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)

Review of A Breeze You Whisper in In A Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry

Whispers and Flames in Kathryn MacDonald. A review of some poems by Kathryn MacDonald in A Breeze You Whisper (Poetry) (2011) Hidden Brook Press. Canada – p. 131-134

Surprises are wonderful, especially when they involve a review of your book in a collection with poets such as Milton Acorn, Margaret Atwood, and Al Purdy among others. I’ve received the publication notice by email and the book is on its way. More about the collection to come. In the meantime, here is a bit of blatant self-promotion of my collection, A Breeze You Whisper.

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First, from the press release:

In a Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry is an insightful collection of essays and reviews, written from the poetic heart of Professor Olivé. The authors covered in this astute critical study are treated with heart felt respect:

Milton Acorn, Merle Amodeo, Margaret Atwood, Katharine Beeman, Allan Briesmaster, Patrick Connors, James Deahl, Antony Di Nardo, J. Graham Ducker, Kate Marshall Flaherty, Katherine L. Gordon, Kimberley Grove, Richard M. Grove, Don Gutteridge, Lala Heine-Koehn, Keith Inman, Bruce Kauffman, Donna Langevin, John B. Lee, Norma West Linder, Kathryn MacDonald, Lisa Makarchuk, Bruce Meyer, Colin Morton, Marvin Orbach, Deborah Panko, Al Purdy, Sarah Richardson, Linda Rogers, Glen Sorestad, Anna Yin.

The review:

“Whispers and Flames”

My nights are good ones. Besides friends, family, sharing and joy, poetry books flood my bed and my mind before I go to sleep. It is a wealth found nowhere else. Last night it was not The Voice of the Land, or the People´s Poet. Last night it was a whisper in my ears, a dance of words and flames before my eyes: Kathryn MacDonald.

If I had to choose one word for her poetry, I´d say “sensuality.” It overflows the book´s margins shipping fruit and fire that crackles in its pages as I hold my breath caught in the delicacy of her phrases or gaspingly sigh marveled at their attractiveness.

I went through some of her poems. “A Breeze You Whisper” entwines, with simplicity and smoothness, two major themes at the core of poetry: nature and love. Neither the book´s title nor the poem´s has a comma, but its single stanza includes it in the first two lines (“A breeze, you whisper. A bird, you soar and hover”). These pauses are dictated, and intended, by the poet as a mindful pointer of serene procession towards something – provoking, soul-diving, engaging – prompted by the nature-sent, photo-like proposal.

The “You” mentioned in the poem is sensitively attached to nature; but in a quiet association – as if paving the lovers´ way to intimacy – that is set free, no punctuation in lines three and four, to yield the lover to her: “… into the nest hidden within my tossing limbs.” It is a pas de deux from contextual meanings (lines one and two) to figurative meanings (end of line two through three and four). “The nest” strikes a euphemistic chord, which empowers the sentence with sky´s-the-limit interpretations by the reader.

“Blueberry Picking” is play with meanings in cross-contextual insinuations only to be perceived by the mind. Fruit – flavor, colour and look – is the main star in a poem that creates allegories of berry-blue sensuality. The reader climbs – rung by rung – down the poem from “Lake of the Woods, round and placid like the heavy rocks from which the prickly bushes seemed to grow” to “… the sweet berries with my tongue.” Mind-blowing juggling with “I fondled the sweet berries with my tongue” as a prelude to a suggestive “mood.” Situations and characters´ status dribble sensually. The coda modifies the tempo of the poem, its atmosphere.

Kathryn can´t and won´t give up her incursions to nature in “One Woman” for describing/comparing: “Your laughter… geyser filling me with love” or “Exuberant you… deep in life´s river…” She uses metaphors to depict setbacks too: … “welcoming flotsam tossed up in turmoil…,” and optimism again: “glowing like sunrise.” The three lines before the last one (“a surprise hug manifesting joy and rampant passion”) lead to the poem´s essence: “all wrapped up in one woman.” Uncomplicated words, deftly chosen, concise: expressive love and admiration.

