How to Write a Good Poem? 6 Writing Tips

How beautiful / The usually hateful crow, / This morn of snow! (Bashō)

To paraphrase the literary critic Northrop Frye, poets deal with the “imaginative aspect” of environment. Frye was speaking about the physical environment, but I would stretch that to include any context in which the poem exists – which might be physical (explored and revealed through the senses), intellectual (the world of ideas and/or abstractions), or psychological (internal journey). This subject is the “thing” that stirs the poet to look deeply and with carefully chosen words, “voice,” and “music” (lineation, rhythm, rhyme) create the poem. What is “looked at deeply” becomes the theme, the thing written between the lines that moves the poem toward a new perspective, a new way of seeing and understanding the “thing” described. All gobbledygook? Let’s have an example.

Jane Hirshfield (Ten Windows) provides an haiku by Kobayahsi Issa to demonstrate the change that occurs in a good poem:

We wander
the roof of hell,
choosing blossoms.

Despite the grief and compassion we feel at the initial statement, we learn that life’s journey is made liveable by what is chosen. The pain is stated without sentimentality. The twist comes simply and effectively with the choice made, as Hirshfield says, the “bending down to pick flowers.”

In Issa’s eight words, we have all that is required of a good poem: subject, theme, carefully chosen words (even in translation), a twist/movement leading to a change of perspective, an opening toward seeing the subject differently. Hauntingly beautiful. One of the elements that sets poetry apart from prose is the emotional sub-text that exists in good poetry.

To quote Jane Hirshfield, “A good poem is a through-passage, words that leave poet, reader, and themselves ineradicably changed. Having read a poem that matters, the person who holds the page is different than he or she was before.” Wouldn’t we all like to leave our readers changed and feeling deeply, as well as thinking about what we have written?

Poet and editor Robyn Sarah (“Poetries Bottom Line,” Little Eurekas) says it another way:

I believe that a true poem, whatever its subject or style, has a density of meaning, a felicity of language and an authenticity of feeling that cannot be faked – a mysterious synthesis that doesn’t happen every time a poet picks up a pen, but is born of some urgency of the moment.… A true poem has a voice one can trust – a distinctive voice, utterly its own, one that is unaware of audience. It is a voice less heard than overheard [author’s emphasis], and this is partly what moves us.

Finally, Tony Hoagland has written an entire book about voice. In The Art of Voice, he concludes:

The role of voice in poetry is to deliver the paradoxical facts of life with warmth and élan, humor, intelligence, and wildness. Such art requires a particular spirit and a particular set of skills…. In the end, perhaps, each good poem is a kind of miracle birth, possessing a different ingenuity and metabolism. But poetry is a craft as well as an art, and the insights and techniques of craft, like carpentry, can be taught, learned, practiced, and relished.

When I studied writing with the late Alistair MacLeod, he was best known as a short story author. This was before he published No Great Mischief, winner of the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award (2001). Professor MacLeod maintained that the shorter the writing, the more difficult and challenging it is for the writer. Poetry, in part because of its brevity, demands that every word count and be chosen with nuanced care. A poem is condensed, dense, operating on multiple levels at once. And yet the job of the poet is to make the poem accessible, to take the everyday commonplace and  to open a window onto a new way of seeing. I believe that poetry is revolutionary in that at its heart lays the key to new awareness and change.

So, what is the “take away” for poets: 6 writing tips

  1. A subject that demands the poet dwell with it, explore it using the senses to get at its inherent multiple levels to find what exists beneath the obvious;
  2. A theme that resonates between the “thing” of the subject, the creative core that shifts writer and reader to a new awareness;
  3. A twist or shift that takes writer and reader into new ways of seeing what was initially commonplace or a problem unresolved;
  4. How this is done is complex, but voice is a key, an authentic voice, an honest voice, a voice that uses all the tools in the writer’s toolbox (metaphor, music, etc.) to connect with the reader eliciting in him or her the emotion that lingers after reading a good poem, the thing that haunts;
  5. My best advice is to read the best poetry – the poetic oeuvre of one’s culture and international poetry – study it and figure out how the poet manages to capture your mind and heart (because poetry is an emotive art).
  6. When you think your poem is finished read it aloud, again. Feel the words on your tongue. Listen with ears, head, and heart.

