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How Hard Could It Be?

by Jough Dempsey
24 March 2002

In my last article, we briefly took a look at what makes something a poem, and examined some of the techniques that poets use to craft their art. In this installment, we're going to take a cursory look at the process of writing a poem. Hopefully, you've done your homework and have read some poetry first. As I said last time (and will henceforth repeat, broken-record-like), the most important thing for any student of poetry is to read as many poems as possible, carefully and methodically. A future article will deal with how to give a "close reading" of a poem.

Now that you're (somewhat) familiar with what poetry is, and have read some poetry, you may be thinking to yourself, "Myself, how hard could this be?" Surely, if you're familiar with how a poem works and have a decent understanding of what techniques poets' use to craft their poems, the next logical step would be to write one yourself...

I'm going to be the best poet EVER...

Slow down there, slick. I don't know where the misconception began that anyone could (or should) write poetry without practice or sufficient training. I don't see this arrogance sprout up in regard to other arts. People don't automatically assume that they can sculpt busts from a block of marble, or paint a photo-realistic painting the first time they pick up a brush. Very few people can pick up a musical instrument and immediately begin to play it proficiently, nor would they expect to. But for some reason, perhaps because we use words for communication, people think that writing (poetry, plays, fiction, etc.) should somehow come easily to them, without having to work at it. It's a danger all beginners (and many seasoned poets) fall prey to at one time or another, and something to keep in mind when you begin to write.

Are you trying to discourage me?

Not at all. I'm simply pointing out that your results may not be very artful, at least in the beginning. Another pitfall of neophyte poets is the assumption that everything they write is the most brilliant piece of poetry ever created. Again, I don't see this arrogance (as much) in other art forms - but there seems to be a direct link between the ego and poetry.

Since I'm warning you of potential pitfalls, another I should mention immediately is that you probably shouldn't expect to have your work published right away. I know that blindly sending out poems to a literary journal is attractive, and it is nice to be published, recognized, have people actually read your work, etcetera, but trying to publish your work before it is ready (or before you are really ready) can be discouraging, to say the least. I'll write about publishing in a future article, but suffice it to say for now that poetry editors aren't known for their kindness. Form letter rejections are the norm, and it's easy to develop a thick patina of bitterness. You have been warned.

I've been warned. Now what?

Now it's time to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, or whatever it is that you're going to use to write to whatever it is you're going to write on. I started out keeping all of my poems, revisions, notes, and doodles in one of those simulated marble black- and-white composition books. It was useful to keep everything in one place and a semi-hardcover notebook is very portable and durable. If you're emotionally scarred from your elementary school years, any sort of notebook will do - most bookstores sell fancy books meant for diary-writing and such. Personally, I've found that I now prefer to compose right on the computer. I can type a lot faster than I can write things out by hand, and the keyboard makes moving around text, changing lines, revising on the spot, and even saving different versions of a poem, much easier. One advantage for me about composing on the computer is that the words don't seem as final on the screen as they seem to be when you write by hand. It's easier sometimes to just delete the text or change something onscreen.

Some poets will tell you that you should only use a certain type of pen, on hand-made paper, or whatever other ritual works best for them. I assure you, it really doesn't matter how you go about your writing, as long as you're comfortable with it. My advice would be to not settle on a single way of doing things until you've tried some alternatives. Try to keep your options open.

You'll need to block out some uninterrupted time to write. I can't stress this enough. There's nothing worse than being in the middle of writing a poem and having the phone ring, or having to stop what you're doing to leave for work, or pick up the kids, you get the idea. Some interruptions can't be helped, and of course not finishing a poem isn't the end of the world. But it's important to make an attempt, at least, to find some time to write. It may only be twenty minutes every three days. Some poets argue that you should keep a writing schedule and stick firmly to it. Such discipline and regimentation can't really hurt, but shouldn't be necessary. The important thing is just to find some time to write and to actually write during that time. That's why it's also important to choose a place to write that's somewhat free from distractions. This isn't always easy, or possible. Again, the "whatever works best for you" rule applies here - do what you must. Everything will be fine. Now that you've found a method and place to write, we can finally get down to business.