“Avatar”  is a proverbial narration of the creative act, its tumultuous process preceding the ultimate phase of artistic conception until the time “to brush across canvas.” It starts explaining somehow the artist-poet strings and the urges/feelings rifling through them, binding them, nurturing them: “her soul tremoring through fingertips / her tears creating rainbows of release.” The image “rainbows of release” confers both painting-related chromatic breadth and cathartic burst to the stanza and the poem.

Stanza two is the vertex pulling in the cosmos and maelstrom of art (“She turns through her nights / courting images / and exaggerations / that revolve / like the moon / through her / seasons and / from the pinnacle of her / rotation / she spirals / like / the dream shattering”), which culminates in “the dream shattering.” This shattering is laden with meanings beyond the notion of shatter that we have, a shattering that creates. Stanza three is the ultimate stage, the artist´s “big bang.” It lays down “across canvas” all of the furnace´s burning embers of the artistic produce.

Read these lines from the poem “Pleasure”: “Your fingers touch the buttons pushing them through each hole creating a V in my white nightgown.” Notably, the poem is homage to the person who has given the poet transcendent moments of pleasure, her companion, her lover: “You pleasure me and more.” The repetition of “and more” as a stylistic device is a key for readers to open divergent doors into their comprehension of the poem: a sensuality bordering eroticism, which is competently molded by the poet. We also feel the defining balance found in the rare gift of companionship, understood as closeness of two beings: the unfailing, necessary presence (“Have done so for half my life and more”).

Finally, “Winter Storm” poses a question to the reader: Why this title? I can only guess. This poem is an erotically wrought piece sublimely elaborated on by the poet. She kneads structure and the way stanzas are set on the page, which contributes to the poem´s mood and atmosphere. It tells of a lover´s subterfuge to win back a woman´s favors (“while he tugs at her memory”). A mind-poking, “blackmailish” foreplay that screens graphic memories: “when motion was joy when their bodies easily skimmed white powder”). The woman “marks distance with care measuring her path” while “he tugs” and she gives “slowly” in.

There is no doubt she has been re-conquered. Now I could explain the title gathering from here and there words, details, under and overtones, and tessitura. One clue is “now she inches slowly downward feeling sleet on her forehead…” Sleet says it all, watery snow, and the fact that it is on her forehead is a sign, for me, of mental “weakening.” A storm is approaching her winter, a storm that spells anticipation, desire, straightforward, concrete come-ons: “She sees his blue eyes his hand reach feels it cup her small breast.” She seems to be awakening from her wintery slumber, defrosted by “his blue eyes.” While the first poem commented here in my review was a breeze and a whisper; this is a latently raging storm of words and love-making. I melted.

Six poems and lots of sparkles in whispers and flames is what I surmised from this tender, sensual author. I am glad her book came to me. Thank you, Kathryn.

 

Miguel Ángel Olivé Iglesias is an Associate Professor at the University of Holguín, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, Major in English, and a Master’s Degree in Pedagogical Sciences. He is also Head of the English Language Discipline and a member of the Canadian Studies Department of the Holguín University in Cuba. Miguel Olivé is also a member of the Mexican Association of Language and Literature Professors, VP of the William Shakespeare Studies Center. Professor Olivé is Editor-in-chief of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (CCLA) magazine The Ambassador, also Assistant Editor of The Envoy newsletter, and CCLA President in Cuba.

Professor Olivé has been teaching for over thirty years and writing reviews, poems and stories in Spanish and in English. He has written and published numerous academic papers in Cuba, Mexico, Spain and Canada.

Hidden Brook Press is about to publish his first solo full-length book of poems, in English and Spanish, Forge of Words (2019). SandCrab books will also publish These Voices Beating in our Hearts: Poems from the Valley (Spanish-English) in ebook format, of which he is Editor, but also features poems of his together with other eleven Holguín poets. His themes are about women, people, life, family, love, nature, and human values.

Available from your local bookseller or online: In A Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry

For more about A Breeze You Whisper, please go to this blog: Three poems: excerpts from A Breeze You Whisper, to purchase visit your local bookseller or online: A Breeze You Whisper (in Canada: A Breeze You Whisper).

Three poems: excerpts from A Breeze You Whisper

I read the whole thing all at once…each poem made me want to read the next one, and then, it was over, leaving me wanting more. [] I was totally entranced. MacDonald’s work is sensual, moving. She plays with words….The poet takes us off the page and into her mind and heart, into our own minds and hearts and beyond. (Amazon review)

Book-NSKathrynMacDonald-ABreezeYouWhisper
ISBN 978-1-897475-66-9; Hidden Brook Press (HBP); 2011

The majority of the poems in the collection are in print for the first time, but some were previously published, including these three. The cover was created by the publisher from one of my photographs of a luna moth; the ink-brush drawings are also my creations. The book is divided into six sections: East; South; West; North; Above & Below.

“Earth,” was originally published in Ascent Aspirations Magazine (2007):

EARTH

Worms wiggle through soil
and at the end of the robin’s beak.

Ants build labyrinthine passageways
and a room fit for a queen’s eggs.

Below the raspberries
a brown field mouse curls in her nest.

Away from the garden path
under the evergreen rabbits burrow.

My fingers reach for weedy roots
find mysteries buried deep.

Gravity hold more than loam
to its stony heart.

East section pg 1

“City Hunter” was originally published in Descant (1981; a prestigious literary journal that published from 1970-2015):

CITY HUNTER

I watched the jazz man
reach through his horn
felt his mellow
breath caress my ears.
His dancing fingers
pushed the air
around the
room
rippling waves
of smoke
broke against
my flesh
the current
pulling toward his
plunging
centre.

He soared and
fell
catching his prey
in the quiet
echo
of his rhythm.

Above & Below section pg 107

The third poem that I’m sharing with you from the collection A Breeze You Whisper is titled “Migration.” It was first published in Northward Journal (under a pen name: Deneau; 1981; Penumbra Press).

MIGRATION

He watched fear
enter her eyes
as she bellied
through the prairie grasses.
He imagined
the pressure
against
her fleshy triangle as
the grasses pushed
between her legs.
Snaking forward, she,
initiation offering,
would clamp him
in her hairy, circular
trap
and devour
his hunger until the
fear leaped into
his eyes.
Slowly he watched the
seeds sown in her belly
swell.
His ear upon her naval
listening
to drums and gurgling
streams
to thundering hoof beats and
rustling grasses.
From the fissure sprung
the red waters
as the migrating herds
returned.

I thought perhaps after reading my reviews, you might be curious what kind of poetry I write. I would love to learn what you think of these poems, and if you’ve read the book, what you think of it.

Available online: A Breeze You Whisper.

(The caption is a quote from the book review on Amazon.)

Choreography: a poem

Frigate birds soar skyward / become specks of dust in the blue / before slow spirals…

On September 24, 2019, Amethyst Review published “Choreography.”

Choreography

            by Kathryn MacDonald

Frigate birds soar skyward
become specks of dust in the blue
before slow spirals toward sea
their wingspan increasing
split tails          like swallows gliding
aerial grace          becoming
kites on currents
floating on aqua ripples.
Sunshine warms bare legs
spread for balance on the foredeck
eyes shielded against glare
while becoming other
shedding feathers and scales
until reaching the centre
and all drops away.

 

Sailboats and frigate birds 2018-12-21 #008 sm (1 of 1)
Sailboats and frigate birds (Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico)

Check out Amethyst Review and the FB page. Please share the links with your friends.

Bone Antler Stone by Tim Miller: Book Review

In every real way, the ring was placed here / the ring of now pock-marked, planetary stone (…) but the landscape was first, the stones only our / attempt at echo and veneration. (The Ring of Brodgar)

Tim Miller collapses 30,000 years of archaeology into a poetry collection that feels the thrill of immediate experience. He stirs a bit of magic, weaving it into the facts of what we know from long-past history.

