A Quick Guide to Useful Books for the Active Poet

Having read several books recently on the writing of poetry, I thought it would be good to provide a quick guide on some of those I found the most useful.

A Poetry Handbook (by Mary Oliver) – This is a great overview of poetry writing. I rarely reread books, but I’ve reread portions of this one.

The Ode Less Travelled (by Stephen Fry) – The best book I’ve read on forms. It’s so well-written. Fry, of course, is a professional actor, but as he refers to himself, an amateur poet. Doesn’t matter. His writing is spot-on and highly practical.

Nine Gates (by Jane Hirshfield)  – How to describe this book? These nine essays cover a lot of ground in the poetry craft, but what Hirshfield does best is to deal with some of the more mystical questions in poetry.

The Sounds of Poetry (by Robert Pinsky) – What it sounds like. Really helps you understand how sound goes to work in a poem. Mary Oliver’s book touches on this too.

The Art of Syntax (by Elllen Bryant Voigt) – This deals specifically with the tension between a poem’s syntax and its form. An illuminating perspective that I don’t think all poets consider in their writing.

The Practicing Poet (by Diane Lockward) – To describe this book as a series of prompts with examples and discussion doesn’t seem to do it justice. I worked through the entire book over the course of a year and found it very fruitful for my own writing. My published poem “Coiled Drum Bides in Stillness” (Interpreter’s House, 2020) emerged from one of these prompts.

At Home in the Dark (by David Elliott) – Elliott interviews 10 prominent poets. A terrific read on the topics dear to poets. I want to find more books like this.

52 Ways of Look at a Poem (by Ruth Padel) – The introduction to this book is a top-notch and insightful summation of modern poetry. The book then takes you through 52 poems and dissects them. This is a really good book for understanding how successful poems work.


How Quiet Drives Good Poetry

Last night, after I thought everyone had gone to bed, I was working on editing a poem’s title, which I knew was simply not right. It was too simplistic, explicit and redundant with the poem’s text. I had jotted down a few ideas and was in the middle of this process when my son walked in and started talking about a tennis racket he was researching. And you guessed it, whatever breakthrough I was about to make on that title was gone.

Writing poetry begs for a deep quiet. This is a quiet that pertains to the mind more than the sounds around us, although silences help. Poetry is deep observation and contemplation and rumination, and letting disparate ideas blunder about the quiet spaces to see how they interact.

William Stafford in an interview with David Elliott in his book of conversations, At Home in the Dark, said, “…for me the experience of finding the way in writing is one of sensitivity, listening, glimpsing, going forward by means of little signals, and those little signals are available in conditions of quiet, lack of turbulence, and conditions that are non-confrontational….I think that one finds one’s way of with a sensibility that requires an attitude other than loudness or aggression.”

Stafford’s extension of this idea to being the antithesis of loudness and aggression certainly resonated with me. Poetry, in the way Stafford means and in the way I most appreciate it, is the opposite of this brash, angry grandstanding of cultish politics.

There is a certain level of sorcery to poetry writing that goes beyond thoughtfulness. There is this idea of being quietly open and receptive to what the world and the words want to say.

Robert Pinsky "The Sounds of Poetry"

A Poetic Exercise in Accentual Verse

I was reading Robert Pinsky’s terrific book The Sounds of Poetry, and I came cross James Wright’s wonderful poem “The First Days.” While Pinksy was concerned in this passage with other matters (predominantly how free verse flirts with iambic pentameter), I became interested in using the poem as an example of accentual verse.

First, I will present an excerpt of this poem to you without comment.

The first thing I saw in the morning

Was a huge golden bee ploughing

His burly right shoulder into the belly

Of a sleek yellow pear

Low on a bough.

Before he could find that sudden black honey

That squirms around in there

Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.

The pear fell to the ground,

With the bee still half alive

inside its body.

If we are listening closely, I think one of the things we notice right away are the few dense clusters of closely knit accents, such as “huge golden bee ploughing,” “burly right shoulder” or “sleek yellow pear.” These clusters really serve to slow down the pace of the poem, while providing some aural punch.