 

I welcome your comments – whether you agree or disagree. What makes a good poem, and how do we go about achieving one?

Thank you, Kathryn

 

References:

Hirshfield, Jane. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Hoagland, Tony with Kay Cosgrove. The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Sarah, Robyn. Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry. Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2007.

Also see: Book review: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (by Jane Hirshfield)

After & Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield

Let’s begin the year with the poetry of Jane Hirshfield, which is simple, elegant, deep, and heartfelt in the understanding of what it is to be. Subtly, she evokes what quietly resides within, while also recognizing the transience and transformation that is part of each daily life and life span. Writers, whether prose or poetry, will want to think about themes and images as you read (coherence, consistency and surprise).

In After, the beauty and wisdom in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry elicits “aha” moments, a sudden clarity. She challenges us, beginning with the first poem, “After Long Silence”: “The untranslatable thought must be the most precise. / Yet the words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.

In an essay five years later, she wrote: “To write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery.” The mystery that is life is a theme she strives to express for her readers and for herself. In the poems in After, Hirshfield coaxes us with her words to enter the mystery.

Perhaps my favourite poem in the collection is the very short (eight-line) poem called “Pyracantha and Plum.” It begins, “Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, / Spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.” Who among us—who hasn’t had the pleasure of witnessing spring in an orchard, or even a garden—hasn’t stopped to marvel at the beauty and awe of nature? Beyond the obvious, the poem speaks to time passing, alludes to art, and subliminally layers more. Then, a few pages on, we come to “Bonsai”: “One morning beginning to notice / which thought pull the spirt out of the body, which return it.” In this poem the “turn” takes us to rebirth and into longing.

My final example of her grace and wisdom shared in After comes in “The Monk Stood Beside a Wheelbarrow:”

The monk stood beside a wheelbarrow, weeping.

[His tears] gathered at its bottom,
where the metal drank them in to make more rust
.

You must decide why these lines move you; for me, they speak of grief, loss, and the never-ending surprising transformation that is life.

Seven years later, she published Come, Thief in which one thief is time’s passage and another is mortality, related themes are attachment and loss. The plum tree is a recurring image as it is in After. Here, it shows up in the book’s first poem called “French Horn”:

For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
shoulders perfection.
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.

We see how her perspective broadens and shifts, which continues throughout the poem and the collection. With the shift in perspective, readers will also notice a shift away from the first person, but this does not mean that the poems are less personal. We get the clear sense that these poems come deep from within the poet.

Another poem that is characteristically accessible is “The Decision.” It begins, “There is a moment before a shape / hardens, a color sets. / Before the fixative or heat of kiln” and proceeds to explore opportunities for choice. While Hirshfield’ poems are spiritual in nature, they do not succumb to fate nor do they eliminate responsibility of the individual to act. At this poem’s conclusion, she shows us just how big a small change can be: “As a sandy track-rut changes when called a Silk Road: / it cannot be after turned back from.”

Finally, in “The Promise,” Hirshfield provides a litany of things she wants to stay the same, but that do not, including:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

And after the litany through flowers, a spider, green leaves, and the earth itself, she concludes with irony that brings a chuckle: “Stay, I said to my loves. / Each answered, / Always.” [Emphasis the poet’s.]

Check out my review of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, essays by Jane Hirshfield. Also, look for other of Jane Hirshfield’s poetry books.

53 After & Come Thief 2

Available through your local bookstore or online: After and Come, Thief.

If you enjoyed reading about Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, you might also like these previously published poetry reviews: