Writing is frustrating and fulfilling, difficult and satisfying–and writing poetry is even more so. I taught high school English for twenty-right years, and loved it. Yes, it was often demanding and exhausting with too many bleary-eyed nights grading papers, writing comments that you hoped students would read and use in a revision, but feared they would not. However, teaching kids how to write–persuasive essays, research based papers, speeches, debate proposals, memoirs, and poetry and fiction–was something marvelous. Teaching Creative Writing became my favorite. When I began teaching the class in the 1970’s, I knew absolutely nothing about the craft of teaching it. My poor early students! I only knew that I loved to write poetry and short stories; so my students and I carried each other along until I had read enough, written enough, took graduate classes enough, and taught the class enough to know what I was doing.
Here’s some ideas I have found to be useful when writing poetry or fiction. I make every attempt to keep these in mind when I write. After all these years of writing poetry, they are probably ingrained, anyway.
>Write from abundance. I write a lot, more than I need for a poem. If I’m stuck, (which I often am) I might write continuously for five minutes, then ten, and see what happens. I may find a gem or two among the words and lines. Distill, distill–find the lines that I’m drawn to, and restart again. Soon, a piece of writing begins to form. Think how a sculpture is fashioned–from a block of solid material, form emerges; the unwanted stone is whittled away to reveal the art within. Think about poetry this way. From the thousands of words known, some are selected, put together, and the result is a poem, short story, novel–or any of the other myriad things we write.
>Verbs are the engines of writing. Well chosen verbs move writing better than anything else. Avoid forms of the ‘to be’ verb (is, are). Instead of using a generic verb such as ‘walk’, try for something more accurate, such as “saunter,” “jog,” “march,” or ” slouch”–any specific word to describe the action. Look at your poetry; –is there a strong verb that can take the place of a weak verb and an adverb? “Walk quickly,” is a two word descriptive phrase that is more concise as “stride,” or “pace”; the verb and adverb, “look angrily” is better as “glare,” or “scowl.” Make every word count.
>That leads me to Specificity. Always, always aim for specificity in your description, to be exact: to choose what kind of stone, tree, sky, cloud, flower, table, shirt, water, etc. Specifics mark your writing as original. Instead of writing generally about war, write about a child’s shoe seen in a bombed-out street, or a soldier’s canteen, or broken windows. Generalities kill poetry; specifics save it.
>Be concise. This is hard for me, since I often overwrite, use too many words that bore the reader with verbage. So, I try to be exact, succinct, and specific in my descriptions. I mostly succeed, but sometimes I need someone else to read the poem to tell me where I am writing too much.
>Well placed adjectives are forceful. Strong adjectives enliven a poem; be as specific as possible, surprising, and original.
>I like poetic conventions. I often use simile, metaphor, personification, and sound devices of alliteration (use sparingly!—), assonance, consonance, and at times, rhyme. (More on that later.) These poetic shortcuts add depth and imagination to writing.
>Avoid clichés. Many of us fall into the cliché trap all of the time because our language is full of them. “White as a ghost,” “Hot as the sun,” “He has an axe to grind,” “Silenced the crowd,” and “kunckle down” are some samples. Clichés, phrases that were once original and sharp, are now bland because of overuse. When you use a cliché, your reader glazes over the phrase and doesn’t really see it because it’s so familiar; it’s better to use an original comparison. I have to be watchful of my own use of clichés.
> It is difficult to rhyme poetry well. I am terrible at rhyme, so I use it infrequently. A few of my poems rhyme or use off rhyme. It is hard to avoid easy rhyme, to not have your end rhyme be predictable and easy. So, I usually write in free verse.
>Revision. I’d almost prefer to revise a poem rather than write a new one. Some of my poems have been revised many, many times. I have even revised some of the poems I submitted to the 2006 Bucks County Poet Laureate contest the year I won. The important thing with revision is to make the poem better, to be more concise, original, surprising, to say more by saying less, to mean more. To land the ending of the poem as a diver entering the water without a splash; to begin with a line that captures the reader.
See my published essay, “The Opportunity of Revision,” on this site for ideas about rhyme and revision.
© Marie Kane