What should I write about?

Probably the hardest part of writing a poem is simply getting started. Usually after beginning you can build up a little momentum and actually finish a first draft - or at least a partial draft. But what are you going to write about? Poets have written on all sorts of topics. No single topic is more "poetic" than any other, although some themes and topics will be more common than others. I'm sure there must be a good poem about cellular toxicology and myocardial infarctions, but it's likely that more poets will choose to write about being broken-hearted. When some people think of poetry (not you, I mean those other people) they often think of love poetry, written with very "high diction" (using highfalutin' poet words like "thou" and "thine").

What's wrong with love poetry?

Nothing's wrong with love poetry - some of the best poems ever written have been love poems. But it's difficult to write a good one, and it's easy to fall into the pitfalls of cliché, hackneyed phrases and over-used metaphors.

Don't strive to be original, because the far end of that extreme is the "Avant-Garde" - the land of writing that is often strange for strangeness's sake, which seems a lazy way to write. It's pretty easy to write something in a way that's never been written about before if you don't care about the outcome. If you string a few hundred random words together you'll likely be completely original, but your output will very unlikely be anything resembling poetry.

They say you should "Write what you know."

Writing about something that you know very well and are familiar with is an excellent place to start. Use your memory and experience to guide your poem. At first, you may not be able to "transcend" an experience - it may be difficult to turn something that happened to you into art. With practice, you'll eventually be able to find an experience, a change or movement inside an experience that will lend itself to poetry.

You need an occasion to write - something that starts a poem, that causes it to be written. Read any poem in the archive and ask yourself "What is the reason that the author chose to write this poem? What action or transformation is happening in the speaker (the "voice" of the poem, an imaginary narrator of sorts) that made this poem necessary?" If you start from an action - something happening, the words that you choose to describe it will colour the event in some way. So write what you know, write what you don't know, but don't try to force a poem's direction towards your preconceived agenda (if you can help it) - if you meant to write about falling off of a swing-set and skinning your knee as a child, but instead find that you've somehow segued into the memory of your first car, go with that. The "heart" of the poem will reveal itself to you if you persist at it. If it doesn't, well, I hear painting-by-numbers is very relaxing...

I can't tell you what to write about. No one can. I would say that what you write about is far less important as how you write about it. A good poet will be able to write skillfully about almost any topic - a bad one will take the great themes of art and manhandle them into a type of "literary road kill." At this point, if you're just starting out, it's probably too early to tell whether you're a "good" poet or not. Don't let your early work discourage you (or overly encourage you if you fall into the trap of being very pleased with yourself and your writing).

But what if I just wasn't meant to be a poet?

Not everyone is - if you're writing, and not getting anything out of it, there's really nothing wrong with stopping. If you're frustrated, but have a burning drive to write, you should probably not stop. Writing poetry is very very difficult. It's also very satisfying and rewarding. Don't let your misconceptions about it fool you. There are a lot of things to keep in mind as you write a poem (as we'll see in the next three articles), and you'll have your fair share of failure and success along the way.

Don't worry about the quality of your writing when you begin - you can always make it better later. Nothing is carved in stone (unless the method of writing you decided works best for you is chiseling stone, of course), so it doesn't have to be perfect the first try. It almost never will be, so trying to get it all right in one fell swoop is probably self-defeating. Remember, when someone reads one of your poems they won't know how many drafts it went through to get to its current state. You won't win any prizes for writing a perfect first draft.

This is starting to sound like a pep-talk. Just remember: read a lot, write a lot, and with practice, perseverance, and a lot of revision, your writing will get better, and you'll probably enjoy writing more and more as you begin to improve.

So that's it?

That's it for this installment. In the next few articles, we'll take a look at the things that a poet has to keep in mind while writing a poem, questions to ask yourself, and finally, some practical tips. Until then, start writing, and if you'd like help or have questions, write me and I'll be happy to help if I'm able.

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Plagiarist.com, an online poetry resource for the nattering nabobs of negativity. In his spare time he enjoys coffee and baked goods.

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