Good Words Are Hard To Find
For some of us, writing poetry was a tedious and frustrating task we had to suffer through during high school English classes. For others, poetry is something that has left us speechless and in awe of the artful way in which language can convey meaning, sentiment and insight.
I'm sure at some point all of us have tried writing a poem, be it an assignment for school, a clump of verse in a journal, or a serious piece posted to a poetry website or submitted for publication. Perhaps your girlfriend or your Mom appreciated the poem, but you might have been wondered Is this actually any good?
Truth be told, like any art, writing good poetry is easier said than done. In fact, some may argue that one is either born a poet or not. Whether or not you believe it, there is hope for the budding young writer struggling to create unique and engaging poetry. Following the tips below will help you develop the technical skills and insight to begin writing artistically effective poetry, whether for a hobby or for publication.
1. Avoid Clichés
This is arguably the most important thing to consider when writing poetry. A cliché is an expression or idea that has become very commonplace such that it begins to lose its original meaning and significance. An example of a cliché might be: "Time heals all wounds" or "I've fallen head over heels for you". Clichés permeate our society and often come up in our everyday speech such that we don't always notice we're using them.
The trouble with clichés is that they are unoriginal. By nature, when you're writing a poem, you should be trying to a capture a fresh, unique perspective that embodies your own personal experience. Relying on a colloquial expression to convey your personal meaning saps it of any significance. For those who read poetry regularly, a cliché is an immediate sign of an inexperienced writer, and often a turn off to the poem itself. At best, they're seen as cheap writing, and at worst can be downright frustrating. Whatever the case, they should be avoided at all costs.
2. Simpler is Better
This one often seems foreign at first to young writers, who might consider epics like The Odyssey as defining pieces of poetry. Is shorter really better? The answer is...most of the time.
What brevity provides is clarity, and clarity is necessary in good writing. What good is that beautiful metaphor you just jotted down if it's four lines long and half the words are difficult to pronounce? Being succint in poetry is a good rule of thumb when starting out, as it demands that you cut the fat. Most lines can be rewritten shorter and more to the point. In fact, try this the next time after you finish writing a poem. Go through it line by line, and see if you can't reword each line to send the same message but in a shorter form. You'll be surprised what you can cut without losing the core message.
Even if the message is good and not overly verbose, unnecessary words can still be cut. Does the line really need the word "That" to be effective? If not, chop it out.
Many might point out the many thousands of works of poetry which are quite bountiful in their language, and I of course must acknowledge that shorter doesn't always mean sweeter. There are many fine works which err on the side verbal diarrhea but still get the job done effectively. Poetry is art after all, and art resists reduction to a set of rules and guidelines. That being said, short, concise poems tend to create clarity, and if your poem has fewer layers to sift through to come at the core message, it becomes that much more enjoyable to the reader.
3. Pick Appropriate Subject Matter
This one comes straight from Rilke, who advises young poets to avoid love poems at all cost and stick to writing about Nature and the things around them (Rilke, 1929). He suggested that poets look to the things available to them and write about those.
This advise might make you uncomfortable. "Don't write love poems!? But those are my jam!" As a writer, I understand the immense therapeutic value writing a poem can have. After every failed relationship, due to every social and emotional conflict, as a result of every devastation, I tend to write a poem. Many people write to find a way to express their most inner feelings and perspective, and there is nothing wrong with writing through moments of turmoil. The difficulty becomes maintaining a sense of clarity, purpose, and unique insight into this turmoil while amidst it. All too often, poems of an intense nature tend to lose their structure, coherence and message and break down into the core thing we are feeling at the time: helpless, frustrated, alone, desperate. This break down does not make for good poetry.
The difficulty in following this tip touches upon what it means to be an artist, and a poet in general. It acknowledges that in order to write good poetry, you must have good inspiration. You must have available to you a situation worth writing about, an insight worth sharing, a device that conveys your message just so. It is easy to spot people who are writing about things they know little about. Their poems tend to lack the depth, insight and creativity that make up good poetry.
Mastering this tip means developing a greater sense of self awareness, a necessary faculty to being a good artist. Ask yourself, what is available to me? What can I see, hear, touch, feel? What do I know, and what can I truly and genuinely speak to in my poetry? Then write about that, and only that.
4. Keep It Concrete
One particularly challenging point for new poets is something challenging for new writers in general: providing concrete detail. Generally considered the purview of prose, concrete elements are none the less essential to effective poetry.
New poets tend to rely on big, abstract concepts to convey their message. Words like Love, Beauty, Anguish, and Loneliness are appealed to in every line. An example:
And my love for you
reflects your beauty
and I anguish at your absence
and the loneliness it brings
Since I wrote that I'm allowed to call it crap. It lacks anything to grip on to; it contains only abstract words whose meaning is so broad that I might as well be staring at a blank wall. There is no story here.
When writing poetry, remember to provide your readers with concrete information. Poems need a clearly defined setting. Your characters need faces and personalities to them. These details personalize the poem. They give its message context. Concrete details are the difference between an unpublished poem sitting at the bottom of a trash can and the masterpieces we reference today.
Try this exercise. The next time you finish a poem, read it again. Ask yourself: Who is involved in the poem? Where are they? What are they doing? How clear of a picture have I given my reader of this? Try inserting more detail and see what comes of it. It will doubtless make the broader meaning of the poem clearer, more interest, accessible and effective.
5. Use Your Devices
This last one should be obvious, but it's easy to forget. Especially for beginning poets, writing with devices can be challenging. Device is the essence of poetry, but it takes a lot of practice to use it effectively. Coming up with rich metaphor, captivating personification, or unique uses of rhythm, structure and sound is no simple task, and often beginning poets tend to be quite literal in their writing.
There are many solutions to this, the most obvious being practice. A fairly simple exercise involves picking household objects and personifying them or playing around with metaphor in everyday contexts (My bed is a ship, which sails me across a sea of dreams). Carrying a notebook around with you everywhere is fairly common practice for writers and provides much needed paper to jot down the odd simile or quirky use of alliteration. Remember you don't have to write poems here, just practice using a device, and the more you do it, the more you'll find it permeating your poems.
Poetry is a humbling practice which again and again challenges the very core of you to come forth in all its rawness and honesty. It is not for the feint of heart, nor the weak of mind, and certainly not for those unwilling to take the time to perfect their practice. The preceding tips give a launching point, a set of guidelines towards helping you perfect your art. There is much, however, in any art that cannot be taught. It is important to remember that truly great poetry involves a degree of inspiration and spontaneity of which we often have no control over. Wait for it, and should it be fortunate enough to arise, follow it fully.
Good luck, and happy writing!