Consider this post a double-tip, because what I'm about to tell you will not only improve your writing, it will get you writing and keep you writing. But be forewarned, this isn't a tip for the timid! You'll need some creative backbone to follow along.
Here's the tip. Write about something that makes you angry. Thunderously angry. Something that makes you want to explode with emotion and opinions, something that pushes every button you've got and threatens to overload you.
The reason you need to do this is because, simply put, this is where some of your best writing is waiting to happen. That's why you're broiling with emotion, because the anger inside of you is also a flare gun signaling: "There's poetry here!"
Don't believe me? Try reading Plath's "Daddy," Ginsberg's "Howl," Shakespeare's Hamlet, or crank up some classic rap, metal, or blues. Anger is as much a part of artistic expression as love or beauty and often, it's best when they're all mingled together.
Here's a simple test. If I asked you to write 500 words on a politician you most admire, it'll probably take you longer to come up with something than if I ask you to do 500 words on the politician who most ticks you off. It's much harder to write from a perspective of adulation than it is from anger.
There's really no limit, either. You can go to Spinal Tap 11 with your anger and it won't hurt anything. You can murder's, mangle, shred, explode, and crucify your enemies. You can ridicule them with language, you can imagine them shredded in a chipper. Or even better you can somehow turn them into lovers and friends.
Just remember: art is catharsis and healing, but it's also a refuge. So don't spill enough imagined blood (or tears) to ruin your sanctuary or scare or gross out others from visiting and sharing your stories.
I'm not saying you should always write from anger; I'm not saying you should write from anger most of the time. I'm simply saying: don't be afraid to write from an angry place because it's often a source of incredible poetry and it will help you let go of emotions that might be weighing you down if not for the poems you write.
Notice the title says: make new readers, not "attract" new readers, or "grow" new readers.
We're done with all that. It's too much work for too little reward!
Kidding aside, I'm going to offer another super-easy poetry tip today that will help you gain more readers. If you use it well, it may be the most important tip you ever stumble across. It's easy, but it can be a bit painful if you're not used to doing it.
No, it's not about using double-entendres, although maybe I should blog on that sometime. No, this tip is much more basic. Here it is:
Imagine that every time you read a new poem, you gain a new reader for your poems.
Clearly, this isn't logistically the case, but it's most certainly the case in spirit. And here's why. Reading poetry is the single most effective (and necessary) way to improve as a poet. Period. Add to that most of us don't read nearly enough poems and you have a "magic" formula that's more true than anything that would stand up to a computer. Try it!
But only imagine a new reader for yourself when you're reading a new poem, preferably by a poet you've never read. Each time you read and absorb a new poet, pretend you've gained a new reader for your work because what you learn by reading another poet will make your work stronger. Someone who's read ten thousand poems has an advantage in composition over someone who's only read ten.
The tip works even better if you read both contemporary and classic poets. Don't be afraid of new poets. Love and crave them as you love and crave readers because one leads to the other.
Today's poetry tip is one of the simplest, yet most painfully difficult, tricks in the book.
It's like this... Take out one of your favorite "finished" poems -- don't choose a published one or one you've posted. Now pretend someone has a gun to your head and you have to cut a line. An entire line.
Choose one line, lop it off, and read the poem back to yourself. Is it better? If so, lose the line for good.
If not, choose another line to cut. And so on, until you've tried every line. If every line must remain, congratulations, one of two things happened. Either you're incapable of revising your work or you've written a perfect poem.
Now honestly, which do you think is the case most of the time?
In prose we're often told to "murder your darlings" but it's just as true in poetry. One thing to keep in mind is this: if the line you scrub has some tasty figurative language or a cool turn of phrase or just sings like a blackbird, you can use it elsewhere, perhaps in another poem, or even a blog post like I just did, in case you cared to notice.
Try this maneuver in any poem you're serious about and see if it doesn't make your work much stronger. It might be tougher to cut lines from your poems than to let a stranger give you a hair cut, but in this case, you're the one holding the scissors, so don't be afraid to trim. Your poems and readers will thank you.
Are you surprising with your poems? You should be. People love invention and they love to be surprised. As an artist, it's your job, your sacred task, to make things seem new even when they aren't.
Surprise is the best way to grab attention. It's also the best way to keep people thinking about your work after they stop reading.
So how should you use surprise?