In the following version, I’ve bolded each syllable I feel is accented in regular speech. Note, I haven’t accented every syllable you would in the sing-song patter of iambic verse. I believe this is the way in which the natural voice would really scan these lines. I’ve also written the number of accents I’ve noted at the beginning of each line.

3 The first thing I saw in the morning

4 Was a huge golden bee ploughing

5 His burly right shoulder into the belly

3 Of a sleek yellow pear

2 Low on a bough.

5 Before he could find that sudden black honey

3 That squirms around in there

5 Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.

3 The pear fell to the ground,

4 With the bee still half alive

2 inside its body.

You can see that the lines pulse between the long and short number of accents. And hopefully, you can also detect how the poem speeds up and slows down as the accents are more or less densely packed. “Was a huge golden bee ploughing” has a very different pace and feel than “Before he could find that sudden black honey.” The accent I’ve put on “to” in the third line is arguable, but that’s how I hear it. You’ll also notice how I have not accented certain words that might be normally accented in an accentual-syllabic reading, such as “first” in the first line or “could” in the sixth line. But to me, that’s the power of free verse; natural language and the context of the words most inform their stress.

Accentual Verse in Poetry

The Natural Rhythm of Accentual Meter

I have become a real fan of accentual meter and use it in many of my poems. Some have it called it an “easier” form than accentual-syllabic verse, but for me, there’s more to it than that. I find that the rhythm of an English poem depends almost entirely on the accented syllables. Accentual verse approximates natural language more than accentual-syllabic but still provides a musical pacing better than much free verse.

Accentual verse has its roots in the pre-Christian Teutonic tribes of Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland and Britain. This style of verse had a few basic rules. First, you only count the stressed syllables (never unstressed). You write four stresses per line and break that in half with a single caesura. This form also employed heavy use of alliteration of the stressed syllables, further reinforcing its musical quality.

I rarely use the alliteration in this way. And I will choose the number of stresses per line based on the needs of the poem (although using that choice consistently throughout). I frequently will use a pattern of accents per line, such as 3-2-3-2 (which of course is similar in its way to the ballad’s 4-3-4-3).

On the End Table: The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

All poetry students have been taught how meter, through the pacing of accented syllables and syllabic count, can control the rhythm and music of a poem. But Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her compact yet insightful book The Art of Syntax, shows us how the structure of the sentence can be used to pace the music of the words and the thought, much in the same way of musical phrasing, with which she draws an elegant analogy.

Perhaps, it’s easy to overlook the work that syntax is doing when verse offers us the traditional structure of, say, a sonnet. But when line lengths vary widely, Voigt tells us, “pattern must derive from syntax.” Throughout the book, Voigt gives several example poems, showing us how in each one, syntax is in a careful balance with stanza line and meter, in a musical dance that reveals pattern, crafts dramatic action and tension, and develops and discovers ideas.

It’s a beautiful book worth the read by anyone interested in deepening the texture in their poems.

Constrict to Expand: Tips for Young Poetry Writers

When writing poetry, ultimately we are strive to provide something of value, something of interest, something that causes the mind to work in new ways and open up the world (whether the internal one or its external counterpart). I’ve increasingly found that setting parameters on your prosody can bring about that new angle, that happy accident, that magic. So writers of poems, I encourage you to discover new ways to shape and constrict your poems.

I think the best thing first is to just get down the first draft, knowing that this is not where you will end up. It’s quite easy to self-censor yourself in the beginning so that you often cut off the ideas that have been percolating in your subconscious before they have a chance to form. But after the first draft, it’s time to dive in and mine what’s valuable. At this stage, I like to be rather vicious with my culling. Young writers can often treat everything they write as a sort of sacred cow. It’s here that you should not only be carving away but often adding anew. It can and often should be a messy process.

After we start to see the real flesh of the poem emerge though, consider giving yourself some kind of restriction. See where it leads you. Of course, more traditional ways of doing this are meter and rhyme. The meter you impose should follow the needs of the poem, whether that be syllabic , syllabic-accentual or merely accentual. You could experiment with any of a myriad of traditional forms. Sonnets and haikus seem to be the old standbys. But there’s a whole world of forms to experiment with – from rondeau to sestina, from ghazal to the skinny.

