“How do you know when it’s a good poem?” I asked the instructor, who was a published poet.
“Does it elicit a feeling or emotion? Tell a story?”
“Maybe. Kind of. I guess.” I fumbled to compare what she said with what I had written. “How do you know when it’s done, when it doesn’t need any more editing?” I asked, reaching for clarification.
“You’ll know, ” she said with a smile and walked away.
Have your attempts at poetry been as clear as my conversation with an English instructor at the local community college? For years, the only time I read poetry was when it was assigned in a class. Then I’d read it, knowing I wouldn’t understand it, and, with an expression on my face as if I had just bit into a lemon, I would prove myself correct. I didn’t get it. What delineates a good poem from a not-so-good poem? How is one to know what to write about? Do poems always have to rhyme? What is a haiku, a limerick (besides the adult versions you’d hear in a pub), and why bother writing, or reading, poetry at all?
I have no scholarly answer, as I have no degree which grants me rights that what I say is true. But I can share my opinions and my experiences. There was a time when poets could earn a living writing. I read a quote once about poets that said, “I worked for eight hours in my study, writing a poem two days ago. Yesterday, after eight hours, I decided to add a comma. Today, I decided to take it out.” There are all kinds of things I can say about punctuation, and many of them would be wrong because the English language changes more often than we think languages should change (think in days rather than centuries), and there are so many rules, that unless you earned a degree in where to put a comma, most of us happily go about our lives inserting and deleting at random, and yet our messages are understood. But enough about punctuation . . .
Most modern poets don’t adhere to grammatical rules, as archaic as some of them are, and they rarely have end rhymes (think of “Roses are red, violets are blue, . . .). Some spend a lot of time measuring out syllables, choosing just the right word to convey their meaning. Sometimes those painstaking words work, other times, they’re lost on the layman (read: those that don’t do poetry for a living). Not sticking to rules and writing free form is something I use to encourage my high school students to explore poetry. “Just put something down on the paper,” I tell them. “There is no right or wrong. Pick your words. Make a descriptive picture. Tell a story. Make it one line, or ten, one stanza or five. I don’t care, and no one else will, either. Just write.” My hope is to get them out of their fear of ,”I don’t know what the heck I’m doing,” and into a space where it’s just words, just language, something they have a lot of experience with. Of course, we read some poetry so they have a model, which is usually modern stuff so the Old English words (and apostrophes for missing letters-see previous paragraph) don’t get in the way of their comprehension.
I’ve studied some books on how to write poetry. I’ve highlighted suggestions and taken notes on how to begin, how to set up a form, then choose syllables, lines, stanzas, and content. But when it comes down to putting pen to paper for me, the form goes out the window. Instead, I let the words come as they choose to, whether that is organized or willy-nilly. Sometimes I use a picture and write what I see, or what might have come before, or what is going on behind the fence, the door, the wall. Starting with one word, any seemingly random word will do, and putting that at the top of the paper, then answering: What comes next? A story? A description? An emotion? The whole point behind language is to communicate. What needs to be written about that word? What is your unique view of it?
On two different occasions, when I’ve lost a loved one, I felt driven to the paper to record those feelings. One poem turned out to describe the roles that person filled in their life, the other poem ended up as a biography. I might repeat words, ones I think are important, ones I want the reader to see and understand their importance as well. At other times, I’ve used a prompt and an adventure comes out (like the one about a dragon or the fairy queen). I’ve written it in prose (sentences and paragraphs), then went back and cut out words and arranged paragraphs into stanzas, choosing to end the lines where a sentence would finish. I’ve used similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”), metaphors (comparisons without “like” or “as”), hyperbole (extreme exaggeration), personification (giving an inanimate object human-like qualities), and even onomatopoeia (words written like they sound, “pop”). So, when do I write poetry? When I’m moved to record something in a different way than complete sentences. Here is one that I wrote for a class assignment:
By Michele Venne
A single woman strolls along the path that weaves among ancient, leafy trees
meandering over the green velvet of lawn
wandering, sighing, wishing.
Clouds separate the sun from the earth
raising bumps on her skin like that of a scaly lizard
wrapping her arms around her middle in an effort of warmth
knowing the chill inside to be degrees below that of the shade
cooling, holding, dreaming.
She stops in the middle of the wooden bridge arching over the stream
looking into the water
feeling thankful that the rocks produce swirls, bubbles, falls
hiding her reflection
gurgling, rushing, carrying away.
Families share a meal on heirloom quilts
uncaring of the grass blades beneath
enjoying dill-filled potato salad, cold fried chicken, deep red wine that looks delicious but
knowing it would be the insipid flavor of overcooked macaroni, hold the cheese
wanting, hoping, reaching.
The woman turns away to follow the path deeper into the trees or
spying the bench receiving warming rays
choosing, feeling, believing.
So if writing a page, or several, seems daunting, then try a poem. Here’s an exercise that will get you going: 1)on 10 scraps of paper, write 5 nouns, and on the other 5, verbs, 2)put them in a bag, 3)shake them up, and 4)draw one. That’s what you write a poem about. One line or several, it doesn’t matter. You choose the emotion you wish to invoke about the word, and what flows from your heart to your fingers allows the reader to share in what you feel. After you’ve written for a few minutes (no agonizing over the “right” words here, just get them down), read it aloud to yourself, as our brain is pretty good about putting in words it knows should be there. Does one sound bland? Change it! You’re in charge, this is your work of art. The idea here is to marinate yourself in language, to give yourself permission (see my last post) to express what you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or think about what was written on that slip of paper. You don’t even have to share it if you don’t want to.
What have you got to lose, besides a few minutes where you played with words? For those of you who wish to share your poems with me (and receive kudos!), email them to me at the “contact us” button on my web site, www.myjoyenterprises.com There is no right or wrong, just a chance to dance with the senses, to stretch yourselves, to communicate.