You can't write good poetry unless you read good poetry. (see Reading Poetry)
There are many books about writing poetry, some of them are good, some of them are bad. We recommend some good ones here,
but the best way to learn about writing poetry is to read poetry.
The Muse will appear everyday for you providing you prove you intend to show up too. A musician is expected to practice everyday,
should less be expected of a poet? Try to write each day, even if it's only a fifteen minute exercise. The results may not always be
pretty but you'll see the benefits before too long.
You don't have to work directly on your poems. There are lots of poetry exercises and games you could do.
Write Poetry and Get It Published by John Hartley Williams and Matthew Sweeney contains many good examples of these.
One way way of enagaging with a poem is to write a response poem.
A response poem is written in the same style as an original poem but from a different point of view, for example, from the point of view
of the poet's imagined younger or older self, or from that of a major or minor character mentioned in the original, or from someone
intimately connected, or with only the slightest acquantance with the poet.
There is an historical and honourable tradition of writing response poems. A favourite contemporary example is Brendan Kennelly's
Writing a response poem will enable you to get under the skin of the original poem to better understand its form, techniques and
It will build up your "poetry muscle memory" and you will be better able to call on the understandings and skills you develop when you
need them in the future.
Writing a response poem allows you a springboard leap into the writing of a new poem, it gives you a quick way in to saying something
important, significant or different that directly or indirectly concerns the themes of the original poem.
When you have the urge to write but don't want to rely entirely on your own imagination writing a response poem is a useful exercise.
Identify your best times of day for writing. Manywriters like to write first thing on a morning, before breakfast (though a cup of coffee
might be allowed), before radio or television and before any daily business or other work, including looking at emails, is undertaken.
This is supposed to be a particularly creative time because it's the time nearest to sleeping and dreaming and, you haven't yet had to
deal with all the doings of the day.
'Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting' Robert Frost
Here are some thoughts on the process of writing a poem.
FIRST, HOW DOES A POEM BEGIN?
How A Poem Begins
A poem may begin with a good idea
or with a keen desire to say something,
it may begin with one single resonant phrase or line
or with something you can't quite grasp,
you know it's there, but it's just out of reach,
or it might be an inner image dreaming of the written poem
That's how a poem might begin ...
FINALLY, HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A POEM IS DONE?
A Poem Is Done When
the poem has become what it was always meant to be
the poem is greater than the sum of its parts (form, argument, content, rhythm, cadence, sound, etc)
the choice, timing and placement of every single word and phrase is right
you have done justice to the themes you've called up
when the poem looks seamless
and when its composition looks like it was no bother at all
"Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting" Robert Frost
SOME THOUGHTS ON GETTING FROM START TO FINISH
How Do You Get From Here To There And Back Again?
You have the desire to write something,
you have an idea for a poem,
you have a really good line,
or maybe it's more of a whisper or a wink
You might be thinking:
what is this poem going to be about,
what do I want to say?
What's the poem's argument?
But remember, a poem must be more than just the argument that can be identified within the words of the poem
or it won't really be a poem at all.
The message is not in the poem, the poem is the message.
So you don't interpret a poem, you experience it.
A poem is created when its individual elements - form, sound, argument, content, rhythm, cadence, etc - work in concert together...
the poem itself is greater than the sum of its parts.
What is the experience you want the poem to capture?
What do you want the reader to experience?
What kind of thoughts and feelings do you hope to inspire?
What impact do you want the poem to have?
It might take longer than you think. Resist the urge to rush.
It's tempting to believe that poems can be written quickly, after all, how long can it take to write something that's only a few
lines long? And we've all read good poems that looked simple, like they were no bother to write at all!
But of course, that only shows how much work went into them.
Poetry is different from prose.
Bad poems can be written quickly, good poems usually take a little longer. Exceptions to this are rare.
Doing justice to the themes of your poem, and this includes been honest, can be both emotionally draining and technically difficult.
Ensuring that the choice, timing and placement of every single word and phrase is right, that you've cut away everything
that shouldn't be there can be more difficult than it sounds.
You may have to make correction after correction, set aside draft after draft,
You may find yourself abandoning the very good idea which inspired the poem in the first place;
you may be forced to cut brilliant lines, and more which, fabulous as they are, aren't right or just don't fit.
Poetry can be very cruel sometimes.
It may take three drafts, it may take thirty three drafts. It may take three weeks it may take three months, it may take longer to
complete a poem. In the end you may not finish it. It may be beyond you at this point in time, you may need to leave it for a while.
You may decide that afterall, it's going nowhere, you may abandon it to the drawer.
And it's not just the technical challenges
Because poetry is a more condensed medium than prose or everyday speech, often involving more frequent use of figures of speech
especially metaphor and simile, poetry is, possibly, the quickest way of connecting to the unconscious for both poet and reader.
Thoughts, feelings, creative ideas, sudden insights may seem to appear from out of the blue. You may find it's a very different poem
you end up writing than the one you originally intended.
This is the fantastic thing about poetry and one of its greatest strengths. It has the potential to be a particularly fully human form
of artistic communication.
To realise this potential requires a certain attitude to writing the poetry, one of engaging with the poem rather than
trying to control it.
Don't be too committed to your first ideas of what the poem should be, be prepared to be uncertain for awhile.
If you are fixed in your opinions you're in danger of shutting the door on the unconscious, on your inspiration.
But if you accept that it can be extremely difficult to be completly certain about anything, that often how we interpretate experience
is based on partial understandings, then it makes more sense to try to be increasingly open-minded and unjudgemental.
And you don't close doors.
It's about engaging with the poem rather than trying to control it.
Prepare properly, pay attention, think and feel about your subject, play with it, look, listen, smell, touch and taste it too. Engage with it.
There are ways of using words and language that are more conducive to an open mind: Avoid the obvious, the cliche, the kind of
language that shuts down thinking, feeling, and imagining.
Don't try to say everything, don't produce descriptions packed with detail, less is more, aim for the original,
cultivate a light and skillful touch.
A key-description unlocks the universe
If you take your time, pay the right quality and quantity of attention to your subject, what you're seeking to describe will provide the
key to its own revealing, the right word, image or phrase will come, though it may take time.
Understand the difference between trying to say everything and there's nothing more to be said.
Metaphor is the most important and widespread figure of speech, in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression
normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two... Definition here
It's not always possible to state something openly or directly because of varying kinds of censorship; of the need for privacy;
or because you can't find the language to say what you want, or what you want to say simply cannot be expressed.
A metaphor can form a bridge between what cannot be said with what can be said, between the unconscious and the conscious.
A good metaphor is a thing of joy able to carry with it energy and humour:
I give her all my sugar
she's got such a sweet tooth
as such it has the power to challenge the ways in which we take the world for granted, allowing us to see things fresh,
and to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
By using a metaphor in this way you can express something in a sudden flash of starling wings, which, otherwise, could take up
half a pigeon or more (if a pigeon were a page).
The metaphor can be seen as a way of switching off our everday functional thinking, connecting instead to our more open,
imaginative, empathic and creative forms of thinking and feeling.
A poem should connect with the reader at a primal level, in its music and energy, in the intense dance of its ideas wrapt and rapt in
imagery and metaphor, in the way it moves the reader emotionally and in its thrilling use of language.
And remember, poetry isn't composed only on the page... the sound of the poem is vital – poetry, like music, is made to be heard, to be
read aloud, and the sound of the words is the music of the poem's dance.
Every good poem is a dance between thought and feeling to the sound of the music of words.
A really good poem should
'... trip the reader head foremost into the boundless' Robert Frost
This section comes from reading key poets writing on poetry and also from conversations about the art and craft of writing poetry held
with a good many poets, all of whom would be too many to mention but certain individuals must be acknowledged, of those I've read:
Neil Astley, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Kathleen Jamie and Sean O'Brien have been very important here.
Those whose conversations have been particularly influential here, include: Robyn Bolam, Maura Dooley, Bill Herbert, Brendan Kennelly,
Dennis O'Driscoll and Jean Sprackland. Special thanks go to Rachael Boast who allowed me to read her excellent PhD dissertation,
this and subsequent conversations with Rachael helped pull together and clarify a lot of my own thinking on the issues here discussed.