In “Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira” (France and Spain, 35,000 – 12,000 BC), Miller writes: Now we come to paint with light and fire. In this seven-part poem, we go beyond the images and enter the process of painting them:

A bison made with his hands, white hands dipped in red
And palms slapped on cold rock again and again,
Smacked hands turned or righted or angles
And his exhausted step back to see
The animal made only of red palms and rock,
Red like bison’s blood, stone vitality,
His awe at a heartbeat behind the wall,
And his hands red as a midwife’s.

The poet does not stand back, merely to look in wonder and awe, although the mystery inherent in that is present. He manages intimacy and time dissolves.

Lines jump off the page, lines like The sun sets into the sea and is doused / and rises with the sound of reborn flame / rolling into another red morning. The title, “The Sun Sets into the Sea” is incantatory, hypnotic. Doing the work of a chant, it carries us to the sea and the sun, which so many peoples worshipped.

The landscape, too, is revealed as it reveals burials of the long dead. In “Long Barrows,” graves become humps…in the landscape, / small rises like murmurs. The collapsing of then and now runs throughout the collection as it does in:

Horses and Cows on Orkney

Horses curled in the flaming spiral of sleep,
The huge immensity of their bodies
Belied by the blankets they wear, or the
Tight scroll they twist themselves into on the ground,
A
n enormity suddenly made small
Or at least passive, compact, the coiled braid
Of body closer to tree or landscape,
The tilted, chiseled head nearer to stone
Or to steel or something pulled from the fire,
Some monument to just how this place works,
That you do not escape the wind, but dream in it.

And this would not be a “prehistory” collection if the goddesses were not brought forth. “Female Figurines” begins with the urgency of poetic catalogue, an incantation:

Hum the words with me and you might understand:
Mammoth ivory, hematite, limestone,
Black jet, soapstone, antler and fired clay –
All of these become our bodies because
Our bodies are the place of becoming.

Tim Miller stirs the imagination. His narrative poems in Bone Antler Stone breathe life into the archeological past of Europe. Now my heart yearns for poetic translation of “New World” prehistory.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Bone Antler Stone

A personal note:
Reading “Female Figurines” (Bone Antler Stone), I walked over to a display table in my sitting area and picked up a cast replica of the Goddess of Willendorf, a gift of my professor of Art and Archeology. In that course, Professor Leonard Kroon insisted we experience art. I did two things: first, I visited the petroglyph site at Rice Lake, lay on the shamanic rock and listened to the earth gurgling through a slanted crack (out of that experience came a poem, “Migration,” which is included in A Breeze You Whisper) and I carved a hawk from a block of soapstone. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the red-tailed hawk would become a motif in later poems. That aside, I cradled the Willendorf figure – both tiny as my palm and monumental – and felt magic through the rotund Lilliputian goddess before returning to Miller’s poems.

For more about my writing, please see “About”

Past Midnight: poem

“The lines cast off / we glide….”

In August, Amethyst Review published “Past Midnight.”

 

PAST MIDNIGHT
by Kathryn MacDonald

The lines cast off
we glide through still water
insistent weeds
and water lily leaves.

We slip past sailboats
held fast to docks
by tendrils of black or white
blue or red          lines like thoughts
tethered to mourning and borders.

We venture into the other world
beyond safe harbour
and sense some things
have changed forever.

 

I’d love to know what you think of Past Midnight (and please “share” the link — Amethyst Review deserves reading).

 

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Leaving safe harbour in heavy mist. (The photograph “Zen Serenity” was selected for a juried show, 2018.)

 

 

 

 

 

Away by Andrea MacPherson: Book Review and Writing Tip

Before, there might have been children playing in the street, / the rumbling of cars and feet, / but now there is nothing. Taut, stretched stillness. Waiting.

“Walking Shankill Road” (29)

Andrea MacPherson travels in Away — and we travel with her through the magic of her poetry. The journey begins in Ireland, a personal quest where sites and family are sought.

