24 June 2011

How to Write a Poem (Part 2): The Rules of Good Poetry

1.   Tell a story. And for a poem to tell a story, it needs real characters (not abstract ones) with recognizable, specific qualities. This means adding flesh to bare bones (more description, less riddle). It also means it needs a setting, conflict, and some sort of reversal or resolution at the end that changes what was at the beginning. Take Tony Hoagland’s “The Perfect Moment” (73) for example. There are three characters: “Kath”, “I” (the narrator), and the son. The setting—the house, iced tea, the “ragged net hanging from the hoop,” and the wind bending the marsh grass—is solid concrete. And the perfect day described in the start is reversed when you realize the son has cancer.
1a. Include concrete images. And make sure they’re not cliche. This means you should prefer “stage-four lymphoma” to being “sick in bed”.
1b. Have a reveal at the end. The last stanza, couplet, or sometimes last word, should pack a lot of punch, probably the strongest punch of the poem. So use it wisely. And, if need be, cut your poem short. You don’t want things to get boring after the punchline. You’ll see this done well in all sorts of published poetry. I’ll use James Wright’s “What Does the King of the Jungle Truly Do?”. The majority of the short poem describes a family of lions in the Serengeti plains using specific imagery. It concludes with this solitary fragment: “Small wonder Jesus wept at a human city.” The isolation of the line and its position at the end both give it more punch.
1c. Sometimes you can set up an expectation with the title, and then do the opposite in the body (like Charles Simic’s “Our Salvation,” the title of which makes you expect a religious, hopeful poem, while the body turns out to be the exact opposite).
2.   Your poetry should be you—your voice—not someone or something else. It’s a natural tendency to want to write like some famous writer—it’s great to learn from the greats. But it can lead to being superficial or false. So don’t leave your real self out. Also, trying to be a great poet can get in the way of writing in a genuine way (see rule 4). So be genuine first and great second. You could look at any of Elaine Equi’s poems as an example: They feel like she’s a real person just talking to you. Here’s a stanza from “The Return of the Sensuous Reader” as an example: “Unless you are especially comfortable / with your body, reading in the nude is likely / to be more of a distraction than an enhancement.”
3.   Make sure to include tongue candy. Of course, you shouldn’t put cleverness over heart (genuineness). But don’t forget cleverness either. Tongue candy can mean the right word, the right repetition, or a witty juxtaposition. Here’s a small example from Vievee Francis’s “Smoke under the Bale”: “How can you know me? Tin and bridle, / neigh and crocker sack. My gandy-song— / the blue-buzz of flies. / Sugar from your palm?” The words are like candy, only better—so sweet on the tongue.
3a. Pros Enjamb. In case you don’t know, enjambment is when sentences (and phrases) don’t match line-breaks. For example, Poe in his “Eldorado” (simple, but one of my favorites) breaks this line after the second-to-last word, rather than the last: “And o’er his heart a Shadow / fell” (later he end-rhymes “shadow” with “Eldorado”). Using enjambment can add flavor to a line by highlighting (or sometimes hiding) a word or phrase. Use it wisely. But use it.
4.   Don’t take yourself too seriously. (Ah, yes.) This one may be the most important. Again Elaine Equi is a master of this. Her poems are fun, engaging, and personal. This playful way of being personal comes through in her “Word and Sentence”, which defines terms and then uses them in an unexpected way: “flense: v. To strip the blubber or skin from (a whale, for example). / Serial killer, Ed Gein, once said he could outflense Melville in a second.” You can tell when you read her poems that she thinks more about the audience and the subject than she does about herself. She’s not showing off as a poet or academic. Put simply, a poet needs to be humble.
4a. Implicate yourself too. Some poems take on social or political issues in a judgemental sort of way. That’s a good thing—nothing wrong with trying to change the world. But if you’re going to be judgemental, make sure you have the humility to implicate yourself too. After all, poets are anything but perfect. Tony Hoagland, in his “Hard Rain”, talks about how America commercializes horrible things into good things. And he concludes with, “I used to think I was not part of this, / that I could mind my own business and get along, / but that was just another song / that had been taught to me since birth— / whose words I was humming under my breath / as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.”

I’m sure there are exceptions to each of these rules. And while I think it’s okay to think of them as guidelines, I do think they’re each important principles that help make poetry more accessible and reader-friendly. And as such, I’m going to continue to implement them as best I can from here on out, so that hopefully my readers (you) and I will communicate more exactly and gain some of that genuine, elusive empathy.

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— J