I have rambled on about what poetry is, isn’t, and what it should be. But I have never gotten around to talking about how to write it or how to become a poet.
I am going to try to take care of that with as little crying as possible.
Please note: I did not say that there would be no crying.
Want to write poetry? Read it. Read a lot of it. Read poetry that you love. Read poetry you hate. Read mediocre poetry and think up some nice things to say about it. Read it voraciously.
Seek out new authors, explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly read what no one has read before, get into a fistfight with a rock monster and win with a speech about how we are not so different, don’t wear a red suit and visit an alien planet, seek out green aliens and show them some of this “Earth” thing called kissing, don’t…
I’ve lost my way, haven’t I?
In any case, a writer is foremost a reader. Read a lot of poetry. Think about it. Let a poem swirl in your mind. Think about what you love about the poem. Bring it into you.
You Are Going to Suck at This!
Don’t be afraid to write terrible poetry. Because believe me, you will. This is not me being mean or discouraging. You don’t expect a toddler to run a marathon. You can’t expect to knock out “Leaves of Grass” the first time you ever spill your thoughts onto the page.
If you do, stop copying. Let Walt Whitman be Walt Whitman.
Persevere! Keep writing, then write some more. Then when you are finished, write something, because you are not finished. Prepare to look for diamonds in the huge load of crap you’re digging through. You will even accidentally plagiarize some of what you’ve read. That is both wrong and completely natural at the same time. Don’t worry about. Just don’t lie about it.
I swear I am not trying to discourage you.
In fact, I am rooting for you! Because at some point, you will get better at this. Just keep writing until this is something you do. No one starts off competent in their chosen art form. It takes years of being terrible before you get good. It also takes years of not caring about this and loving what you do.
So love what you love. Also, who you love.
When Do You Declare Yourself a Poet?
How about now-ish? The thing is, “poet” is not a specific term needing a resume nor is there a governing body that regulates who can use that word. The same goes with the word “scientist.” At any moment you can declare yourself a “poet” or a “scientist.” I recommend against any combination of the two into one title because it just brings up awkward questions.
What Kind of Poetry Should I Write?
Every kind. Don’t limit yourself. Explore. You won’t find your original voice until you have tried a LOT of others. Try cantos, iambic pentameter, erotic, sonnets, couplets, free verse, limerick, etc. It is important to experiment. Poetry should breathe in you. You should take every opportunity to grow your ability.
A Not Entirely Brief Yet Important Note About Haiku
Notice I didn’t put in haiku? There is a very good reason. It’s not that I don’t like haiku. I love it. But most people don’t write it even if they think they are. They just count the 5 / 7 / 5 syllables and think that they are writing in an ancient Japanese form. It is as valid as going to a McDonald’s drive through, getting a large ice tea, and calling that a Japanese tea ceremony.
Yes, haiku has that syllable count. But, it also has two different but related images and makes references to nature. Here is an example. Since it is translated from Japanese, it doesn’t follow the 17 syllable rule in this translation. But note the form and subject.
Poverty’s child –
he starts to grind the rice,
and gazes at the moon.
– Matsuo Basho
Note the discipline in those three lines. The economy. A haiku is self-contained. It says absolutely everything it needs to say in the smallest amount of space.
So don’t just count syllables and call it haiku. It requires more care than simple addition. But try to write it none the less! It takes a lot of discipline to minimize lines while maximizing the impact. Aspire to haiku’s brevity and depth. Don’t just write a poem while counting on your fingers. Do try to write a haiku.
Take Your Time
Don’t rush the process! For me, writing a poem is like trying to pet a skittish cat. When I try to approach it runs off. But if I turn and ignore it, it comes to me. Don’t make yourself write a poem. Just kind of feel one coming.
There should be time between inspiration and completion. Take time with your thought. Enjoy the process. Discover. You are growing something that started as a notion. Give it light and time.
Poetry is art and craft. The art is the concept and imagery. But concept and imagery are not enough. Your poetry deserves a frame – something that makes the poem cohesive. This can take the form of a rhyme scheme or meter. It can be the development and empowerment of a theme or notion in free verse. It is something that you shape.
Shaping takes time. Sometimes this means putting a poem away and coming back to it for a re-think.
Save Your Scraps
You will have a lot of false starts in poetry. You’ll be writing what seems to be great stuff, then suddenly you peter out and have nothing more to say. Time to scrap what you wrote and start again, right?
If you’ve read the header, you already know the answer to this. Why are you wasting your time asking me questions that you already know the answer to?
Tough love. I really do like you. Just keep reading.
Save everything. Don’t throw out any lines. The line you might have thrown out could have been the key to another poem.
A poet is a hoarder of notions. It is why some carry a tiny notebook with them all the time. It is not to write a poem on the spot so they can feel more “artistic” than anyone else and to show off how “literary” they are.
Okay, okay – sometimes it is.
That’s not important. It’s important to get a notion down as soon as possible to save for later. Don’t let a thought go. Store it and savor it when you can.
About Your Muse
Shut up about it. Keep your muse to yourself. I believe the only venue suited to talk about your muse is in your poetry. A stage magician doesn’t do a trick then immediately tell the audience how they fooled you. Keep and nurture your muse, whatever you do. But speak in poetry.
I personally don’t think there is anything mystical about muses, unless you want there to be. This is just my own perspective, but a muse can be any noun and some verbs, rarely an adjective, never an adverb, and it is impossible to make one out of a preposition.
Sound like a challenge? It sure as hell is! Go for it!
My only other suggestion about your muse is not to love your muse. Love the HELL out of your muse. Never do adoration half-way. Poems are not meant to be at a remove. Go all in on whatever (or whoever) you are writing about.
So How Do I Get In On This Poetic Goodness?
Start right now if you want to. Start by reading. Support your local poet. Buy some books. Books of poetry tend to be pretty inexpensive.
Even if you are really dedicated to prose or essay writing and don’t care about writing poetry, read poetry. It has a lot to teach everyone about how to communicate. Poetry (especially lyrical poetry today) shapes and bends language. It creates words, phrases, and ideas.
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