If you are wandering around this website, it is a safe bet that you write. And, if you write, and are not delusional, you know that writing is painful and that the final product is often a very pale and cloudy reflection of your original intent.
There isn’t much that can be done about the pain; that’s just the way it is. And it could be worse; rodeo riders get banged up a whole lot more than do poets, and they don’t get paid any better.
However, there are things that can be done to improve the quality of your writing. I guarantee that if you take the advice I’m going to give you, your writing will improve. You will write better poetry. You may still be unsatisfied with your product, but it will be better, and you will be experiencing your self-doubt and angst at a higher level than before. And that, I fear, is the best you can hope for.
Let’s begin with William Carlos Williams’ famous words: “No ideas but in things.” I am not going to tell you what they mean; that would not only violate their direction, but would limit your potential understanding of them. I will say these two things: the dictum has been said to define the direction of post-19th Century poetry, and it is an ideal thing to slip into your pocket or purse, and to hold in your hand in idle moments.
Join a Workshop
No, you are not too good to profit from a workshop. The one I am in includes a former state poet laureate, and she gets critiqued just like the rest of us.
And no, you are not too delicate to withstand criticism. Or, if you are, you should stop writing and take up Sudoku or dusting.
If the first workshop you find is full of people who only get together to share cookies and praise, who never say anything critical, keep looking. You want a group that is serious about getting better. And the first step toward getting better is to understand that the work that you are bringing is imperfect, and with some more work it could be better.
When you bring your new work to a group and listen to honest feedback about an unclear image or some shop-worn phrases, it may sting. But if you can hear what is being said, you will have a chance to re-write your work and make it cogent and fresh. If you don’t take it to others, or if you become defensive and plug your ears, your work will continue to have that unclear image and those tired phrases, and the poem won’t ever get better, and it probably won’t get published. And your next poem won’t fare any better, nor will the one after that. But when you incorporate the insights of other serious writers, you automatically get better. You start from a higher place than before.
The sober truth here is that even after the workshop has torn it down and you have rebuilt it and polished it, your poem will STILL be imperfect. It may get published and perhaps even anthologized, but it will still be something less than the Platonic ideal that you started with when you got the idea and grabbed a piece of paper. It will be the product of a series of choices, of compromises between an ineffable idea and the limited words that the English language has to offer. It may be the best that you can make it; it may even be the best that it can possibly be. But it will still suffer the constraints that come from the give and take of this idea and that sequence, the demands of meter and meaning, the fitting together of shape and sound and sense.
This next bit of advice might seem a bit selfish, but that’s OK; after all, you are doing all of this for yourself: find a workshop which is made up of people who are better writers than you are. You will tend to rise to the level of those around you. If you have to work extra hard to keep up, that’s a good thing. You will get more out of the exchange than you would from a group with lower standards and lower expectations. When you are published and recocognized everywhere, by all means stay in a workshop; you will still gain, and you will be able to give back by helping new poets as they grow.
And in the interest of promoting our own community, I should add that if you are among the poets chosen to publish in Rat’s Ass Review, you have the opportunity to join our on-line workshop. This workshop is free, and currently has over 100 members. It is particularly useful for those poets who do not live in urban or academic settings or who for other reasons do not have an actual, in-person, local poetry workshop to join.
It would be lovely if we could sit down, grip a pen or settle our fingers on the keyboard, and suddenly be swept away with inspiration. But for most of us, the muse is a fickle lover — there for a moment when we are stuck in traffic without paper, then gone no matter how many pencils we sharpen, how intently we stare at the screen. Most of us, I suspect, have tried various exercises in hope of luring the muse somewhere near our writing desks. Here are some ways to think about exercises, and to make exercises of your own.
What makes an exercise effective is that it presents you with something novel, something that pushes you a bit off balance, so that your thinking gets bumped in a new direction. You can do this by selecting two or three random things or words and requiring yourself to incorporate them all into a poem. This makes you see connections that are new, and nudges you toward fresh images. You can, for example, open the dictionary at random and pick the 7th entry on the left page, then do it twice more, and struggle with those three words until they fit into a coherent poem. Or you can select three objects that you see on a walk — the first three blue things that you see, or an accumulation of the things that you see when your watch comes up to the 60 second mark and you look over your right shoulder. Or you can go to some place you have never been before and soak in the feel of the place. It might be something that because of your age, or your gender or preferences, or your religious/social background you have never experienced — a senior center, a flower show, a gun shop, a cathedral or synagogue or Buddhist temple or the opera or mud wrestling — it doesn’t matter what, so long as it is alien to you.
An Easy Start: Try writing a Clerihew, which is a four line poem rhyming AABB (that’s poetry shorthand for saying that the first two lines rhyme with each other, and that the last two lines also rhyme with each other, but do not rhyme with lines one and two). The first line is the name of some well-known person (or at least ends with that person’s name), the content of the poem is frivolous and pokes good-natured fun at the person, and you get extra credit if the meter is inconsistent and the rhymes are tortured. For more information on the Clerihew, try here or just do a quick search using the name. The whole point of a Clerihew is that it is clumsy and goofy and just for fun. So, no pressure. Just have a good time.
The Ekphrastic Kickstarter Another exercise has become so popular among poets that it has its own name. If you stare long enough at a painting or a piece of sculpture, or perhaps a Grecian Urn, you may wind up writing an ekphrastic poem. To see several such poems that have appeared in Rat’s Ass Review, go here. For many other excellent examples of ekphrastic poems and prose, click here to visit The Ekphrastic Review.
