Ten Commonly Held “Truths” About Writing Poetry Whose Opposite Is Closer to True
Curiously, many young or new writers of poetry hold fast to certain “inviolable” truths about their poetry. And these beliefs govern their writing process. But even more curious—from my 45 years of writing and teaching—is that the very opposite of what they cling to…is often exactly what their poetry practice actually needs. Let’s pretend that you’re in my writing workshop and that you’d just offered one of these statements in your defense. (Now for the sake of keeping this shorter, I’ve just cut to the chase. In an actual workshop, this wouldn’t sound so dictatorial! So stern! Plus, we’d have a sample of your work to consider, the chance to give examples, discuss what’s working best and what’s falling short of your intentions—in other words, we’d have an exchange that would genuinely acknowledge your challenge.)
1. I can only write poetry when I have strong feelings.
But you always have strong feelings, don’t you? It’s just that you don’t often choose to let one or another feeling take over…temporarily. I write poetry because I do possess powerful emotions, but also because the work of poetry requires the discipline to control them. I write poetry because I want to keep such “strong feelings,” and let the words knit them more tightly into my memories.
Or, think of it this way: When you have an argument you often regret the things you say, right? You come off less charitable, more angry, too selfish, uncharacteristically mean, etc. Adrenaline is just not all that articulate. Likewise, a mood that’s ruled by one powerful emotion—passion, sorrow, rage, fear—isn’t likely to come up with the most interesting and insightful material for a poem.
2. Revision is a betrayal of feelings; I’d just rather write another poem.
On the contrary, revision is a way to FIND your feelings, to peel away the easy, accepted notions with which we typically camouflage emotions so that we can “get over them,” and “get on with life.” Think of revising a poem as a chance to invite new perspectives and delve deeper into what else you skipped or overlooked in the logic and rush of the original composition process.
3. Poetry is my chance to talk about the things I really care about.
Rather, think of poetry as a place where you can LISTEN to yourself talk about those very things. A poem is not a stenographer taking dictation from your conscience. It’s not a megaphone. It’s an inventor, a creator, an explorer. And you should be startled by your findings! A writer who starts with what he or she knows and ends with those same notions has done the equivalent of tracing a drawing. Or paraphrasing a poem, not writing one.
Instead, use the momentum of problem solving to stumble onto a novel way of approaching or extending that “thing you really care about.” Enjoy the heat that comes from the verbal friction of the known brushing against the unknown.
“Poetry is a man arguing with himself. Politics is a man arguing with others.” - Robert Frost
4. I’m not really interested in reading poetry. I can’t really relate to it. It doesn’t speak to me. My own work—that’s different.
Then try harder. Surely in the vast annals of literature—whether contemporary, modern, historic, or ancient poems, whether written in English or another language—SURELY you can find a few poets whose work expands the possibilities for your own poems. Surely there are poets whose metaphorical language or manipulations of rhyme, whose dramatic monologues or unfamiliar poetic forms or surprising use of dialogue or humor or found texts—surely you can find inspiration within the vast canon of poetry.
Plus, your readers are readers. They know something of what’s been done before…and done well. How will your work compare? How will it feed (if it does), their appetite for poetry? And remember, if you’d like your poetry to “speak to them,” you’ll have to win them over. Convince them from your very first lines, that you’ve got something worth their time: an experience your words created that they could not have predicted.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” - Robert Frost from his profoundly influential essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes”
5. I write my poems for myself. Period. If anyone else likes them, great, but that’s not why I write.
Is that true or is that just a reluctance to work harder? Given a choice, would you rather connect with someone or not? Isn’t that what you most appreciate in the poems that you most like? A connection, a recognition of your experience “written between the lines” of the other author’s sentences?
Yes, you, above all, must be pleased with your own work: No other motive is greater. But one pleasing thing within that notion is being received or enjoyed by others. Do you wish to live in a private, self-absorbed world that few others can appreciate or understand? Do you want to speak in a code that no one can break? Think of poetry as a sharing of common—or even, uncommon—ground.
6. Revision can kill the inspiration I had in a poem. Often, the more I work, the worse the poem becomes.
Perhaps you haven’t yet found the poem. Inspiration for a poem isn’t a poem. Do you as a writer want to pull off your clumsiness, confusion, etc., with the excuse that spontaneity is the key to poetry? It would be...if poetry were a lock.
“Poetry is an argument with yourself.” - W. B. Yeats
7. I want to write about the real social issues of our day, not trivial stuff like seasons and trees.
Trees have never been trivial. Writers about trees have often been. Remember two things: 1. your age, and 2. the age of humankind.
