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Not As I Do

by Jough Dempsey
30 June 2002

This time around I'm going to list some quick "do's" and "don'ts" that you should consider while you write your poems. Keep in mind that no guidelines are absolute, but if you're going to break any of these "rules" - bear in mind that you have to have a firm grasp of the rules before you can break them. It's your poetry. I'm only here to help. But pay these words heed before you start crying yourself to sleep on that moth-ridden blankey you've had since you were nine years old because your poems keep getting rejected from that magazine.

Avoid cliché like the plague.

Clichés are those hackneyed phrases that you hear over and over and weaken your poems. Poetry is about variety and inventiveness - if you use phrases and images that are already part of your culture and have been heard a gazillion times before, you're not doing your job as a poet.

Some clichés that may be familiar: "from the bottom of my heart," "to the depths of my soul" - these stock phrases take no imagination, and do nothing for your poems.

The reason that most amateur poets use clichés (other than laziness) is usually an attempt to side-step sentiment and go straight for the easy road to sounding "poetic."

But I saw that phrase in a poem by SHAKESPEARE!

Yes, and when Shakespeare used it, it was new, fresh - it was his own invention. As James Joyce wrote: "After God, Shakespeare has created most."

A friend of mine, and one of the finest poets writing today, said that one of the reasons she was excited by writing poetry was the possibility of changing the world for someone - of coming up with an image that was so new and inventive that it changed their perception of that thing forever (although she said it far more eloquently than that).

So don't believe the hype. Avoid cliché as if it were a social disease.

I said "Sentiment," not "Sentimentality."

What's the difference? "Sentiment" is simply a thought or feeling based on feeling rather than reason. "Sentimentality" is an idea or expression marked by excessive sentiment. The former will give your poetry "depth" without pandering - the latter pushes the line by trying to artificially make a sentiment do more work than it can handle. It's the difference between comedy and farce - between drama and melodrama.

In his seminal volume, Can Poetry Matter? Dana Gioia wrote:

"In poetry sentimentality represents the failure of language to carry the emotional weight an author intends."

It's a delicate balance, to be sure. To write poems that are completely based on rationalism is to cop-out, to hide from the emotional impact that a poem needs, but to overly emotionalize an idea until the poem drips with sentiment won't help your writing, either. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, but overt sentimentality is just laughable because it's often false sounding, like bad soap opera dialogue. In other words...

Shelve the melodrama, Dorothy.

Instant melodrama - just add trite "insights" and pepper your poems liberally with as many clichés as you can cram in there.

Here's a not-too-far-from-reality mock poem (worthy of mocking, as well):

An Awful Poem

The darkness of the night
stared into the abyss of my soul,
always dark, never bright
dragging me down into this hole.

The depths of my being
are dark and full of pain.
Everything I'm seeing
is the absence of sun, only rain.

Dear God, make it stop! Besides the clichés and the piercing end-rhymes, this poem isn't really saying anything. What darkness? What hole? What's the point? Are you trying to impress us with your trite phrasing? Will anyone think you're "deep"? Will writing such solipsistic pap help to get you laid?

I seriously doubt it.

That awful poem that I wrote above isn't far off from much of the tripe I had to suffer through in poetry workshop in college - the "poet" in question would usually be quite proud of how "deep" his or her poem sounded, and would read it with the affectedness of a poet in a cartoon. And then, my friend... you die.

Here's a tip: if you're trying to sound cool, you probably won't. Adolescent posturing rarely makes for good poetry, although if you can master it you may have a successful career as a pop song lyricist. Oops, I did it again.

Mind your lines.

Not all poetry has to rhyme. Let's just get that out of the way. Some does, some doesn't - and there are good and bad examples of each. If you decide that your poem must be written in a regular form (in meter, with a rhyme scheme, etc.) then you should be careful of not "ringing" your line endings with lines like:

Unless your poem's meant for one to sing,
Be careful of the line endings that 'ring.'

