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There are two issues that people who write poetry have to deal with:


-Poetry looks really easy to write

What is Poetry? (As Derived From Poetry on CPW)

Poetry is. . .

Anything that is formatted like a poem (that is, roughly one short-ish sentence per line).

I was going to add other things to this list (rhymes, emotions), but, really, this sums it up. It's the blanket issue. People who haven't read much poetry, but have seen a poem will assume that anything that looks like a poem is a poem. But it's not.

That's just words.

Q: What is this? A: It is a poem!

What is Poetry? (Spoiler Alert: The Answer is Not in This Section)

I've been trying to sum it up in one sentence, but I don't think that's the best way to start. I think the best way to learn about poetry is to. . .I don't know.


But to show what good poems do that bad poems don't, we need to have an example of a bad poem. At first I was going to write something quick to use it as an example, but it didn't feel right. I don't normally do this, but I'm going to pull up a deleted poem. It's actually the poem that finally made me crack and critique a poem. The writer asked for feedback. I gave him at least half a page. I think he read about three sentences (he said I probably was used to poems that rhyme, every poem I used as an example was a non-rhyming poem and two of them I pasted into the comment) before he stopped and told me he knew more about poetry than I did.

So, I'm going to try to help him again. Maybe this time he'll stop being 12 long enough to listen.

I Am by NoOneTouchesaBleed33

I am

I am sadness and disappointment

I wonder why people only point out the flaws in me

I hear laughter as i fail again

I see wicked smiles as i take my seat

I want people to see the good things that I do

I am sadness and disappointment

I pretend people around me arnt laughing or snickering at me

I feel sad and alone when working with a group

I try to touch the sky

But I'm afraid of the fall

I cry inside when people laugh

I am sadness and disappointment

I understand that people make mistakes

I say you should'nt make fun of them

I dream that one day the world will stop

I try to hold in the feelings i have

I hope people will notice the good that i do

I am sadness and disappointment

Okay, now, let's continue to the elements of poetry.

Wait a minute, wait a minute! FUCK YOU

Oh, hey, it's my worst friend, Emo Pony.

Emo Pony listens to My Chemical Romance, so HE KNOWS WHAT POETRY IS

hey fuk u guy y do u get to deeside wut a poem is a poem can b anythin jus let me ezpres myself!!!

Well. . .no, a poem can't be anything. A poem has to feature some key elements, otherwise it might as well be a fucking text message. I don't know why this is a conversation I have to have. . .WORDS FUCKING MEAN THINGS. Just doing anything and calling it a poem is bullshit. You can't say, "i wrote a haiku. its 150 lines n i dont kno wut sillyballs are so i dunt worry bout em"

It's fine to mess around with words. Its great, but when you show your work to others, unless it's really good, you have to operate within actual concept of the medium.

I made this boat. It doesn't look like a boat, it doesn't float and it can't hold any actual people. But it's definitely a boat, because I'm telling you it is.

Brief Words About Meter and Rhyme

Poetry needs to have meter. This is just a fact. It's one of the main elements of poetry. Again, if a poem doesn't have meter, then how is it different than a menu at Denny's? Meter is basically the rhythm of a poem. It's the flow, the sound of things. Poetry is meant to be read out loud, so the rhythm is very important.

There's a lot of different kinds of meter, you can look them up. Most modern poets just play it by ear. Try to keep your syllable count consistent, avoid awkward words, make it flow.

"I Am" has no flow and sounds unpleasant.

I understand that people make mistakes

I say you should'nt make fun of them

I dream that one day the world will stop

These are just sentences. It's difficult to read them in a way that make them flow off the tongue. Let's look at something that is the complete opposite.

An Irish Airman Forsees His Death by W.B. Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those I guard I do not love

. . .

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

You can see/hear the difference, right? It rolls off the tongue so easily, it flows so perfectly. When you read it out loud, your voice immediately finds the cadence. Yeats is one of the most lyrical poets I've read and he's a great model for flow. Now, it could be argued that because it rhymes it's a lot easier to impose that flow. Well, let's look at another.

A War Song to Englishmen by William Blake

Prepare, prepare the iron helm of war,

Bring forth the lots, cast in the spacious orb;

Th' Angel of Fate turns them with mighty hands,

And casts them out upon the darken'd earth!

Prepare, prepare!