For several years I was part of a weekly poetry workshop that did exercises one evening a month. We each brought in something that would stimulate us, and one by one we would share the idea or prompt or object, and we would write for ten minutes or so, then share our work, then we were off to the next stimulus. The absolute weirdest, most effective thing that I saw in those years was brought in by an elderly poet who had hired some work done on her barn and found in a wall the mummified bodies of two kittens who had fallen from a loft and gotten trapped and died clinging to each other. This dusty grey relic with lips pulled back and tiny teeth bared, front legs wrapped around one another, was one of the most tragic things I have ever seen, and it was so unsettling that it was impossible to approach it in any ordinary way.
Anyway, that’s the idea — either find something very odd or beyond your experience, or gather together a few things that don’t seem to have anything in common, and let the oddity, the newness, the juxtaposition work on you. Get yourself out of your rut and into some new sensibility. Catherine — Thanks for spawning this section. /RB
Show up at Readings, and Read
Writing is only the beginning. Sharing the written work and internalizing the critiques and making changes and improvements also are just stops along the way, not the journey’s end. You need to truly road test your work. This means standing in front of people and singing it out and listening. Do they laugh in the right places? Do they sigh when they should? Is there that moment of awed silence at the end before they burst into applause?
Don’t necessarily give up on a poem after one reading, because some audiences just seem to have a collective stick up their asses. But if a poem is received with indifference by two or three audiences, then either junk it or send it back to the shop for an overhaul; there is something wrong with it. Remember, the whole purpose of writing is to communicate. If that isn’t happening, then the poem doesn’t work.
Just Plain Read
Grab a contemporary poetry collection and get an overview of what a wide variety of successful poets are doing. Here is one list of such books. Any web search for poetry anthologies will give you many more options. And don’t overlook your local library; that way you won’t have to risk buying a book that may not be the right one for you. Actually, your library is probably an excellent resource for any of your quests. And if they have soft chairs and maybe a fireplace, settle and enjoy a pre-internet experience of browsing.
Find a book or two that cover the basics of writing poetry, and read them over and over. I would commend to you Mary Oliver’s excellent guide, A Poetry Handbook. I would also suggest An Introduction to Poetry, by X. J. Kennedy. It is now in its 12th edition, although the one that was current in 1966 is the one that imprinted itself deeply on my young brain. These are my guides; they may not be yours. But find a few, and absorb them.
Specifically, Read the Kind of Poetry You Don’t Write
If you are a formal poet, don’t just read sonnets and quatrains and sestinas. Pick up a copy of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and scare the hell out of yourself. You may not suddenly begin to write eerily Goth prose poems, but your next villanelle might have an edge or a bite that you may find new and exciting.
If, on the other hand, all that you read and write is unrhymed work of no particular line length, then you need to read several poems each from at least five of the following poets:
Gerard Manley Hopkins
There is good reason why these writers, some of them hundreds of years gone, still command attention. They were masters of their craft. Within the bounds of meter and rhyme they were able to write works which were startling and wise and cynical and charming and which did not fall victim to the strained diction and tired ideas of greeting card verse, but rather became part of our collective DNA. Just a few years ago a good friend’s nephew returned from college to report that “To His Coy Mistress” was still a convincing and effective piece of argument. I am confident that it will be coaxing young women out of garments and into adventures in another hundred years, and another hundred after that.
On a personal note, although normally I write very unstructured poems, I once sat in Steven Tyler’s living room on a Thanksgiving afternoon and, under the influence of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, wrote a rhymed poem of fairly regular meter which eventually was published by The Dark Horse. It is one of my favorites of my own work.
. . . and Write
You probably don’t need to be told how easy it is to go a day, a week, longer, without writing. But you won’t ever be a writer if you don’t write. So get to it!
The Editor Indulges Himself
One of the cardinal rules of editing a poetry journal is that an editor who wants to be taken seriously should never publish his own poems. It isn’t fair to the reader to foist on her a bunch of work that has not been objectively evaluated by a disinterested editor.
In fact, it may look as though I have already violated this rule, as there are two poems of mine among the many, many far better works that RAR contains. However, I didn’t; founding editor David M. Harris selected those poems when I submitted them to his new poetry journal.
Having said that, I am now going to blatantly violate the rule. I wrote the following poem. No impartial editor has blessed it. It is here because I am abusing my editorial prerogative. Too bad. I apologize only to Ogden Nash.
ANOTHER LOVE POEM?
The problem with writing poetry in which you express your deep devotion for your mate, and assure her that your love is of the undying kind,
is that although love may be, editors are not, blind.
And after a few years they have seen so many uses of the few rhymes for
that they develop a sort of involuntary tic when they once again hear that the happy couple
will never part
though bells may toll,
‘neath stars above.
In fact, what actually happens within the editor’s chest is something akin to what happens when a fish which has spent its entire life at 300 feet below gets hauled up into the boat in 10 seconds or less.
Which makes a mess.
So, if you must write a love song, be it in free verse or in a more traditional form like an ode or even a Shakespearean or Petrarchian sonnet,
please don’t gush on about how lovely your lady looks in her new Easter bonnet.
Instead commend her for the strength of her character, or for the symmetry of her woodpile, or the flakiness of her phyllo crust,
or for the fact that when she steps onto the dance floor other women look away in terminal envy which they thinly disguise as disgust,
or for any other positive attribute she may have, so long as what you say is at least approximately true;
but for God’s sake, don’t tell her, or me, or anyone else that roses are red or that violets are blue.