Making rhymes that are too direct, too close to one another (visually or audibly) makes your poem sing-songy, cute, and unsubtle. Well crafted rhyme can be extremely powerful - "If the glove don't fit, you must acquit." Very effective. That's why so many slogans rhyme - they're easier to remember. Children's books often rhyme because children can appreciate the repetitiveness of language and the effect that it creates (usually comic). Unless you're writing for politicians or children, though, you may want to be more creative with your rhymes.

More effective rhyming can be made easily using slant rhymes (words that almost rhyme, like dizzy/easy), rhyming vowel sounds (some/funny), or even by using "sight rhymes" (words that are spelled similarly but pronounced differently, like glove/clover or heard/beard).

But the way that I end my lines is way that.

Besides making rhymes that ding as though a hunchback were ringing a large tower bell, you can ruin your line endings by ending on a less-than-important word.

Here's a famous poem by Theodore Roethke, re-written to screw up the line breaks.

My Papa's Waltz: Bad End Break Edition

The whiskey on your
breath could make a
small boy dizzy; But I hung
on like death: Such waltzing was

not easy. We romped until the
pans slid from the kitchen shelf; my
mother's countenance could
not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist was
battered on one knuckle; At
every step you missed my right
ear scraped a buckle. You

beat time on my head with a
palm caked hard by dirt, then
waltzed me off to
bed still clinging to your shirt.

The only way to make this version of the poem worse would be to pause... at each... line... break when reading it. What's wrong with this? Besides breaking the form of the poem, our new version puts an emphasis on articles, prepositions, and pronouns. The poem is weaker because the line breaks are uncomfortably jagged. The third line is especially insidious in this version, because the phrase "hung on" is broken over the line, causing a strange caesura (pause, break) that wasn't intended. Breaking lines on words like "the" or "a" weaken a line by putting emphasis on unimportant words.

As we saw in the previous article, line and stanza breaks are extremely important in a poem. Hopefully you'll be able to see how much better the poem reads with "proper" line breaks. Here's the version as Roethke wrote it:

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Besides noting that there are three strong stresses in each line (3/4 time is "waltz time" in music - three beats in a measure/line, etc.) and that there's an ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH rhyme scheme, you'll notice that the end words are important words in the poem:

breath
dizzy
death
easy

pans
shelf
countenance
itself

wrist
knuckle
missed
buckle

head
dirt
bed
shirt

This isn't to say that you should save all of your "big words" for the ends of lines, or to invert your syntax so that a natural unit of expression is altered to the point of unintelligibility (splitting infinitives, ending lines with a preposition, etc., are generally to be avoided), but rather that you should be careful not to end a line on a weak word, since so much attention is given to the ends of lines (just because of the physicality of the eye meeting the blank page at the ends of lines - there's a natural tendency to pause there).

Poetry Pro Gratia Poetry

So many poems, especially those written by young poets just discovering the pleasures of writing poetry, are generally what I call "Diary Entries With Line Breaks." (DEWLB)

An immediately recognizable difference between a poem and a "Diary Entry With Line Breaks" is that the syntax of poetry is generally more carefully constructed, and verbs are far more active (more on this next time) and nothing exists in the poem that does not further the voice, images, idioms, or plot. Whining about how your boyfriend left you doesn't (necessarily) make a poem.

But it's my personal expression! How could it not be art?

Personal expression is a part of "Art" like the bleachers are part of a football game. You can have a bench without the game, but then it's just furniture. The same goes for your "self expression." Just because you're expressing yourself does not mean you're making art - you have to do so artfully. This means, at the very least, careful attention to detail. It also means that you'll probably not get it right the first time. You're going to have to... it will probably pain you to even hear the word, but you're going to have to... revise (GASP!).

Always... I mean, Never... No... Always...

As I said, no rule is absolute. These are just guidelines to follow. However, the guidelines come from centuries of experience writing and refining the art of poetry - if you're going to break the rules, you should make damn well sure that you understand them, first.

Tune in next time for a look at the "Internal Censor" - that voice that you can develop to help keep the doggerel from spreading, as well as some simple techniques for making choices while you write - think of it as immediate revision - to save you time and energy later.


Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Plagiarist.com, an online poetry resource for post-pre-post-modernists. In his spare time he enjoys pearl diving.


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