Now, that doesn't have the song-like quality of a Yeats poem, but if you read it out loud, even in monotone, you hear a rhythm, there's a clean flow. These words were deliberately chosen and arrange. Mix up the words in one of the lines. Does it sound as good? No, because it messes with the meter.

Meter/rhythm/flow is a key part of poetry. However, rhymes are not. Both rhyming and non-rhyming poems can be good. Most of the poems I'll be referencing do not rhyme. It's just a symptom of modern poetry.

One rhyme scheme I would suggest avoiding is AABB, rhyming couplets. The first two lines rhyme, the second two lines rhyme, the third two lines and on and on. It almost always makes the poem sound juvenile and cutesy. Unless you want to evoke Dr. Seuss, try a different way of rhyming.

Now, on to the big things.

Depth and Subtlety

"I Am" is as shallow as a raindrop. It is all surface. There's nothing that can't be gotten on the first read through, there's no complexity, no imagery, there's nothing to make it a poem. This could be a blog post.

Now, by depth I don't mean it has to be conceptually deep. It doesn't need to blow minds or talk about heady concepts. Let's look at a very simple poem about a very simple thing.

Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.

This is a really great, simple, funny poem. There's not much in the way of emotional complexity. But there's depth. There's depth in the focus. Collins sticks to one subject, he doesn't complain about the dog, then jump to something else. He commits. The more important aspect is the depth of the image. The first two stanzas are very flat, but then he starts building this image and it becomes more absurd and developed and it gets across his state of mind.

Let's look at another very simple poem:

This is Just to Say by Williams Carlos Williams

I have eaten

the plums that

were in the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving for


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

First, note how WCW controls the meter with his line breaks. He is deliberately arranging the words in a way that guides you in how to read them. The end of a line usually signals a short, soft pause. Say the lines as if they were written like a regular sentence. Now, say them with just a touch of a pause at the end.

Now, the content. This doesn't seem to have a lot of depth at first blush. There's not really an imagery, not much emotion. But the depth is subtle. This is a note written to someone to taunt them. The writer knew this person was going to eat those plums and not only does he eat them, he rubs it in their face how good they were. It's a little twist of depth that goes a long way. That opens a door to us wondering about the relationship between these people.

Compare that with "I Am." There is nothing to think about because everything is on the surface.

So, let's recap: poetry is writing that is deliberately arranged in a way that consistently flows AND is something deeper than just the words on the page.

Emotion Through Imagery (This is the Key to Poetry)

There is a lot of emotion in "I Am." That can't be denied. The problem is. . .how do I put this. . .

The problem is that asking people to feel something rarely works. You want sympathy or to make people feel the same pain as you or to get people to consider their actions. And that will work on some people. However, for most I think it will be flat, boring and whiny. "I Am" isn't the only poem that does this, we get a ton of stuff like it.

Poetry is kind of like a trick. The emotions and feelings and meaning of your piece are hidden in words and images.

When Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl he didn't write:

All my friends are doing heroin,

It's not good for them,

They used to be smart,

It's really, really bad.

No, he said:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving

hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry


angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the

starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the

supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels

staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkan-

sas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes

on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money

in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

Full text of Howl by Allen Ginsberg

That's some really damn strong imagery. Even if you don't understand what all of it means, it creates images and from those images you understand what's up. "[W]ho cowered in unshaven room in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets". We know that's not a normal thing to do. The first lines let us know he's painting a picture of destruction. "[A]ngry fix" alludes to drugs. Being "expelled from the academies" tells us that these were once people with plans and intelligence.

This is much more interesting than being flatly told information. And it's not telling you to feel something. If you have any emotional connection to addiction, then you can find your experiences in the imagery. A shallow poem about drugs with no imagery would probably seem preachy and boring. A lot of people will lose interest.

Good poetry is a detour. There are quicker ways to get the point and to get your emotions out, but it's not about quick. It's about getting from point A to point C by going around point B.

So, What the Fuck is Poetry?

Poetry is a difficult and restrictive form of writing that relies on imagery and metaphor to convey emotion. The words are deliberately arranged so they conform to some kind of rhythm.

Poetry can tell a story, but if it's a story plainly told then it's better off as a story, not a poem.

Poetry can be an outlet for your emotions, but if just you talking about your emotions its better off in your journal.

Poetry has flexibility, but it's also an established form. If you don't want to base your work off that form, why do you want to write poetry? Imagine trying to do that with any other kind of creative work.