftovers. Cook them a whole new meal. They are your favorite guests, you know.
Exception: Clichés can be used when breathing an entirely new context into them. The phrase (terribly cliché in itself) “turning it on its head” comes to mind. An example would be “the blanket of stars overhead entangled me, choked me, held me in a celestial straightjacket.” This takes the beautiful yet overused image of a starry blanket and turns it sinister: a living, writhing thing. If you want to try something like this, be VERY CAREFUL. Clichés are generally the poet’s undoing.
2. Show, don’t tell
Terribly, I’m realizing as I write that most of the rules I’m writing down ARE cliché. I almost cringe as I type each letter. But I digress.
Many amateur poets think that they will create and convey emotion by riddling their poetry with bullet holes of emotional words. In actuality, they make the reader feel like he is looking at a decimated corpse. Poor thing.
I’m going to use some of my old poetry to bear example to this terrible mistake. I can take my own criticism:
But late last night
Before I slept,
Found our picture
And nearly wept.
I forgot how
Love felt before,
Of never more.
Stared for an hour
At the girl, lost,
And realized how
I paid the cost.
I’ve loved no one,
No one but you,
Whatever I’d try
Wouldn’t go through.
I’ll never see
The face of yours,
You’re gone from me,
I love you now,
In a way I
Can’t show you how.
This piece doesn’t create emotion; it steals it, rapes it and pretends that it’s okay. We’re demanded that we have these feelings for it, when it hasn’t earned it. Words like “cried” and phrases like “gone from me” lose any emotional momentum that the piece builds. Mentioned once or twice in a poem, it can be extremely effective. But when you overplay it, it feels like a whiny kid begging for attention. “Feel bad for me!” screams the poem. The reader responds, “But why?”
So how does one do this? In several ways. Hemmingway is a wonderful example of a technique that he perfected, which many high schools teach as the iceberg effect. We only ever see his characters from the outside. There are no feeling words. So we have this very mundane, flat line story about the character’s actions, until something breaks in those actions. Because of the lack of emotion presented, the break in actions is incredibly strong and makes us realize just how miserable the characters really are. These breaks make us realize the iceberg under the water. Hemmingway EARNS our emotions, instead of demanding them.
So actions and less begging. What else? Two other things (at least): absence in place of presence, and ideas in things. These two will be explained in the following rules.
Exception: Once again, “turning” it “on its head” is necessary if one wants to incorporate these ideas into poetry. Also, these can be used to great effect in singular instances.
3. Absence is more powerful than presence.
Painters are taught early on the value of negative space; musicians of rests and silence. For some reason, though, that lesson has missed the majority of writers. We don’t need to fill all the empty spaces; not everything needs to be told. I’m going to call up the modernist poet William Carlos Williams to help me with this example—we will also come back to him for my next rule.
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
We have here a short poem that packs a ton of literary techniques into four stanzas and sixteen words. The first stanza says that something depends on [the red wheelbarrow] but we are never told what is depending on said wheelbarrow. Why is this poem so exemplary? One reason is that we have this sense of urgency and simultaneously this sense of mystery. If we were told why this red wheelbarrow is so significant, a lot of its charge would be lost. (Note: This is NOT an excuse to be vague. Poets must have specific images in mind when writing or else they will fail in conveyance.)
Also, the lack of aesthetic words around each of these objects makes the singular instance of one greatly magnified. What this ACTUALLY means is that we have pretty base qualifiers in the poem: RED wheelbarrow and WHITE chickens. They are not extremely brilliant. However, the one instance, GLAZED with rain water, is such a specific image and such a strong one that its contrast with the other more mundane images makes it stand out THAT much more.
To better concrete this image, try writing a love poem without using words like “love,” “heart,” “soul,” “kiss,” and “rose.” Try writing a sad poem without using words like “dying,” “crying,” “pain,” “hurt,” or “broken.” This challenges you as a writer and you are forced to come up with more original images and ideas. Your poetry will improve dramatically.
