Saturday, September 3, 2016

Prompt #259 – Tips for Poets


Hi, blog readers! I hope July and August were good months for you! As we end the summer reruns and move back to regular prompts and posts, I thought it might be a good time to review some of the things that poets can do, or not do, to make their work better. With that in mind, I hope you find the following useful.

  • Read! It’s important to “know” both time-honored and contemporary poets. Whenever possible attend readings and participate in workshops – learn what other poets are doing in their work, and be part of the poetry community.
  • Write little – embrace the minute on the way to the universal.   
  • Be aware that every poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment. (There’s a big difference between sentimentality and poetic sentiment.) And … every poem should have an obvious meaning as well as underlying meanings.
  • Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Many promising poems don’t measure up because they’re over-written. Don’t ramble on and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.
  • Remember what Dylan Thomas wrote, “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick … you’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps … so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.”
  • Beware the dreaded Prose-o-saurus! A lot of people who “write poetry” work from a prose impulse and a prose logic. They arrange their writing in lines and stanzas that make the writing look like poetry when it really isn’t. It’s a kind of poetry masquerade.
  • Memoir poems can be wonderful if they are not exercises in journaling that are presented as poems. If you write in this genre, ask yourself, “Is this a poem, or is this a diary entry?”
  • Work on a sense of immediacy (even when you write in the past tense). Stay away from the passive voice, and be wary of words that end in “ing.”
  • Avoid over-use of adjectives and too many details (bulk without substance doesn’t work).
  • Eliminate prepositions whenever you can (i.e., the sky’s length rather than the length of the sky)
  • Be specific – avoid abstractions and generalizations. Imagery is key. Write about things, not ideas. William Carlos Williams wrote: “No ideas but in things.” Tell it “like it is” in specifics, not through philosophical musings on the “meaning of it all.”
  • Each poem you write should include at least one image that makes your readers gasp.
  • Tune your ear to natural rhythms, especially if you are writing free verse. Develop a sense of sound in your poems (sonic impression): use alliteration, assonance, and internal rhymes. Read your poem aloud – listen!
  • Avoid the slippery slime of lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions will save a bad poem and may weaken a potentially good one. Be real!
  • Subvert the ordinary. Language and figures of speech (i.e., similes and metaphors,) should be memorable and fresh, not hackneyed or tired.
  • Steer clear of cleverness and “cutesiness.”
  • Don’t be sucked in by fashionable clichés, and don’t think you must flatter current prejudices about what constitutes “popular” poetry.
  • Be the poet you most truly are. You may really love another poets' content and style, but don't try to write like that poet.  Be your own person and your own poet.
  • Stay away from foul language that doesn’t enhance anything and has no contextual significance. Shock value is cheap.
  • Be generous with caesuras. Allow spaces in your poems for the unspoken silences. (Sometimes the best part of the poem is the part left unsaid.)
  • Don’t use up all the “air” in your poem on the last couple of lines—leave the reader room to breathe.
  • Resist the urge to “finish” a poem by tying it up in a neat package. Last lines that explain or sum-up can ruin an otherwise good poem.
  • Don’t undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers catch their breath.
  • Think about an unexpected outcome (especially in a narrative poem). Shake up your readers’ expectations.
  • Discipline yourself for the process of revision and revise, revise, revise! Often during tweaking, you’ll need to shorten a poem, not make it longer. Ask yourself, “Do I really need that word, phrase, or line?” When you revise your own writing, you have to play critic to your own creation. Be tough on yourself. Sometimes it will be necessary to sacrifice words or images you love for the sake of the poem. However, beware of over-editing and recognize that when the editing process is no longer one of discovery, it’s time to stop. As Leonardo DaVinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
  • Spend time away from a poem you’ve just completed – put it aside for a few days (or weeks) and then look at it again. Take time to refine your work. Keep the keepers (and file away the poems that you know aren’t exactly right).
  • Don’t be so “stuck” on your own work that you fail to take the advice of workshop leaders and colleagues. Be true to your own voice, of course, but understand that you can never be completely objective about your own poetry.
  • Listen to criticism and try to learn from it. Advice (even if you don’t like it) is often a very good thing!


    1. Oh, Adele! This is awesome. Thank you!

    2. Fantastic! Okay if I copy these and use them with students (with full acknowledgment to you and the blog, of course)?

      1. Thanks so much, Rich! Yes, by all means, please feel free to copy and share. I hope your students find it useful.

    3. Wonderful summary. Very helpful. Thank you, Adele!

      1. Thanks so much, Basil! I'm glad you found this post helpful!