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Thread: Writing good poetry: Collected tips

  1. #1
    windmills of your mind Think's Avatar
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    Wink Writing good poetry: Collected tips

    I have no particular credentials for writing this. I hope it’s helpful; you can be the judge of that.
    I begin this post with an anecdote. Kurt Vonnegut once gave eight rules to writing good fiction. I read them with a sour look on my face: I could see the general truth of each one, but they seemed to me to be narrowly prescriptive and to have far too limited a view of what constituted good fiction. My mood greatly improved and my esteem for the man was vindicated by his final comment: “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.” The same proviso applies here, with bells on.

    So, let’s say that I have just suffered a bad breakup. I feel pretty horrid, and I feel that poetry would be an appropriate outlet. Good. It is not always necessary to feel a strong emotion to write good poetry, but it would certainly be silly to say that it didn’t help. More importantly, if you’re reading this thread, then you’re probably just discovering an interest in writing poetry, and the reason for this is more likely than not to be that you’re being exposed to some pretty powerful emotions at the moment. Good. Great.
    Poetry can be a fantastic way to understand, ease and refine them, and can give them a utility beyond the immediate circumstances in which you find yourself, in giving you fodder for an art form, and in calming, touching and stimulating others on a variety of levels. The most important thing at this stage, then, is to make sure that those emotions help and do not hinder you. Remember, this is the point at which the majority of attempts at writing poetry fall down. Why? Clichés. Read on.

    2)no clichés
    I’m going to be making a psychological assumption here. It is one that is key to my argument, and which I cannot absolutely prove (though I could provide some evidence, being a psychologist), but nonetheless, it is one which I hope you will be able to relate to in your personal experience. This is that feeling something doesn’t constitute a complete act of emotion.
    What I mean is that the complete experience of emotion doesn’t consist purely in having a feeling, but in putting it into a meaningful, thinkable form, whether that is done in order to understand what is going on inside you, to consider your options practically, or to communicate how you feel to someone else.
    That sinking feeling in your stomach when you see her kissing another guy becomes “She invited me to come out tonight. If she was going to do this, why would she do that?!” the point is – the thought makes sense of the feeling, and the thought has a lot to do with the feeling, but I don’t think that the feeling and the thought are exactly the same thing. Now, in turn, that thought may well influence the feeling, and then the feeling the thought again, and you get a little thought/feeling dance until you calm down or reach an internal resolution.
    Why is this important? It’s important because the thoughts and feelings may have come from different places. That original feeling you had when you saw her kiss that guy was something you share with the vast majority of humankind, which is primary and fundamental; this is something which all good, emotive poetry touches on and plays upon. But the thoughts that accompany that feeling come from a literary, philosophical or conversational context which is influenced by the culture in which you live, and which is from the start or often becomes purely superficial. These thoughts help you communicate and reason with your peers, but they are more often than not the enemy of good poetry.
    This is because they don’t communicate the original feeling so much as they communicate the justifications, explanations or evaluations which followed. If you like, they have become statements with a primarily social utility.
    The aim of these thoughts is to relate your emotions in a way that is familiar to your peers, so that they know where you are in your “headspace”; in contrast, the aim of good poetry is to relate your emotions in a way that is novel to your peers, so that they are forced to think about where you are in your heart – and, by implication, where they are.
    Because this is what poetry does, your early attempts at poetry will gravitate towards analogies and images that you have heard before and that moved you. But the point is that because they were done before, they no longer do that. They serve the functions of thought now, not feeling. They are cultural commonplaces, and that is exactly why you gravitate towards them when you try to communicate.
    Remember, when you want to compare love to a battle, or breaking up with suicide, and you have a feeling or are told that these are bad ways to “do poetry”, it is not because they are bad analogies. The point is that they are stunningly good analogies. That is why they have been used before, and tend not to do the job that they originally did. Remember as well, that it’s not the analogies themselves that are stale. What is stale is what they tend to communicate about how love feels. If you can handle the “love as battle” metaphor in a fresh way, that’s ok. “Love as battle” is intrinsically a better metaphor than “love as screwing in a lightbulb”; the problem is that what “love as battle” tells us that is fresh will most likely be less than “love as screwing in a lightbulb”. It’s a tradeoff between “good analogy” and “new things to say”.