Exception: When used sparingly, just like with clichés and telling emotional words, words like this can be very effective. But be careful. They have a great chance of ruining your poem.
4. “No ideas but in things.”
William Carlos Williams was one of modernist America’s greatest Imagist poets, and he believed fully in the use of objects to convey more complex feelings and ideas. How does this work effectively? All right. Say you just suffered from a terrible breakup with a girlfriend who was living with you. You miss her. How do you convey that with images? Perhaps with “an empty place at the dinner table,” or “the last blonde hair on my pillow.” Something that hints at her, connected with her. But don’t just go out and say “I miss you” without great reason to. Why not? See rule number two.
Images are usually the meat of poems. Allen Ginsberg, a Beat poet of the Postmodern era, wrote perhaps one of the most influential pieces of our generation called “Howl.” The first section is chock-full of incredibly strong and original images, some humorous, some terribly sad, but nearly all critical. One part of “Howl” reads
who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on
the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the
East River to open to a room full of steamheat
In four lines, we get nine images (shoes, blood, snowbank, docks, door, East River, room, steamheat, opium). In those nine images, we get a very specific thought in our head. Yes, the thought is rather abstract and one has a hard time watching a door in the East River, let alone watching it open, but the idea would be lost without these objects and image words.
You get the idea. Images = good. Especially fresh, surprising, images. You have a craving for something? It’s not a fierce craving. Not a ravenous craving. It’s a sticky pink craving. Bizarre? Yes. And that’s why we’re in poetry.
5. There is a place and time for metered rhyme.
As someone who started off in rhyme and moved to blank verse, it is difficult for me to criticize anyone in that same boat. After all, Shakespeare, Poe, and Frost all rhymed, right? But at the same time, I feel compelled to mention that the majority of amateur poets use rhyme and rhythm as a cop-out to actually working on their wordsmithing. They get so caught up in the constrictions of the rhyme that usually their poetry focuses solely on it. You have to rhyme with “cry” and so, no matter what words go before it, you know you have to end with “die” or “lie.” You’re too worried about forcing the rhyme to care about what you’re actually saying. I’ll bring back my old poem for an example.
Stared for an hour
At the girl, lost,
And realized how
I paid the cost.
Because I ended the second line with “lost” I had very few choices to end the fourth line. Rhymezone.com says that I have cost, crossed, glossed, tossed, and exhaust as my options. Already my words have to go in a certain way to make it work. I’m worried too much about the rhyme to actually write poetry. The poem is stuck in its own manacles.
If you are going to rhyme, do so effectively and unexpectedly. I never want to read another “love” rhymed with “dove” or “above.” Or another “cried” with “died.” Where’s the originality there? Also, if you’re going to rhyme, set yourself up a decent meter. Pick a specific number of syllables in each line and stick to it. If you break that meter, do so with a reason. Also, pay attention to stressed and unstressed syllables, as this can terribly screw up your flow. And realize that two vowels together sans consonant generally slurs into one syllable (i.e. “realize” usually becomes just “rea-lize” instead of “re-a-lize.”). If you are going to rhyme, read a lot of poets who have excelled there. Poe, obviously, is a fantastic choice. Others include Lord Byron, some of Tennyson, and of course, any Shakespearean sonnet.
Any poet who takes these ideas to heart will see their poetry change and grow quickly. It takes a lot of perseverance and self-sacrifice, great amounts of honesty and self-criticism, but the potential mentioned at the beginning of this essay an easy be realized if cultivated just right. I can’t say I know everything about poetry. The truth is I’m really only just starting out on this path. But if I can tell you something that saves you six years of headache, then I’ve done my job.
As always, any good poet reads more than they write. Go pick up your favorite kind of poetry book, then pick up something you wouldn’t normally read. See what the poets do and why. Imitate them. Make their tricks your own. Amateur? No more.