A Starting Point for Serious Poets:
Discovering What You Value in the Art of Poetry
The key to writing good poetry lies in two stages. First, you must acquaint yourself with the best American and English poets of all time and study their work. Second, you must pinpoint the source(s) of inspiration from which you draw ideas, thoughts, feelings, and emotion and find ways outside everyday speech to express them. Simply put, your own verse should synthesize what you have learned and drawn from your studies and what you want to write about.
In regard to poetry, always keep in mind these three things:
There is no greater way to learn than to learn through example.
There are no greater examples than the poems written by famous, accomplished poets.
There are no greater teachers than the poets themselves.
Famous prima ballerina Polina Semionova didn’t simply walk into a ballet company one day to be immediately cast as the lead role in The Nutcracker. Years and years of practice, conditioning, and studying under the best dance instructors in the world are what planted her in her most famous roles to date. On a much smaller scale, a poet doesn’t sit down and write the next top selection to be included in the annual The Best American Poetry without dedicating themselves to some proper schooling. Therefore, this introductory workshop first and foremost is going to focus on the importance of reading poetry and helpful methods to follow in order to effectively learn the craft.
Oftentimes beginning poets are turned off prematurely by the work of famous, influential poets, and that is because they start off with the wrong approach, becoming frustrated and discouraged when the poem fails to make sense after just one reading. Initial confusion and puzzlement, however, is a common sign of a well-written effectively-executed poem. Remember, reading a poem is very different than reading a novel or magazine article. In most cases, works of prose are all-revealing, literal, accessible, and only require a one-time read to be mostly understood. A good poem on the other hand does not reveal everything at once and most times requires several readings. The content is meant to be subtle and hinting, and therefore should be read slowly, carefully, and attentively. Even after the second, third, or even tenth reading of a poem, a reader may still find it yielding.
Three Steps to Attaining the Most from a Poem
In all fairness to both yourself and the poet, you must approach a poem with the intention of giving it more than just one chance. In making a genuine effort, plan on at least two readings. Think of how it might be when meeting someone for the first time—a simple handshake in introducing yourselves, exchanging names, getting an initial feel for their personality and simply an overall first impression. At this point, you’re not trying to learn their entire life story. Similarly, the first time through a poem, keep your expectations to a minimum and allow your mind to absorb the poem, not try to process it. Don’t be intimidated by difficult words or phrases and don’t try to identify important ideas or hidden meanings. Simply gather what you can from the surface.
When you meet this person for the second time, the exchange is much more comfortable as you get a true feel for what this person is about. You’re still far from becoming vacation buddies but the initial awkwardness for the most part has vanquished. Conversation might dip into more personal topics as you compare and contrast your lifestyles. The second reading of a poem should be carried out similarly. Try to make sense of each word and line. Words and allusions you’re not sure of or familiar with, look them up. Consider potential meanings and attempt to identify a theme. What sort of tone does the verse carry? Where do you feel there is more emphasis? Sometimes these questions can be answered more easily by reading the poem aloud. Renown author, editor, and critic X. J. Kennedy acknowledges, “Even if you are no actor, to decide how to speak a poem can be an excellent method of getting to understand it. Some poems, like bells, seem heavy till heard.” Who knows what sort of meaning you might be able to unleash simply by freeing the verse from its page. Also keep in mind that just because you may not decipher every important idea in a poem, doesn’t mean you have not been successful. If you read ten poems and can learn at least five things from each then that is an accomplishment. What you might not learn or comprehend from one poem, you might easily learn in another. Also, the reading and study of a poem doesn’t always have to be a cerebral task, and oftentimes a reader gets just as much out of a poem from simply recognizing an elemental intention and purpose than from actually solving the riddle itself.
If a poem holds an interest for you and you want to go the extra mile, turn your thoughts into paraphrase. In other words, put into your own words what you understand the poem to say as you work through it line by line. Some of your interpretations will be accurate and some will not, and that is okay. Some certainty, even if you’re a little off base, is better than no certainty at all. This is the wonderful thing about poetry. Its subtleness and ambiguity allow for the reader to bring their own personal associations to a poem. Therefore, never let the fear of being wrong interfere with any attempt at paraphrasing.
In addition to paraphrasing, try to determine the tenor (what is meant) behind every figure of speech. Additionally, identify poetic elements and techniques employed by the poet and consider the purpose and meaning behind the poet’s decisions to use them. Note style, line length, rhyme patterns, diction, etc. Do short staccato lines contribute to the overall theme of the poem? What might the poet convey through long lines dense with details? Such decisions are never accidental or without meaning.
With every poem you read and study, make note, even if just in your head, of what you like about it. Consider forms. Do you prefer traditional stanzaic forms of rhythm and rhyme or modern free-flowing verse unconstrained by meter?
Finding Your Voice
As you acquaint yourself with and learn from famous works, you will notice how each poet has their own unique voice. To be a successful, effective poet, you must find your poetic voice, and this is more easily done when exploring subjects by which you are moved. All arts are passion-driven and poetry is no exception. So what is it for which you have passion? What things are you passionate about? Consider the tangible as well as the intangible. It is ultimately your themes and subject matter that will define your poetic shtick. Notable poets adhere to certain styles and forms because they are conducive to the message they seek to convey. So what do you want your message to be? Of what do you want to tell and how do you want to tell it?
Once you are able to define what poetry is to you and you have read enough poetry to know which styles and forms you prefer, then you can start working to develop your own unique style. A true student of poetry not only loves to write it but loves to read it as well. Reading and studying the poetic works of famous, notable poets is how a writer acquaints himself with all the different styles and forms that have developed both historically and in our modern time. By familiarizing yourself with the work of various artists, you will become consciously aware of what types of poetry appeal to you. As you begin to value certain efforts, you will begin to formulate your own poetic goals.
One thing that is very important for amateur poets to remember is that even though they share the same language, poetry and prose are essentially opposites. A common misconception is that with poetry, anything goes and that one can write however they want to about whatever pops into their head and, so long as it is broken into lines, it may deemed a poem. Wrong—this falls more along the lines of journaling. Good poetry cannot be composed quite so effortlessly, as there are poetic elements and techniques of which one must be conscious. While theme and subject matter are important, how you write is what is most important. How a poem is written answers several questions in regard to form, style, technique, persona, language, etc. Ultimately, what you value in the art of poetry in most cases will determine how you choose to write and what individual habits you will form.