But the restrictions you try need not be so orthodox. Perhaps, you want to place your poem in the voice of a narrator who is somehow distinctly different from you, the author. Perhaps you want to create a particular aural effect by finding words with certain qualities that emphasize your meaning. Or you might experiment with a more visual effect by playing with your line breaks and seeking out meaningful and surprising enjambment or pacing. These are just a few examples. I’m certain that you will discover many more – hopefully some that are particular to you and the poems that only you were meant to write.

Three Writing Prompts

Writing Prompts for Idle Fiction Writers, Part 2

I had so much fun writing that first group of writing prompts, I had to do it again. If you end up using one, let me know how it goes.

  1. Rejecting Community: A young woman tires of civilization and retires to a remote house in the woods. Her only contact with the outside world are the sparse email communication she has with her company, for which she conducts research. She begins to find herself, as she struggles with and contemplates her solitude. But all that is about to be interrupted by an old friend who tries to find her. Do the two have bad blood between them? What is their connection?
  2. Zoom Call Love Affair: Married co-workers fall in love over a series of video conference calls for work. They develop a secret sign language they use to communicate during each call. But what happens when a co-worker figures it out and tries to blackmail them?
  3. Honeymoon Amidst the Ruins: While on their honeymoon in Chile, a young couple on a hike discovers some old ruins. But when they explore, they realize the ruins are less than a century old. Why would someone recreate antiquity in the jungle?
Three Writing Prompts

Writing Prompts for Idle Writers

If you’re stuck at home during this crisis with nothing to do but to contemplate the yawning void that lurks beyond the known universe, here are three writing prompts that might inspire you to put ink to page.

  1. When a woman loses the family farm to unmanageable debt, the new owner offers her a chance to win it back. What form does that offer take and is it worth it?
  2. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, three brothers compete for the attention of the town’s richest bachelorette. But unbeknownst to each other, only one of them truly cares for her. Who do the other two truly love? And how is the first brother thwarted?
  3. Her husband is dying. But before he dies, he asks her to perform a terrible act of vengeance for a wrong done to him twenty years before. The target of this vengeance has returned to town to visit the husband, not realizing that he harbors such bitterness against him.

On John Lee Clark’s Essay “Tactile Art”

In the October 2019 issue of Poetry Magazine, essayist John Lee Clark rights about the nature of tactile art from the blind perspective. It was an illuminating piece that had me thinking long after I’d put down the journal. Essentially, he writes about what’s important in a tactile art piece to a blind person and what elements are unnecessary (but often included because our culture thinks as sighted beings). For example, he talks about the importance of heft. Imagine a plastic toy tank. For sighted persons, the visual experience is enough to convey the ominous, dangerous menace a tank represents. But for a blind person, the weight of that light plastic toy is more important and conveys none of the same menace. If you get a chance to read Clark’s poignant essay, I recommend it.

Writing and Community

For years, I’ve done all of my creative writing in isolation. None of my close friends have been writers. I’ve rarely bounced ideas off of other creative writers. I’ve certainly never collaborated with anyone. On a few occasions, I’ve found myself in a fiction writing critique group, but these have never lasted for some reason (and I haven’t always got the benefit out of them that I had expected to get). It has been like working in a vacuum.

But this year, I have made more of an effort to attend a poetry workshop group in the area. The poets in this group range in expertise, and there are certainly some good minds that challenge me and my writing. But I’ve also begun to reap the benefit of just being around fellow writers who are living many of the same challenges, struggles and joys as I do.

I’ve gained insight into the kinds of journals these poets are getting published in, how they are getting their books published, and which conferences they go to and the benefits they reap from those experiences. Although many of these elements seem small, they add up to a lot, in my estimation.

Whatever your passion might be, I’ve come to realize that being around others with your same passion is a healthy, important and possibly even a vital experience if you can get it.