Poems about trees—or seasons, or anything else—aren’t separate from the “real social issues of the day.” They are all a part of the same world, and it’s simply a matter of your emphasis. But, ideally, bite off only as much as you can chew. And chew it well. Trees might be an easier to stomach (digest, as it were!) than climate change. Indeed, a poem about one tree collapsing into the sea because its shoreline eroded from the increasing power of storms and the sea level rising from global warmer—that one tree could be a “bite-size” way into such a larger mouthful.
“We only know our feelings when they are mirrored to us by things.” - James Merrill
Elements of the real world, a comprehensible narrative, engaging observations or situations: These invite a reader into the poem and into a dialogue with you, and with themselves, about bigger issues.
8. People can read whatever they want to in my poem—it can mean something different for everyone. I like images and words that I don’t have to explain.
Is that by choice or by default? Would you prefer to be understood or to be misunderstood…or, even worse, ignored?
Granted: There is such a thing as being understood as ambivalent. You can articulate confusion or indecision. But you should insist that there is, at least, a defensible logic or a precise clarity, even if it is a clarity about confusion.
Can you stand behind the grammar, as well as every phrase—even if its meaning is unusual or metaphoric?
“Poetry is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” - W. H. Auden
9. I don’t have any use for form. It just makes my voice seem weird and contrived and old-fashioned.
Indeed, without mastery, that’s what form will do. But when you master it, you’ll find the outcome different. Takes time. But, you have time! Think of mastering form the way a figure skater or diver learns to perfect those requisite moves...and then adds confidence and originality.
10. How it really happened—either in life or in how I created the poem—is of the utmost importance.
No, what’s important is that the poem works and that it creates a new experience for a reader. Granted: It’s not your original experience. It’s that…but then manipulated in language…and then turned into something else: a different, but authentic, experience for the reader.
Think of how electricity can be turned into light. Or heat. Or power. Or a combination of those. Under a poem’s pressure, your raw energy—your initial “reaction”—converts into light or heat or power…that the reader can feel.
is the author, editor, or illustrator of a wide variety of more than 120 books, including works for both adults and children. Many of his efforts have involved philanthropic volumes. Seven books benefited an animal welfare granting program he began in 2001, The Company of Animals Fund. Over 11 years, the Fund awarded over $370,000 to nearly 100 humane organizations. He also created six books to benefit Share Our Strength’s fight to end childhood hunger. He created six books whose profits benefit the organization.
He received is MFA in poetry from Columbia University in 1981. His poetry for adults has been collected in three volumes, A Drink at the Mirage (Princeton University Press), Traveling in Notions: The Stories of Gordon Penn (University of S. Carolina Press), and Telling Things (Harcourt Brace). A fourth collection, Georgics, is in production at Cat Steppe Press.
Many of his books for younger readers are poetry…or texts that reviewers have called “prose poetry.” Recent examples include The Forever Flowers (Creative Editions, 2014), Sailing the Unknown: Around the World with Captain Cook (Creative Editions 2012, paperback, 2015), a novel in verse and two voices, and three books of haiku. [See below for those links].
“Running with Trains: A novel in verse and two voices” (Boyd Mills Press , 2012)
Amazon link: http://goo.gl/WP6o2e
Long interview on writing a novel in verse at Write All the Words blog:
An interview at Poetry for Children
“The Maine Coon’s Haiku and Other Poems for Cat Lovers” (Candlewick Press, 2015)
starred reviews in ★ Publisher’s Weekly, ★ Kirkus Reviews, ★ School Library Journal
Each exquisitely crafted poem and image captures the personalities of the cats, the diversity of settings, and the quiet magic of each moment. / Publisher’s Weekly
This perfect poetical paean to pussycats makes both a fine gift for a cat lover and an excellent haiku handbook. / School Library Journal
Long interview on writing with Seven Important Things Before Breakfast
Interview in Haiku by Two on the subject of haiku:
“The Hound Dog’s Haiku and Other Poems for Dog People” (Candlewick Press, 2013)
starred reviews in ★ Publisher’s Weekly, ★ Kirkus Reviews, ★ School Library Journal
“Brilliant in every way: poetically, visually—the Tao of dogginess!” — Kirkus Reviews
Amazon link: http://goo.gl/L1xc7X
Interview in The Open Book about the practice of poetry:
“The Cuckoo’s Haiku and Other Poems for Bird Watchers” (Candlewick Press, 2011)
A rare gift for young and old alike, this exquisite book about birds combines delicate verses and stunning watercolors that celebrate the natural world. — ★ Publisher’s Weekly
Amazon link: http://goo.gl/EK9bon
A PDF on haiku across the curriculum, a short guide to the steps I use in writing haiku:
A new 17-minute video about writing on The Ohio Channel:
The newest book: “The Tale of Rescue”
The video teaser for the book, narrated by my cattle dog: