(These are some thoughts on writing poetry which I’ve been putting together for a while. The ending still feels abrupt to me. I will probably keep adding to the body of this essay over time. It is intended mainly for the novice poet, but I am interested what advanced poets think about this, as well. I am not claiming to be an advanced poet; I just do my thing.)
You may have read some Shakespeare or an Ogden Nash poem or two, or (God forbid) Rod McKuen. Perhaps you even tried writing a poem about your sweetheart or dear old grandma, rhyming every end word of every line with its mates, keeping perfect meter (duh DUM-duh DUM-duh DUM-duh DUM). Your friends said, “That’s nice,” but eventually you noticed they never suggested you write another poem.
Newer poets are in a tricky spot, because poetry is often best learned by imitation, yet for the most part, imitations don’t sound that good. Apprenticeship is a disheartening time: wanting to create something good, but having to learn by doing the bad and mediocre first. It is easy to want to try some “short cuts.” These “short cuts” will actually impair your writing.
For example, a new poet is often tempted to fall back upon a reassuring “thee” or “thou”, a grandiloquent “forsooth”, a “nepenthe” or two for good measure. Archaic language seems safely poetic, but it isn’t today’s poetry. It just sounds corny unless you are an experienced hand using that language for a specific purpose. The new poet will do well to avoid it.
Modern(1) American language seems so un-poetic in comparison, especially when you’ve seen it used for infomercials and the license agreement on your credit card. Even so, Modern English is the language we speak. Learn to trust it, because the same elements still exist in English as when poets were writing “forsooth” and being taken seriously: metaphor, consonance, assonance, meter & rhyme.
I am reluctant to even mention rhyme because it is best for the beginning poet to think of it as a garnish—the parsley of poetry. If a chef brings you a plate of animal crackers with a sprig of parsley, it isn’t suddenly a gourmet meal because of the ripply green leaves. The core of a poem is metaphor, whether direct simile or subtle inferred comparison. Around and through that core runs the sound of the words: consonants plosive or fricative, melodious vowels, phonetic groupings either jarring against or bridging between each other. Rhyme becomes, in a sense, another short cut: something to focus on other than whether you are saying something coherent. It becomes a puzzle to solve (What can I rhyme with orange?) which transforms to end in itself.
Another shortcut is emotionalism. New poets tend to write only what they are feeling: their angst, their drama, their loves, but these are all intangibles. Often no images are attached to them. It is difficult for a reader to go without a solid object presented to the mind; interest drops. Think back to textbooks you have read which were explaining a concept without using any pictures or examples. It was a tough read. The same thing applies here. Whether talking about a complex concept or a seemingly simpler one like sadness, the reader needs an image or sound or scent to connect with. Poetry is at its heart metaphor. That, more than the meter or rhyming, is what is heightened, what makes a distinction between prose and poetry. The poetic gives condensed, rich comparisons between objects and between objects and emotions. Meter, assonance and rhyme only serve when they are able to heighten this effect.
If one isn’t supposed to effuse with old time flowery language or focus foremost on rhyme or vent emotions, where does one start? With the ordinary. First begin with an everyday, prosaic object. Do not start with your dear grandmother, a puppy, a bouquet of flowers, clouds, chirping birds or anything remotely sentimental. Rather, an eggbeater, a roll of toilet paper, a soap dispenser, the mail box. Look at it, touch it, smell it. What color, shape, texture, what aromas? Learn how to describe, writing down what your senses tell you. Go from object to object repeating this exercise in clear, everyday words, much like an artist will sketch the things seen all around in everyday life, building up a vocabulary of the visual. A writer can speak in an even broader palate of touch, scent and sound as well.
It is arbitrary, perhaps, but the collective wisdom distills and catalogues poetry, and from this process come—anthologies. The only way to get the music and imagery of poetry is to read and read and read those who are considered the greats of modern poetry. Focus on poetry written in the past 100 years, because it uses the tools of modern language. Shakespeare was brilliant and can teach a lot about metaphor, but he is not modern. His voice is that of a different age. When you are more surefooted a poet, he is an excellent source for inspiration, but he is not going to give you an authentic, 21st Century voice.
Look at how today’s poets describe. See their comparisons. Note how they use line breaks and rhythm and assonance to reinforce the metaphors at the core of their poems. Then give up all shame and slavishly imitate their various styles until you understand how they work from the inside. From there you will find your own voice, the elements which suit you. The rest will drop away as you gain confidence in your ability to describe the world around you. At that point, it’s time to discover whether you have something to say.
1) I am using the term “Modern” throughout in the sense of “current day”, not “Modernism”.