How to Write Better Poetry, Page 3

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

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The dialog continues.

Old Professor
Or we are given something mysterious and unclear, perhaps because of the thinking that great poetry is filled with obscure meanings and sentences that sound as if they were plunged deep into the well of thought. This, for example:

was bliss
now it hurts
I’ve seen the wall
I’ve seen the grave
I am afraid

Eager Young Poet
I like that one, too. Powerful feelings. I thought you were going to give examples of bad poems.

Old Professor
These are not good poems. And we see this kind of thing everywhere, instead of something with fresh, striking, memorable ideas and images. Why? Because most of us can write like that all day long as fast as we can type. Here's less than two minutes' work:

More digital input
shouted the keyboard
as I typed away
but I wasn't away
I was on the home row
when I realized that
leaving out the punctuation
helped me grind out
the lines
faster and made my poem
more ambiguous
and hence

I mean,
you read this stuff once,
and if the poet is nearby
you say
oh, that's good
and then you stuff it
into the paper shredder
without regret
and maybe with enthusiasm
and you never care to read it again

Eager Young Poet
So are you going to put my poems into the paper shredder? I think I want them back, then.

Old Professor
Of course won’t hurt your poems. You’ve printed them up so nicely. But with some more effort, perhaps you could have written a poem I’d want to read over and over and maybe even memorize. Really good poems can be “music to your soul at midnight” to borrow and tweak a phrase from George Herbert.

Eager Young Poet
Who’s George Herbert?

Old Professor
A seventeenth century poet.

Eager Young Poet
You know, maybe your problem is that you’re still living in the seventeenth century. Things have changed a bit since then.

Old Professor
Well, as the emperor said to his subjects after his army had been crushed, “The situation has developed, not necessarily in our favor.”

Eager Young Poet

Old Professor
Things have changed, but not necessarily to the benefit of poetry. And as for the seventeenth century poets—who are the best we’ve had—the richness and enjoyment of great images and elegant language are timeless.

Eager Young Poet
Uh, if you are going to keep talking like that, I need to go.

Old Professor
That’s right. You’re here for practical advice.

Eager Young Poet
I was here to show you my poems.

Old Professor
You’re right. Returning to your poems, then. A good question to ask of your draft poem—or any given line—is, Why is this poem more meaningful than a prose paraphrase of it?

Eager Young Poet
Why does it have to be?

Old Professor
Because poetry should do something that prose does not. Good poems reflect a crafted richness, using sound and sensation, connotation, pun, metaphor (and other "decoration"), allusion, surprise, paradox (and other intellectual sublimities), meter (or at least some sense of the rhythm of the words), structure, and perhaps rhyme, all of which a paraphrase could not adequately reflect.

Eager Young Poet
I don’t even know what half those things are.

Old Professor
Well, then, if you want to be a good or better poet, I suggest you learn what these things are. Writing poetry is a craft and poems are crafted objects. They do not flow whole from your pen in a single draft.

Eager Young Poet
Mine do.

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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