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How to Write Better Poetry, Page 4

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

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The dialog continues.



Old Professor
To make a poem stand out, to make it really great, to taste like beauty, you must write a draft and blot many lines, find better words, improve the rhythm, listen to the sound and tune it. Look for better and more specific, more vivid images. Preferably unusual or even unique vivid images. Take your work to those willing to criticize it; don't be so sensitive that you'll be devastated if someone suggests an improvement or alteration.

Eager Young Poet
But what if your poems are spontaneous? And they just come out?

Old Professor
Craft it into something better. Remember that Keats first proposed "A thing of beauty is a constant joy," to a friend whose lukewarm response made him change it to "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Eager Young Poet
Who is Keats? Another seventeenth century poet?

Old Professor
Nineteenth.

Eager Young Poet
At least you’re moving a little closer to today.

Old Professor
What I was going to say is that some people have the false idea that a poem must be written directly out in one draft and in one sitting in order to "capture the feeling of the moment." But you are being truer to your feelings if you can reflect them--if you can recreate them in the reader--regardless of the time and work it takes you to construct and polish your poem. Writing good poetry is even harder work than writing good prose.

Eager Young Poet
But that’s mainly if you make yourself use meter, and rhyme scheme, and forms like stanzas or sonnets. That’s hard. And what’s the point? And don’t tell me we should do it because they did it in the seventeenth century.

Old Professor
Meter is used because the rhythm is appealing. Rhyme is used because it makes the poem somewhat musical, while forms like the sonnet are used because overcoming the challenge of a fixed structure is sublime, admirable, neat, cool.

Eager Young Poet
I don’t understand.

Old Professor
It’s like those reality game shows where contestants have to jump across a pond while dodging a swinging bat or something. Few make it, so when one does succeed, we applaud and feel pleasure.

Eager Young Poet
If you say so.


Old Professor
Consider an analogy. Suppose three entertainers are competing for a job as a juggler with a stage show. The first says, “I can juggle three balls.”

Eager Young Poet
He’s a loser. Practically everyone can do that.

Old Professor
But he’s still a juggler. It’s still a poem.

Eager Young Poet
Whatever.

Old Professor
The second person says, “I can juggle seven balls.”

Eager Young Poet
Okay, so he gets the job. So what?

Old Professor
No, wait. The third applicant says, “I can juggle four running chain saws, five electric knives, and three burning torches.”

Eager Young Poet
So that guy gets the job. And?

Old Professor
But they are all jugglers. Why choose him over the others?

Eager Young Poet
Well, duh. He’s a lot better.

Old Professor
So then some poems can be a lot better than others by including rhyme, meter, stanza forms—and of course, imagery.

Eager Young Poet
Okay, fine. I get it. But still, all this stanza and rhyme scheme stuff seems so artificial. Like that fake tinsel on Christmas trees. Why use it?

Old Professor
Because it makes better poetry, as we somewhat adumbrated in the analogical connection with juggling.

Eager Young Poet
If you’re going to talk like a professor, I’m going to have to leave.

Old Professor
I’m sorry. Old habits die hard, as they used to say. But when I lapse into academic speak, you can feel the power of language to affect you.

Eager Young Poet
Yeah, negatively. Gag me with a spoon, as they also used to say. Rhyme and all that is just so retro. We don’t like tinsel on our trees.





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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