The answer is: surprise me! But keep one very valuable caveat in mind: if you hit with too many surprises at once, joy turns to confusion, then anger and your readers will just tune out.
But if you sprinkle surprises throughout your poems, you'll grown an enthusiastic audience.
Let's look at some examples. Gwedolyn Brooks's poem: "We Real Cool" surprises from word go because it uses a slang title. Next, it has a subtitle: ""The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel." that sounds like a title you'd most likely find on a painting, not a poem.
The next surprise is, despite the long title, the poem's over almost before it begins!
Which is the whole point right?
We / Die soon.
The ending is, of course, a smashing surprise with death popping up on the penultimate word. But there are other surprises. The use of three word stanzas; the use of a single word refrain at the end of each line. The vanishing of the refrain at the end.
That's how to use surprise like a master!
Joy Harjo's poem "Eagle Poem" is a very predictable poem all the way until the closing lines. It's exactly the kind of poem you'd expect her to write and this is intentional. It is a nod to tradition. But the closing lines pack a big revelation:
It's not only that the poem takes a sudden turn toward absolutism and beauty, but that it repeats the line. Why should it do this?
Because the two matching lines show a harmonic resonance that hints as to what makes beauty. Harmony. So big Platonic thoughts at the end of an overtly Native American meditation. Universal Mind manifested in two lines.
The lesson is: don't be afraid to take chances in your poems and do things that will make your readers say "Crickey!" even if they're young and not British.
Think of your poems as time bombs. Each line brings the reader a tick closer to the explosion.
All through the poem, some part of the reader sweats it out, wondering how big of a bang is waiting and wondering if they'll be wounded, or maybe even scarred.
Some poems, like Eliot's The Wasteland are atom bombs that vaporize cities of tradition, aesthetics, and comfort. Others, like many of the poems we all write but hopefully don't show, go off like duds. They make a corkscrew of smoke, more pathetic than profound.
What I'd like to consider in this post is how the metaphor of the time-bomb helps us understand the role of a poem's penultimate line. That's the line right before the last line. And I'm telling you here and now something you'll likely never hear from anyone else and that's this: a poem's penultimate line is just as important as the closing line. Sometimes more important.
Not only is it sometimes more important; it's far easier to flub. Why? Because this is where most poets tend to ease off. It's where we all tend to get a bit slack. It's an understandable urge. After-all, it's the job of the last line to tidy everything up and make the "boom" really go off. Right?
Well, not really. In fact, I think it's better to look at your penultimate line as a tee for the last line, or even as "fanfare" for it. Readers will feel the acceleration whether you take advantage of it or not. If you slack off just as they get ready to climax, well we all know how that goes!
Let's take a look at three obvious examples of great penultimate lines. The first one is from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,"
Here the Bard takes full advantage of the penultimate thrill by injecting newness right before the close -- the idea of a group of men, rather than a single speaker, and the idea of overcoming mortality through art. The poem makes a sudden shift from the personal to the universal and does so precisely on the penultimate line.
Here's another brilliant penultimate line, from Sylvia Plath's "A Winter Ship:"
"The sun will diminish it soon enough:"
With a single line, Plath waves away her brilliant imagery -- her poetic evocation of a winter seascape in all its frigid glory. She simply introduces the image of the sun, and with it the obvious connotation of melting ice and snow, to turn her poem around like the most graceful of skaters on the thinnest of blades.
Finally, Joy Harjo's poem 'Ah, Ah" uses an increasingly more intense set of call and response couplets. She shifts the enjambment in the penultimate line and capitalizes on the reader's natural excitement by connecting the final "response" line to a claim of eternal being:
"on our return, over the net of eternity thrown out for stars."
This poises the reader at the edge of wondering if the "Ah Ah" refrain will endure. Of course, it can't do otherwise, but the suspense is what drives the poem's final sacred theme straight into the heart and mind.
These are brilliant tip-of-the-iceberg examples to get you started thinking a little more deeply about your penultimate lines. That was mine; I wish you good luck with yours!
Yes, I take poetry seriously.
As seriously as I take a mountain. A lake. A river. A face.
Poetry is indistinguishable from life. Sure, poetry is made of words. But so is life. Try to imagine getting through life without any words. Not even the words in your head. Not even your name.
I submit to you that words, like the four cardinal directions (or numbers themselves), are archetypal. This means they exist outside of the speaker, but they also create the speaker.
