What to look for when reading and what to aim for when writing:
This is the briefest of summaries, mere definitions of key elements in poems. It might be a good exercise to play with each one and then try combining them as your skill develops.
Details: naming; seeing, hearing – all the senses; every word working and, conversely, subtlety: a balance of specific and mystery / known and unknowable / sayable and unsayable. Is the monarch butterfly pinned to a board or does it fly free?
Engagement: poet’s presence, not only intellectually (ideas/abstractions/metaphors), but physical presence/immediacy; an invitation to readers to enter the poem, to be stirred, to connect.
Intimacy: the voice of the poet comes through; expressive words, perspective, insight – the surface narrative/lyric, but something written between the lines that speaks in the poet’s voice but that also touches me unearthing something that connects us (something beyond personal/universal/ah ha moment).
Movement: outward and inward.
Portal: the word, phrase, or stanza that shifts the poem from the surface theme into the deeper, more subtle one, the poem written between the lines.
Sound and rhythm: music; echoes in the language.
Twist: surprise, but also coherence, and subtlety: room for the unknown/unknowable.
Question: I want insight, but not a definitive answer (not overly generalized; respect for the individual); I want to be left with something to think about beyond the poet’s skill with structure and words, rhythm and other “tools” in the writer’s toolbox.
Wow factor: awe moment; not just by poet’s craft/skill/talent, but by the mind and heart of the poet.
Every poem does not have all of these things, but they are what I look for when reading and what I aim for when writing.
You may also be interested in reading How to Write a Good Poem? 6 Writing Tips. The blog looks at the advice of Jane Hirshfield, Robyn Sarah and Tony Hoagland. For more tips scroll through the category “Writing Tips & Workshops.”
Please share your thoughts and share this post. Thanks, Kathryn
“Tell the truth but tell it slant” (#1263, Emily Dickinson) continues to be good advice, but there are more.
Over the years a collection of writing tips have accumulated along with lessons learned while teaching creative and memoir college-level classes and workshops. Occasionally, I review, add and subtract. This is my current list of things for poets to think about:
Write what you know
Experience life (do something out of your ordinary and see with fresh eyes)
Write about it
Avoid abstractions and ideas alone;
Ask yourself if your subject and theme are relevant to readers For readers to buy your poetry collection, you must create a bridge that joins you, and the subject and theme of your poem is what will attract and hold them;
Choose the best point of view for your poem
It makes a huge difference whose perspective tells the story; find what best suits the poem (first person “I” or second person “you,” or third person “he, she, they”);
First write it with one narrator and then the same poem with another p-o-v and see the difference;
Choose the best literary form for each poem From free verse to traditional forms like ballad, epic, ode, and sonnet;
Use accessible language and make every word work Choose only the perfect words for each poem (invest in a good dictionary and thesaurus);
Create poetry that is clear and accessible Avoid being obtuse or vague;
Use literary techniques
Create images, sounds (assonance, alliterations, repetition – read your poem aloud), and metaphors and similes;
Think about tone and mood and the importance of evoking emotion (and remember that even in the darkest place a sense of wonder often exists and, if you can create it, readers will feel rewarded for accompanying you on the journey – this does not mean happy-happy, but more awe to balance the awful, or perhaps simply wonder that the sun rises even after the nightmare);
Create echoes within a poem and across a collection (perhaps a symbol running through as A.F. Moritz’s sparrow);
Look at your finished poem
Just as in story writing, you must hook your reader; then, you must maintain interest; and finally, you must reward them for reading to the end;
This has meant providing a twist, a surprise, something that builds within the poem but is still unexpected (perhaps it is easiest to see this in the three-line haiku);
Invite readers into your poemsby leaving the door open for them to find their meaning
As Jane Hirshfield suggests, “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….” Leave room for more than your personal meaning (a poem is not an essay) to the dilemma, situation, or question your poem raises.
Read other poets
Learn as much as you can about the poets who created the foundation on which we write;
Read contemporary poets;
Figure out what you like and don’t like and why; don’t copy or mimic but …
Learn how a successful poem unfolds.
Of course, this incomplete and inadequate list points to characteristics that I like in poetry and advice that I find useful. After you’ve been writing and reading for a while, create your own list. If you already have a list, share it with us.