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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Good poem tricks

Here are some good poem tricks:

*Statistically improbable combinations of words. Here you want to surprise the reader by putting words together that don't normally fit, but that still sound like an apt characterization. This is also a good prose trick. It shows a greater degree of awareness and sensitivity to language. You are not thinking in clichés like "makes a valuable contribution to the field." If you are statistically improbable but also slightly absurd, then that is a bad poem / prose trick.

Think of the word arcane. Now think what could be arcane? Where is the sweet spot between something that is a cliché (arcane calculations) and absurd (arcane crackers).

*Directness and specificity. In James Schuyler's poem "Almanac" there is a nice list of things that might happen in a particular season:

Shops take down their awnings;
women go south;
few street lamp leaners;
children run with leaves running at their back.
In cedar chests sheers and seersuckers replace flannels and wools.


It's just a list, sure, but it's Pound's "direct treatment of the thing." Concrete sensory imagery always works in a poem. Notice Schuyler doesn't use words like autumn, cold, or I here. He just observes things. Think of Stevie Smith: "and although I collect facts I do not always know what they amount to." There is feeling in the poem but it is implicit. He won't write "birds go south..." because that would be cliché.

If your details are too specific in a kind of haphazard or irrelevant way, that is a bad poem trick.

*Shapeliness. Even a simple list poem can be made shapely. Don't think of form as something exterior to the poem, but as the shape that it takes. Think of Kenneth Koch's exercises for children's poems. Those work for adults too. "Things to do in Lawrence Kansas." You don't have to worry about writing a sonnet, but think of the shapeliness of it in terms of its argument: one part of the poem answers the other. You can use parallelisms or question / answer phrasing. Think of contours.

*Knowing when to stop. I'm not very good at this, I admit. I usually just try to write extremely short poems and stop before I do anything wrong. That works for me but then again it stops me from writing other sorts of longer poems I might want to write. In my bad poems I stop too abruptly, or go on just a tiny bit more than is necessary.

*Tone. I probably rely too much on carefully calibrated tonal effects, and I know I respond to them in other poets. In a poem by the Canadian poet Kroetch I was reading the other day I found a line about how he found the mountains pretentious one day. I immediately knew this was a poet I could read. We know mountains can't be pretentious and that poets are supposed to admire them.

*The speaker. The speaker doesn't have to be yourself in your idealized form. Imperfect speakers are more interesting that the lyric poet who is always searching for that perfect tender moment. In my bad poems the speaker is very foolish or stupid.

*Listening. Another good poem trick is to listen to your own thoughts. Valery called it the "vers donné," or given line. This is a phrase that you haven't really written, but that pops into your head. You won't get these lines if you aren't listening attentively. I often write poems in my head in the shower because that is where it happens for me.

This is a bad poem trick too, because some ridiculous idea for a poem can occur to you in the shower if you are listening.

*Concision. The idea that you can use fewer words to express yourself is a reliable one for writing the Good Poem. I recently found a bad poem that had language like "but there are issues between us which, though of my making, exist." Well, no. You can't do that in a good poem, can you? "There are" and "exist" mean the same thing. You cannot even revise this to make it better, because "issues" is a boring word already. You don't have to be lyrical all the time, and you can even be prosaic if you want to, but be prosaic on purpose, not just because you don't know any better. Don't confuse the virtues of good colloquial language with the mannerisms of wordy prose.

*Not trying too hard. This is a difficult one, and controversial, and verges on a bad poem trick. The idea here is to make it seem effortless, like the poem just came out spontaneously. I happen not to like, as much, the overworked, overwrought poem. "If it does not seem a moment's thought..." etc... If you revise, I'd revise in the direction of spontaneous casualness, not in the direction of belabored fastidiousness. But that's just me. "A sweet disorder in the dress..."

This is controversial because many poets think that they should work on a poem until it is an elaborate verbal structure that others will admire for that. Maybe because I don't think I could do that I disdain it, but poets who do have skills I don't and I shouldn't reject their aesthetic.

I also respect poets who pare everything down in extreme condensation. That is another form of overworking that is respectable, although it doesn't happen to be my aesthetic. I like letting more things into the poem.

*Story. You can always tell a story in a poem. If it is a good story, the poem at least has that, right? If it's told well...

*Words. Good poemwords are savory words, not words like issue. Of course you can write an entirely good poem without using any words with a texture or taste to them, but then you would be doing that deliberately for some other effect, not because you don't know the difference between poemwords and prosewords.

Think of these things: names of plants and animals, proper names, adjectives that sound like their meaning, funny words, words that are very long... On the other hand, words that feel dead to the touch, abstract or long but not in an interesting way, words use to fill space, or set phrases like "in a manner of speaking..."

*Lines. The idea here is to make every line good.

These are just a few of of my favorite good poem tricks. (Note these are not tricks, that are good, for a poem, but tricks to write the Good Poem.)

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