Learning the Art and Craft of Poetry (Part One)
As a first step, I’ve compiled a list of poets. This is not an exhaustive list of all the poets I like or turn to for inspiration or education. This is not a ranking of the “best” poets. I’m not much on the Majah, Minah, Mediocah hierarchy game. These are wonderful, gifted poets to whom I do turn for inspiration, education, and pure pleasure and whose names came to me as I was thinking of this list. There are other poets who have been and are important to me who didn’t necessarily rise to the top as I was pondering this list, such as Sappho, Shakespeare, Donne, Whitman, Dickinson, and many fine contemporary poets. And that’s okay. This list is simply a place to start.
This is what I always tell my students when I teach writing poetry. A serious poet should be reading poetry all the time. My husband is a publisher, and I have worked as an editor. We are always surprised by all the poets who want to publish so that others will read their work, but they don’t buy or read anyone else’s work. They will spend a fortune on workshops, conferences, contests, and reading fees, but they buy hardly any books by other poets. If you’re on a tight budget, forget the classes and conferences for a while and buy the work of fine, contemporary poets or those in the generation just past—and the wonderful classic geniuses of the distant past. Buy them so you can reread and mark them up, figuring out how they do the incredible things they do and how they made the mistakes they made that you want to avoid. Do this first of all, before the classes, workshops, conferences, etc.—all of which are good things but not as critical as this. Any kind of serious writer must be a serious reader first.
This little list is a relatively random list of some people whose work speaks to me, in no particular order. When I read their work, I think about some part of it or all of it, “Wow! I wish I could do that! How do they do it?” A good poet doesn’t steal the work of another poet, but we all steal techniques and make them work for our own idiosyncratic voices. None of these poets writes the way I do, but I have learned some craft element or technique from all of them (as well as from many others). If you read these poets carefully, looking at how they achieve their effects, I guarantee you’ll find something that will advance your own poetry. Then you can branch out to the many other fine poets who can serve as models and teachers.
A Few Poets to Read with Care and Serious Attention
William Carlos Williams
Allison Hedge Coke
Craig Santos Perez
So, Step One is to get thee to a bookstore and buy some of these poets’ works as well as others you want to learn from.
Step Two is the act of reading the poems like a writer reads. First, of course, you’ll read them for the pleasure of reading them, but even in this first reading, you’ll pay attention to what gives the most pleasure. Mark it as you read. Just as importantly, mark the places where the poet loses you, where your interest or involvement wanders, where you find yourself confused. These can be as important to your own writing. Your later reading of this poet and book will involve attempts to figure out how this poet does the marvelous stuff—what makes this part so-o-o-o good—and how this poet weakened her/his own work—why this part isn’t as good as the rest.
If you’re like me and a lot of other poets I’ve known, just the act of this first reading with that kind of attention will set you writing. That’s one of the joys of reading for a poet. If you feel you suffer from writer’s block, start reading poetry with deep, close attention to what the poet is doing right and wrong. You will almost always find yourself writing your own poems in response or as a variation or just somehow inspired. This is always good, but it’s not nearly the end.
Go through that poet’s book again, looking for those marked areas and rereading them carefully, trying to figure what exactly this poet did to make it so good—was it his diction, her use of alliteration and assonance, their line breaks/internal rhyme/connecting images?—and why this poet didn’t quite make it at this point—was it his use of abstract language, her lack of attention to the line’s rhythm?—and mark it in the book and write about it in more detail in your journal. This poet is your teacher. Learn everything you can from her or him. Then go practice some of those good techniques in your own poetry. What works with your own voice and vision and what doesn’t? Also, pick up some of your old poetry and look for those mistakes you identified in the poet’s book in your own work. Can you see them where you didn’t notice them before? Can you rewrite and make those points stronger, more vivid?
Follow this regimen with the other books you bought. These first two steps give you a foundation that nothing else can. And the plus side of this course for women (and men) with small children, large families, demanding jobs/spouses, is that you can do it quietly in bits and pieces of time without having to go away to some conference or university program.
In Part Two, we’ll move on from these steps, but most really good poets return to them all the time, no matter how many books and awards they have. These are the poet’s version of the pianist’s scales or the dancer’s daily practice.