In some sense, we're all poets. The archetypal nature of our consciousness makes any other possibility impossible. The poet in me may be very different than the poet in you -- at least on the surface -- but the impulse to sing, to explore, explain, and even confess is equally alive in all of us, without exception.
That's why we should take poetry seriously.
The word geas stands atop an interesting etymology. To do magic, one commonly casts a spell; to make poetry, one must spell. The grammar of magic is found in grimoires, whereas the grimoire of consciousness is found in the grammar of poetry.
No matter who the poet, or what the theme, the spell of poetry is intrinsically joyous. It's born of the pure levity that abides in the Universal or Kether mind. If you prefer, it's the language of the unconscious, which holds in its unknowable abyss, the purest joys of the cosmos.
In any case, we can take poetry seriously without fear of injury or sickness because it's the stream of life. It's life that threatens to turn us ill, particularly when we forget, willfully or not, that whoever we happen to be standing next to, texting, or even ignoring is also a poet just like we are.
Every poem has a villain. From the gentlest haiku to the stormiest saga. Yet, I've the feeling many poets (myself included) seldom reflect deeply enough on this aspect of poetry. That's understandable -- there are simply too many other fascinating (read: less prosaic) facets of a poem to consider than the banal concept of antagonist. Villains are for novels, stories, comics, and movies!
Well, they're also for poems. Some are very easy to find, such as Plath's titular "Daddy," or mortality in Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay. " Some villains are archetypal, like Poe's Raven, while others are deeply specific, such as Katharyn Howd Machan's "On Learning That My Daughter’s Rapist Has Been Taught to Write a Poem."
Even when you think a poem has no antagonist, it usually does. Take a poem like James Dickey's "The Dusk of Horses." Read as a pastorale, the poem seems enemy-free. The tip-off is the opening words "Right under their noses..." This shows that something has been hidden. The antagonist is implied in the act of "blinding." Of course, we all know this poem is an allegory for political apathy, right?
Let's look at a poem where the antagonist might be a bit harder to find. A full poem. A famous poem. This poem:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I'm sure you're now saying, "The antagonist in Pound's poem is also mortality. So it wasn't hard to find." Well I beg to differ. I think the antagonist in this poem is the "apparition" of life, the veil of it. Which tells us that the "black bough" is where the real action is.
This is all quite easy to follow. The real question is: how can you use villains in your poems? The answer is astoundingly straightforward: just do it. But try to think outside the box. And be careful not to let your villain take over your poem.
Here's a few tips on poetic villains that should even work for prose writers:
I make the same plea to you!
I've got two words for you: Cunliffe rules. In fact, Michael Cunliffe is so gifted, he's the first poet other than Sylvia Plath and Camille Ralphs to get his own category on my blog. That's fine company -- I'd love to be mentioned in the same breath as either of those poets.
Cunliffe earned this distinction despite two formidable hurdles. First, as far as I know he never formally publishes his work, which is not a big deal, but it makes it harder for poets like me who read mainly in the literary journals to discover him.
The second problem is a bit more problematic. It's that Michael Cunliffe doesn't exist.
Sure he has a name, a body, an enthusiastic Facebook following, and maybe even a wife, kids, grandkids, cousins and uncles and dogs and chickens. He's exactly the kind of guy I'd like to smoke a pipe with, chug an ale with, sip some wine with -- or talk poetry with because he's got game.
The problem is: there is no Michael Cunliffe. Every day in every way, poetry is eating the Michael we all know and love and replacing him with pure creativity. In other words, Cunliffe's swimming so freely in the Kether mind of Bell's interconnectedness and Buber's I-and-Thou, that he's breathing in pure archetypes and exhaling mind-bending poems.
Take a look at, "Michael is not a Poet," which you can read by clicking the picture above.
Notice anything? Of course. There's actually two poems. It's a dialogue. One might say, a concrete expression of eudaimonia (in an esoteric sense) if one were a gnostic magus. Since most of us probably aren't, let's try another angle of attack.
What Michael's doing here is digging just about as far into the nature of being that can be accomplished in what must be called accessible language. One can perhaps plumb more deeply into the nature of being with other forms of language, but Being wants expression in all forms of language. If you read the poem, you'll quickly see that the message is up-front; the words slip easy into your mind and soul.
