I'm going to be throwing out blogs on what I think of poetry and how to write poetry. I've been having poems published for over fifteen years and been teaching poetry for nearly ten. I edited an anthology of poetry "Heartbeat of New England" (Tiger Moon Productions, 2000). Yes, much of this you can argue with, but keep an open mind, I might get you thinking.
What is poetry? What makes a poem a poem? That’s a difficult question and one every school of poetry or every poet has a different answer to. There have been many modern poets and poetry critics who think too much modern poetry is just prose with line breaks. There have also been many who think that there’s some prose that’s just poetry in disguise. Poetry falls somewhere in between those views. I like to say if you call it a poem, it’s a poem. But it might not be a very good poem.
Words are the building blocks of poetry. Poetry is making art of those building blocks. Let me use a metaphor, saying one thing to mean another. When I took a folklore class in undergrad school, we each had to learn a folklore. I learned how to put up stonewalls. Not the tight fit, cut the stone to fit walls, but the old fashioned stonewalls. I’ve built stonewalls. I start with a pile of stones and erect a wall. There’s a stone for every place and a place for every stone. The art of building a stonewall is finding the right stone for every place.
That’s what the art of erecting a poem is, finding the right word for every place. If the art is done correctly, once built the poem goes beyond the individual words. Just like a stonewall goes beyond the individual stones. Yes, I could place a good stone but not the perfect poem and chink in small stones to make it fit, but it won’t be the same as the perfect stone. Years later water will dribble down in the hole and freeze and the ice will push out the chinking and the wall will fall. The same thing applies to a poem. Yes, I can make a good word work, but eventually the poem will fail because it’s not the perfect word. And sometimes in my search for the perfect stone, I find the stones around that place aren’t quite right, so I have to replace a row of stones.
Poetry works that way too. Sometimes it’s not the word that’s wrong; it’s the words around the word that need to be changed. Writing a poem is as much work as building a stonewall. Poems generally fail because of lack of care by the poet. Poetry goes beyond prose because of the care and work. Poetry calls for self-criticism, for a desire to write the perfect word. A poem is not finished until it has been read. A poem like any other work of art must evoke an emotion in the reader or listener. A poem should give the reader a new view of the world, bring pleasure and be self-defining. Emily Dickinson once said that she knew a good poem because it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. A good poem forces me to say ‘ah.’
After 9-11 people all over the country reached for poetry. They needed to find understanding and healing. Poetry can help us when we’re confused and hurt. But not everyone will like the same poem though some poems reach more people than others. If we all liked the same poem, there would only be one poem. If you want to write poetry, read poetry. If you like a poem, look inside it, look at how it was built, discover why you like it. Then you’ll know what to put in your poems.
When I learned to build stonewalls, I found a master craftsman to teach me. He sent me out to look at the various styles of walls and to study how they were put together, then we sat down and he gave me instructions and then we went and worked on a wall together. I built it under his guidance. Finally, I put up a wall on my own and he came afterwards and criticized my work.
The same procedure works for writing poems. If you’re willing to put in the effort, anyone can write poems. Without the commitment to the crafting… To paraphrase and revamp a Basho statement, anyone can write one good poem, it’s the second poem that’s the problem.