This is the one place you insisted I come,
this place where limestone weeps
and children once played between execution sites
and burial grounds.

So begins “here’s to the wings of a bird” (12) and with it an elusive you, someone who has planted the seed of return, a return instead of, as if MacPherson is visiting the memories of another. Throughout, the time of the “Troubles” persists. In “boundaries” (16), she writes:

We anticipated a stop here,
men with guns and strict faces
(tightropes of unsmiling mouths,
eyes that have seen marchers falling)
a checkpoint at least, with flashlights
turning our faces to ghosts.

Instead there is nothing but seamless conversation;
rapeseed fields.
Trading prayer for something even quieter.

With the poet, we ride through countryside, lulled, until Belfast and RUC men… their guns and tanks.

Somehow we have forgotten about the strife
we had prepared to see, more content
with wavering fields a thousand shades of yellow
and ancient schoolhouses.

These places where people once sat.

The “Troubles” are old; the people we meet are old. It is as if all love and youth have left Ireland. MacPherson captures a poignancy that is haunting. In “the backyard faerie circle” (20), we visit an old man, alone:

A grey cardigan coming apart at the seams,
smelling of sheep and skin and age.
A threadbare chair,
imprinted with the memory of the body
thighs and shoulders and hip bones.
This is what his life has become:
wool and paisley just there.

We learn something of him, his youth and love, but now the small patch of wild roses / left untended, / forgotten in the shade.

The family journey of remembrance crosses the Irish Sea and continues in Scotland where we learn MacPherson’s mother’s mother left with only a rose-gold / wedding band, a few porcelain figurines (“blue salt,” 41). In “Caldrum Street,” MacPherson writes: I take photos to enter a past that is not mine (48); yet the poems lack nostalgia. They are immediate, felt, experienced. History – political and personal – continues to dig deep, becoming, as she says in one poem, fable.

MacPherson’s travels continue to France and Greece. In Paris: A streak of blue paint / thick / across a painter’s cheek (“sketches of Paris, 71). Allusions to artists and their art continue. In “La Goulue & Jane Avril” (77).

You write to me from Toulouse
and I think not of you and the red
city you describe, but of the small
deformed man with miniature legs
(childhood breaks that never quite healed)
who drew cabaret dancers
and whores and faceless men.
Smell the absinthe on his stale breath,
the unwashed quality of his hair.
Dark, dense in the spring sun.

Toulouse is nowhere in those photos,
only the possibility of his compressed figure in the corner,
black coat tails, shriveled leg
fleeting.

In “National Archaeological Museum” (85), Greece, archeology replaces the art trope of France:

[The statues] have all been saved from watery graves,
a shipwreck hundreds of years ago in the Aegean.
They might have been home for minnows,
crustaceous prawns, octopuses;
seaweed might have covered the boy’s eyes,
letting him forget he once had limbs.

As the trip comes to an end, she writes: I dream of the places I will go once home: / thick rainforests, yards of lilac and rose bushes…relearn the taste of green (“the geography of bougainvillea” 89).

Away describes a circle, a going out and a return – to place, to self – and it does so with keen observation and insight. This is Andrea MacPherson’s second book of poetry. It is now one of my favourites to be read and reread.

Hints for Writers 

  1. For writers on personal journeys to places of emigration, Away shows how the quest can embrace the stories of generations, the return (almost) on behalf of parents and grandparents but also open doors to others curious minds. MacPherson travels with purpose, but her list of places and people to see does not blind her. She finds ways to draw readers into her poems; she bridges the personal : universal divide. If this is your journey, read MacPherson with an eye and ear as to how she accomplishes the magic.
  2. The author’s voice is consistent throughout the collection, creating cohesion between poems and sections of the book. MacPherson’s voice is intimate/personal but also knowledgeable. We trust her. We also remain open to the surprises and insights that happen along the journey. Think about how she uses the first person to control what we see and feel and then how she inserts the twist that makes us pause and contemplate the awareness or insight or question revealed.

67 Away.jpg

Available through your local bookstore or online: Away