In an interview with New York Quarterly years ago, W. P. Snodgrass said, “I think that for a poem you’ve got to have one of three things: either a new idea, which is awfully unlikely, or a new set of details or a new style.” I like what he’s trying to say about the goals of good poetry. A poem can do many things, but offering a new perspective is certainly one of the most critical. In fact, I think I would add “offer a new way of looking at something” to that list, although it overlaps quite a bit with what he’s already said.
A poet friend recently asked me why I do not use capital letters or punctuation in my poetry. While I have different reasons for both choices, there are two overarching philosophies that answer to both. Balance and ambiguity.
First, I’ll address the idea of balance, and by balance, I mean giving every word, every line an equal opportunity to affect the experience and meaning of the poem. When we emphasize certain words by capitalization we overshadow the agency of other words. And when we cut up our lines with punctuation, we cut off avenues of meaning.
That brings me to the idea of ambiguity in poetry. While I write with purpose, I also believe it is critical for the poet to open themselves up to the subconscious, to be wholly open to receiving new direction, images and ideas. One of the things poetry does better than any other art form is to connect ideas usually not connected. We open ourselves up to possibility. By letting a poem breathe and flow with little to no punctuation, and without capitalization, we increase the chances that those connections will occur.
I assure you, I still believe in pauses. Just as we pause in our natural speech, which is often controlled by the breath, or “breath-stops” as Alan Ginsberg called them, the rhythm that poetry craves demands we pause. For me, this is most often the end of a line. Every so often, I will add a simple punctuation mark in the middle of a line if I feel that meaning will dissolve without it. But generally, I try to avoid this. I also find that we can have pauses in the middle of a line simply because of the natural flow of speech, without need for a signifying punctuation mark.
A common poetic practice, a traditional one, is to capitalize the first letter of a line. I see no absolutely no reason for this, and in fact, find it quite distracting. Why would that word have more emphasis than another? And it most certainly fights against enjambment. Should those two words be together? The capital in between them argues, “Certainly not!”
Writing poetry is not like writing prose, of course. And part of that difference, I think, is trying to find ways to weave multiple meanings through the work that could not exist as easily with the blockages that capital letters and punctuation set up.
A poem is a breathing creature which can create meaning from the subconscious of both its author and its reader. A poem reaches its fullest potential in that moment when the experiences and perspectives of its author meet those of the reader. It’s best to not get in the way of the poem’s need to connect itself in surprising ways.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.