by Dr M C Gupta
Ten tips about what to do or not to do while writing poetry.
I joined wdc in April 2003. Since then, I have written about 2000 poems and have given more than 4000 reviews, mostly related to poetry, and have received, maybe, an equal number of reviews myself. My poetry has earned a bit of recognition, as can be seen at "MY WINNING ITEMS" .
Experience is a great teacher. What I have experienced and learnt about poetry during these years is described here in simple words, using a down to earth approach-- in the form of practical tips. I would like to add here that most of my poetry learning has been acquired from wdc, mainly through reviews received or sent. Yes, I mean ‘sent’. Writing a good review not only helps the reviewed but also enriches the reviewer.
The ten points below have been listed in the order that they occurred to me during an impromptu writing of this article. The merit of such approach, in contrast to a planned and researched approach, is that it is eminently practical. It is because of such approach that the DO’s and DON’Ts have not been listed separately. Likewise, no effort has been made to list, as is usual, 5 DO’s and 5 DON’Ts.
1. DO TAKE CARE OF SPELLING—Nothing probably repulses a reader more than bad spelling. I just don’t agree with the defence taken by those writers who say that since poetry is a product of creativity, what really matters is emotion and feeling in what they write. They say that spellings can be taken care of at the time of final editing. My reply to such argument is that writers should simply NOT put up their piece for public viewing till they have edited it. Heavens won’t fall by some delay. As a matter of fact, such waiting would be worth it. However, I do suspect that this is simply a lame excuse. If it is all about creativity and subsequent correction, would it be OK to conceive and deliver a baby without proper planning and precautions, in the hope that the defect / disease in the baby [genetic malformation; congenital infections like syphilis, HIV, German measles, HBV, malaria, toxoplasmosis; Rh blood group incompatibility etc.] would be corrected / treated by doctors later?
Also, don’t rely upon the Word’s spell-check program as a substitute for your own knowledge. Such programs should merely be used as help. They should never dictate your decision.
2. DO BRUSH UP GRAMMAR— Next to bad spelling is bad grammar. It, in fact, precedes everything else, but the fact remains that bad spelling is what catches the eye immediately, since it concerns a single word, while appreciation of grammatical fault often requires reading the whole sentence, or, at least a phrase. Also, words are more basic than sentences; hence a mistake with words has to be deemed as a more basic mistake than that with the sentences.
It is my firm belief that before an aspiring writer takes a course in writing / creative writing, he should take, if necessary, a course in English grammar. If he or she studies English as a language at college level, so much the better.
As a pretty irritating, and extremely common, example of grammatical mistakes, I would like to point out the common American practice of using the verb lay [lay; laid; laid] in place of lie [lie; lay; lay]. Another common mistake is using of after off as in: “I knocked him off of the table”. It should be written as “I knocked him off the table”.
3. DON’T IGNORE PUNCTUATION— There is a common feeling that poetry does not need punctuation. It is wrong to believe that punctuation is meant only for prose. It is a mistake to think that poetry means a “free for all”. Remember: anarchy is unregulated freedom. In other words, while poetry can take certain liberties with punctuation, as a part of poetic licence, basics of punctuation cannot and should not be done away with. I have found, through experience that I have become a better writer of poetry as a result of attention to punctuation. Moreover, English is an amorphous and highly flexible language and, therefore, people in different regions may have difficulty in comprehending the intended meaning of the poet who ignores punctuation in his poetry.
4. DO PRACTICE THE ART OF SYLLABLE COUNTING— Even if you want to write poetry that is not in meter, the ability to count syllables properly would certainly ensure better writing with better flow in the poem. Counting syllables can be easily learnt by the use of a dictionary. Some dictionaries indicate syllables in a more detailed and definitive manner than others. I have found Random House dictionary to be quite useful for this purpose. Since it uses American spellings, it is all the more suitable for members of wdc, which is a US based site.
5. DO TAKE CARE OF PRONUNCIATION—Traditional poetry often lays much stress on rhyme. Even otherwise, rhyme adds to flow. Pronunciation of English varies from place to place; hence it is a good idea to have a reference yard stick for pronunciation. The standard reference for this purpose would be a dictionary, such as the Oxford or Cambridge dictionaries in England and, maybe, Random House dictionary in USA. The importance of pronunciation lies in the fact that, as per my belief, poetry is basically meant to be read aloud, often as a lyric or song, and that proper vocal rendering of poetry, with flow, necessitates proper pronunciation.
6. DO TRY TO MAXIMIZE RHYTHM— I believe that the essence of poetry is rhythm, which is possibly synonymous with flow. This means, in practical terms, that as the poem is read aloud, it should come out smoothly, unobtrusively, as a continuous, gentle, melodious flow. Some factors that influence flow are: Rhyme; Meter (a definitive, predetermined, repetitive syllabic scheme); and, Pronunciation, by which is meant here the composition of a word by syllables that are stressed / unstressed, and the appropriate positioning of words within a sentence so as to ensure smooth pronunciation / reading of the poem. The best practical guideline to ensure flow is to read the poem aloud. I must point out that a free style poem can also have excellent flow. By implication, a free verse that does not have flow would not be deemed to be of high quality as a poem.
7. DO DEVELOP A BASIC UNDERSTANDING OF METER—Don’t underestimate the importance of meter. It does lend class to poetry. It is nice and useful to learn the basics of poetical meter, if for nothing else, then for just the academic challenge involved and the satisfaction that comes with meeting a challenge. A useful practical approach towards learning and practicing meter is to participate in poetry contests where there is a form prompt. The importance of meter is not merely academic. It somehow trains the mind in a poetical direction, so that even if one may later write free verse, such verse would have a better quality, especially as regards rhythm and flow.
8. DON’T BE TOO EXPANSIVE— The essence of poetry lies in its brevity. A good poem is brief in the volume of words, but is exceptionally rich in what it conveys and, in fact, strikes an emotional chord in the heart, and lingers in memory for a period of time after it has been read or heard. Remember: “small is beautiful” is especially applicable to poetry. I must clarify that this statement, in no way, undermines the value of poetical epics. The point is that even those poetical epics, each verse / stanza of them, would be found to be rich in feeling and effect.
9. DON’T IGNORE IMAGERY— The more the imagery, rather than abstract allusions, the better the poetry.
10. DO READ AND REVIEW POETRY— As I mentioned in the beginning, good reviewing automatically implies learning. Because, simply stated, you can’t review or assess a thing properly without having some reasonable knowledge of the same. That means that you would be forced to read up the principles, basics and techniques of poetry in the process of giving detailed, meaningful, impartial reviews.
In the end, I would like to point out that the present item is one of the 10 items in the folder "POETRY WRITING" , POETRY WRITING, which has, at present, 10 items on various aspects of how to write poetry. The same may be referred if necessary.
• Awarded second place in the Show Off Your Best at the Sandbox, "Show Off Your Best at the Sandbox" , on 5 December 2007.
* Editor's pick in Authors Newsletter dated 23 April 2009.
M C Gupta
10 November 2007 (Revised 20 April 2009)