Substantive Education

April 13, 2010

Writing Poetry

Filed under: Literature,writing — kbagdanov @ 8:29 pm
Tags: , ,


In honor of National Poetry month (April) my writing classes will be working on poems for the month. We will be reading many different poems and working on writing our own.  To help get everyone off to a good start I’m going to post an article from a past newsletter…most of this was written, a few years ago,  by my son Tim to my son Joe.  (Tim is my eldest, Joe is the baby)  Enjoy.


This is going to be a longer than usual newsletter article. Joseph left his e-mail open on my computer so that I could help him with something and I noticed that he and his oldest brother Tim and been corresponding. Many of you don’t know Tim…he’s 23, has an English degree and enjoys writing poetry. Joseph has recently been trying his hand at poetry and decided to enter one in a contest. He evidently sent some of his poems to Tim to get his opinion. They have since continued writing back and forth exchanging poems and feedback. If you are like me teaching your child how to write (or even read) poetry can be difficult. I found these thoughts from Tim quite helpful so, with his permission, I’m passing them on. (I started to edit Tim’s thoughts to make it shorter…but it wasn’t working so you are getting the e-mail in it’s entirety.)

Hey Joe, first off I think it is great that you are writing poetry, secondly, don’t stop. I’ll start with a few general poetry suggestions (things I had to have people tell me when I started writing), and try to weave in specific things about your poems.

1. Poems, especially if you are just starting to write them, should be narrative (i.e. they should tell a story, the more concrete the better). Pick a subject–a person an object a place–and try to describe that thing as vividly as you can. Tell the story of the thing. Give it a name, a personality. Avoid generalizations. Be extremely specific. Poems about philosophical themes are particularly hard to write well, and harder to make interesting. Poems, as a rule, are about the love of language and how words can work together to make unique new combinations. They are not so much about ideas. Poems convey ideas, but it is always more about how the idea is conveyed than what the idea actually is.

Forget, for now, what you are trying to say; concentrate on how you are saying it. For example, Pockets Empty seems like somewhat of a credo against alcoholism. You have a person in the poem, but he is nameless and peripheral. He is a tool that you are using to make a point. Make him the point. Forget for a moment about trying to tell us how alcoholism is bad, we know it’s bad. Who is this guy? What does he look like? Does he have kids? What does his daughter think he smells like? Who were his parents. Write his story in strange, unexpected words.

2. Don’t use experimental punctuation. Only e.e. cummings is allowed to do that, and even he is annoying sometimes. Make your words and how you use them what is interesting.

3. To be a good poet, you need to read good poetry. Find writers you like, and try to write in their style (not forever, but to learn things). Read: William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, E.E.Cummings Eavan Boland, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, etc.

For example, I really like this poem by William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

So I wrote this poem, kind of in the same vein:

Fruit Flies

Ahhgh! Fruit Flies
in the oranges again!
They were stacked
so nicely–a pyramid
in the wicker basket.

I had a bar of Ecuadoran
chocolate to go with
them. 77% cacao.
Mmm. Right there!
On the coffee table.

You’d’ve sliced them
when you got back
this weekend, and
slurp the juice out.
The chocolate could’ve
slowly melted down
your throat.

But oh! Oh! Those
fruit flies mucked
it up. They’re in there
now, screwing inside
your Welcome Home

Writing is a craft, and like most crafts you learn by emulating others. Then once you know how everything fits together, you can push off on your own. I mean hopefully your emulations contain a lot of your own style, and aren’t carbon copies of others. But Picasso wasn’t Picasso until he could do the classics.

4. Not many serious poets write rhymed poetry anymore. Probably because it is very difficult to write poetry that sounds serious in rhyme (read T.S. Eliot for someone who knows how). Rappers of course would be the exception to the rule. Another reason rhymed poetry is rare these days is that tends to work best in poems written in verse (in iambic something in other words). Writing in verse has gone somewhat out of style, therefore so has rhyming. Writing a poem in meter is one of the hardest things a writer can do. I have only tried it a couple times, and it took forever, and it wasn’t that good, and I got a lot of the meter wrong anyway.  If you want to write in meter, I would suggest writing in a very strict controlled format (try writing a sonnet).

I would stick to free verse if I were you. Use alliteration and assonance and good words as your poetic tools, and leave off meter and rhyme until a later date.
Another side-note: rhyme works really well in comic poems, see Dr. Suess.

5. Structure. I went and looked at the guidelines for the contest, and it strikes me that they are looking for a very specific format (i.e. a long-lined block poems). This is fine, but it might not be the best for your writing to try to write specifically with the contest in mind. Your best work will come when you write simply because you enjoy it. If you try to write in a specific format, according someone’s guidelines, you might not end up with your best effort. For example, I tend to write in short lines. Most of my stuff would not fit the contest parameters. Maybe your best style would be tense, terse, sparse bundles. Who knows? You certainly won’t if you only write for the contest. Long lined poems are hard to write because poems are about compression, saying as much as you can with as few words as possible. Long lines make you subconsciously use unneeded words and phrases.

Remember that in poetry, the line is very important. Where you choose to end a line, what word starts a line, matters in poetry. In prose it doesn’t.

6. Content. I touched on this slightly. Write about whatever you want. Just because it is poetry doesn’t mean it has to be serious. Just make sure of two things: it tells a story and it is written with words in mind.

Be flexible. If you write a poem, and there is only one line you like, don’t be afraid to throw everything out but that one line, or even that one word. Build a new poem around that line or word. It might look very different from the first one.

Most often when I write something, I work on it till I think it is done. Then I store it away for a couple weeks or a couple months, before I read it again. That way I can get a little distance from the writing and detach myself. Even when I really like something I write, most of the time, I don’t like it a month later. Except maybe that one line or phrase or word. Maybe not even that. But if I can salvage just the pieces that were good enough to be striking after the pet status wore off, then I’ve got something worth keeping. And I can rework around the strengths.

So I guess that would be my advice. Write often, but don’t spend too much time on one thing. Write something til its done (that’s important, finish it even if it sucks and you don’t know why). Then move on to something else. Keep writing. Then come back to the old stuff and pick through the wreckage to find what’s salvageable. Every once in a while, you’ll find something. That’s what writing is mostly, failing most often, and waiting for the unexpected surprising good things.

Long, and not very specific to your poems, but that is what I think. Keep writing, maybe even with my suggestions in mind, then send me more stuff. I’ll try to be more concise and text focused next time.

Your rambling brother,

As long as I’ve started this long article…let me go on to show you the poem Joseph ended up writing after reading this e-mail. As you can see he picked a much simpler topic than alcoholism.


Green Bermuda, rangy, unkempt
thicker than Belize.
Rumbling machine, hot, half spun blades,
coughing black pollution.

A cloudless, torrid summer sky
will see ferocious battle.
Valentine prepares pink lemonade, hair pulled up,
cheeks pomegranate red from heat.

Children playing, splashing and racing
in the above ground pool.
I release the sunflower seeds, masterfully cracked,
by the thirties from my mouth.

More antagonized with every failed
attempt to start the mower.
Chuckling Valentine appears with drinks:
Is there any gas?

I look at her with arrogant eyebrows
and open up the tank-
Empty echoes the merciless jab at my manhood.



  1. oh how i love national poetry month!

    Comment by Kristin — April 13, 2010 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

  2. Your blog is a very useful tool for people like me…

    Comment by connetta — November 26, 2010 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

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