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How to Write Better Poetry 

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

Welcome poets and would be poets. This is the first of a two-part article about writing better poetry. This first part will attempt to persuade you to adopt some powerful ideas that will make your verse richer and more enjoyable. Whether you choose to write free verse, blank verse, or rhymed verse, this discussion will help you do it better.

The second part of the article will describe the traditional theory of poetry and offer many ideas an examples that will help you improve your poetic art.

To begin with, I know that many people are very sensitive about their poetry. In the past, students would show me a poem they had written and I’d make a comment such as, “This line isn’t very rhythmic,” or “Could you find a fresher image here?” only to have them leave with hurt feelings and never show me another poem. It seems that some writers think that their poems are their souls in print and to criticize the poem, even slightly, is to criticize their soul.

So let me make two declarations at the outset. First, just to reassure you, anything you write and call a poem is a poem. And second, poetry is a craft, and attending to the craft can make poems better. Much better.

Regarding the first declaration, here is a poem I just wrote:

I went to town
Yesterday
And I bought groceries
Yesterday
Seems like I remember what I did
Yesterday

Do you like this poem? Or better, do you want to read it again and maybe even again? Do you want to share it with others? Would you like to memorize it? Will you be quoting it at a literary gathering?

I hate to be critical of my own work, but I personally don’t think that this is much of a poem. That I wrote it in twenty seconds gives us a clue. As I said, poetry is a craft and writing really good poems takes work—and multiple drafts, usually.

Okay, so I’ve tipped my hand. So if my poem isn’t so good, what makes a good poem? Here’s what I think is at the bottom of good poetry. The best poetry presents interesting ideas through compelling expressions. As Alexander Pope said (and I’m modernizing his lines), “True art is nature to advantage dressed, what often was thought but never so well expressed.” My poem doesn’t contain interesting ideas or compelling expressions. It’s not nature to advantage dressed, it’s just ordinary, frumpy nature, wearing pink curlers and that old housedress from the 1970s. And the thought certainly can’t be said to have been “never so well expressed.” It needs work.

I’ll tell you what. In order to be more interesting, let me explain my ideas about good poetry by using the form of a dialog between a young, eager poet and an old, gray haired professor.

A Dialog about Poetry

Eager Young Poet
Look professor. I just wrote a poem.

I looked
But I could not see
There was a tree
In my way
Why is there
Always a tree
In my way

What do you think?

Old Professor
Well, first, what do you think about it?

Eager Young Poet
I really like it.

Old Professor
Why do you like it?

Eager Young Poet
I just do. [Scowling] But you don’t like it, do you?

Old Professor
Tell me, who is your audience?

Eager Young Poet
What do you mean?

Old Professor
Is this poem written to the general public, fellow students, close friends, a special person, or just to yourself?

Eager Young Poet
I don’t know. Anyone, I guess. Or maybe just to myself. But what’s wrong with it?

Old Professor
If you are the audience, and if this poem speaks to you, gives you ongoing enjoyment, resonates with your feelings, then you have written a successful poem.

Eager Young Poet
But I want other people to like it, too.

Old Professor
Well, in that case, if I am part of your intended audience, I am not sure I understand it. How can I like something I don’t understand? If you are writing for an audience wider than yourself, then you should think about how well the poem communicates to your readers. The best poetry opens up a rich set of meanings, and even though some of the best poems challenge the reader to find those meanings, they are accessible. And once the depth is found, the poem is a perpetual source of pleasure.

On the other hand, if the poem contains only meaning that is completely personal to your own thinking or experience, then your reader will most likely not be able to share it. Remember that the purpose of language—speech, prose, and poetry—is to communicate, to grant understanding. Hey, I just thought of a phrase: communicate, not obfuscate.

Eager Young Poet
I don’t understand obfuscate. But anyway, I have another poem. It’s one of my favorites and even you should be able to understand it.

I walked
across the yard
one spring
and wondered
and wondered
why

Old Professor
Am I right in thinking that you’re expressing the doubt and uncertainty of youth—a sense of uncertainty about your purpose and direction in life?

Eager Young Poet
I guess so, sort of.

Old Professor
Well, then, this poem does communicate a bit better. But tell me something. What is the difference between poetry and prose? That is, why did you take what appears to me to be an ordinary prose sentence, “I walked across the yard one spring and wondered and wondered why,” and divide it into several lines and call it a poem?

Eager Young Poet
Because it’s a poem. Poems are supposed to look like that. You teach poetry and you don’t know that?




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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com