    So now you’ve learned to avoid talking earnestly about your feelings using stale analogies. There are three ways you can proceed: use the stale analogy in a fresh way (Fantastic), use a new analogy (brilliant), or use a stale analogy ironically.
    What I will say is that you ought to be cautious about the third option. A lot of postmodern art consists of using stale ways of talking whilst having your tongue firmly planted in your cheek. This can be very clever and rewarding, but it can also be artistically hollow. Remember, it’s very easy to mock yourself or others for feeling something and be very clever about it. You can take stale ways of talking about a feeling, string them together and laugh bitterly in the dark about them. But this is a very cheap and unsympathetic way to use poetry. It’s far harder to find a novel way to be earnest and sympathetic. If you’re using irony constructively to undermine an unhelpful or cynical way of thinking about something, or to shock your audience into feeling an emotion afresh, fine; but using irony to feel above people invariably puts you below them. Knowing what you now know about poetry, it’s very easy to use it as an elitist instrument which puts you above the common mass of humanity. The poet’s job is to recognise themselves as part of the common mass of humanity, but to use their trade to illuminate what it is like to be there.

    So now we have a poem that is sympathetic and earnest in its feeling, and which presents that feeling in a fresh way. Congratulations! This is much better than at least two thirds of the poetry that you will find on the internet. Precision is not something I can be terribly specific about, but it is one thing that, with practice, you will develop an instinct for. The principle is that you should never use a general or highly abstract term where a more precise or particularised one will fit, unless the abstract word serves a particular purpose (see literary and philosophical allusions, later). A corollary of this principle is that you should always use a word more directly related to sense experience unless you have a reason not to: “stab” and “ache” are better than “pain”, and “grasped” is better than “understood”. You are aiming first and foremost to connect emotively, not explain rationally. Doing the former the best you can will almost always lead to you doing the latter better than you would have if you had started out trying to do it directly. That’s because stale ways of thinking act as an excuse not to think.

    The following sections strictly follow the preceding ones. Poetry is about communicating something cleverly. It is tempting, having seen how difficult it is to communicate something cleverly, to communicate nothing cleverly; in other words, to be clever and use the devices of poetry purely for their own sake. Don’t be that guy. It’s silly.

    This is where we have to talk about rhyming. Rhyming has no intrinsic value. It makes poetry memorable and it tends to give it rhythm, but outside of children’s and amusing poetry, the point of rhyming, like all other forms of word choice, is to aid and strengthen meaning. Don’t start out with a rhyming scheme! In essays and conversation, the units of meaning are the word and the sentence. In poetry punning, repetition, rhyming, assonance, semantically related words and essentially all other types of wordplay and structure are fair game in your effort to construct an intricate and complete unit of meaning (the poem as a whole). This bit’s your opportunity to be clever. There are no general rules on this. Read poets.

    6)literary allusions
    We talked about the problem with clichés earlier on. Now that you have a poem of sorts prepared, this is your chance to reintroduce those common ways of talking about feelings in a way that isn’t trite. Literary allusions are valuable because, like wordplay, they provide you with another unit of meaning aside from the dictionary definitions of words and the composite meaning of complete sentences.
    This is because allusions serve as ways to instantly recall a lot of the feelings conjured up by older metaphors and ways of speaking, and then to make your readers recontextualise these ideas within your new “way of speaking”. You may have chosen (wisely!) not to compare your lover to the sun – but if the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is terribly meaningful to you, a few well-chosen words placed within your existing poem can bring all those feelings to bear, but, because your poem is fresh, without stopping your reader from feeling things anew.
    Be sparing and savvy with this, and construct your poem before you put your allusions in. They add to what you have, they deserve better than to be used as crutches.

    7)Philosophical allusions
    These are much the same as literary allusions, but use words that denote or imply particular philosophical outlooks, rather than the narrative and sensory details that tend to be brought to bear by literary references.
    Use even more sparely, because these are further removed from experience. A philosophical allusion is one of the few reasons why you should ever use a more abstract term where a more particularised one would fit.

    Hopefully, following these steps will give you a better poem! This isn’t a machine or a checklist for good poetry, please don’t use it as one. Used correctly, I just hope it gives you more tools to appreciate and to construct poetry. Let’s use this thread as a place to collect thoughts on that.

  2. #2
    Ghost Poaster Woofness's Avatar
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    Excellent work here Think! A tremendous amount of good advice for anyone one interested in poetry, experienced poets and beginners alike.
    I hope we will see you demonstrate putting this into practice before too long.

    Have stickied this until we have enough threads to justify a separate tutorial section.
    Quote Originally Posted by <JANE> View Post
    This post was quite an effort to make, I hope it wont get lost.

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    Sexual Deviant Vengeful Scars's Avatar
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    Thanks Woofness, I thought about this thread needing to get stickied, but seems you beat me to it.
    lik dis if u cry evertim
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    Oh I was expecting a guide to making meth

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    A very manly muppet Mad Pino Rage's Avatar
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    Think, I think you're brilliant and really liked your post. Very insightful and inspired me to hopefully make a good thread!
    Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
    Albert Einstein

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