And yet, the poem is a mystical event, no less than Crane's "Atlantis" or Roethke's ""The Far Field." Don't believe me? Try these lines:
I am the spark in the cells--
No, not just in the brain.
In each and every cell.
Electrons and I dance hand in hand.
Compare them with Crane's:
Forever Deity’s glittering Pledge, O Thou
Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns
To wrapt inception and beatitude,--
Hear me: no thematic difference exists between "Atlantis" and "Michael is not a Poet." Both speak to the Divine and to the celebration of the ego's destruction. Yes, this means Cunliffe has channeled the same message that Crane (and many other artists) picked up from the aether, but he's done so with ordinary aplomb.
And for that, he deserves extraordinary praise!
Shelley Wong's poem "The Winter Forecast" from New England Review 42.4 is a tough nut to crack. So tough that I've put off blogging about it for just about as long as I dare. It's a remarkable piece of work that quite possibly slashes at some uncut underbrush and points a thorny way forward for those of us interested in following poetry to inspiring terrains. By this I don't necessarily mean new forms or even themes, but simply a fascinating way of looking at how language unveils our world and ourselves.
Read the poem in full by clicking the picture above and be patient with me as I try to distill this wine into gadfly brandy. Actually, absinthe might make a better analogy, a fact that's evident from the first line:
this open interval: when nightgowns glow & stalk the field
Stunning use of muted surrealism with a bit of a Gothic flare. But the "interval" is "open" -- so this sip of spookiness is, indeed, just a pawn push. The true takeoff comes next.
Go on, read the next lines...but imagine they're prose! That's right. I want you to mash up Wong's poetry and spit it back out in prose. I won't do it. I'm a gentleman. But I want you to see something spectacular.
It won't work. No matter what you do to these words, they won't make decent prose. They only make poetry. That's an incredible achievement and it means something.
It means: when you read this poem, you're reading pure poetry. There's nothing in this piece that isn't built out of poetry. Well, shouldn't that, alone, be enough to blow W.S. back to Stratford-upon-Avon to polish up Cleopatra's death scene?
Nope. But it does tell us something about the nature of poetry and language. What it tells us is that language is a key that opens up the hidden (sacred) nature of our world. Let's look at a couple of examples.
we can hear tree rings rendered as sound
diamonds shine in icicles, in a spidering necklace
aboard the single swan boat,
This is beautiful poetry. It shows us the connectivity of all things, and the promise of continued (endless?) growth and exploration. Synesthesia is objective reality. Even the banal words you're reading now are neither sound, nor sight, but touch on soul-sensations that glitter... like well, spiderwebs and diamonds! But it doesn't sound as good in bloggy prose!
Wong's mastery of poetic language is notably sophisticated; so much that it'd be easy to write a proper essay on this poem. Perhaps I will, but for now let's skip to the closing line, something I rarely do in these posts.
women in black embroider orchids in the orchestra pit
Poets: this is a call to action. Music's starting. Do you hear it?
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A march can really get your feet moving. It can make crowds move, and sometimes rally teams and armies to victory -- never mind pillage and murder. But what happens when that same inspiring feeling is expressed through the lilting melodies of a pan flute, or the rainbow surface of a drifting soap bubble?
Is this even possible? If so, is it an example of transcendence?
Yes. And emphatically yes.
Take a look at Nancy Miller Gomez's poem, "Still," posted at Rattle on January 26, 2022. Click the picture above to read the full poem.
The first stanza describes a wilted apple via one of the more striking similes for death I've encountered lately:
Shriveled and brown as a shrunken head,
it holds onto the branch even while falling
The next images carry this same sense forward:
The woman who shows up daily
for her dose of methadone.
The man punching the clock shift after shift
though he carries his heart through each day
in a cold, empty chest.
Finally, we see a boy who struggles in the classroom, a father on his deathbed. All of these images tie together with Gomez's single anthemic line:
Isn’t persistence beautiful?
Do you see the march now? Of course you do. The march of those of us who are wounded, suffering, flummoxed, defeated, lonely, stranded...
We're all in it. And we're all in it together. No matter who you are, you're broken in some way or, I'm sorry to say, probably will be someday. The good news is: persistence is beautiful . And when we persist and overcome our challenges, we are as the bird in this eloquent stanza:
The bird drops its song, over and over,
picking it up and dropping it,
little notes spilling down the mountain.
Gomez's tune is delicate and empathetic. But her theme booms like the most infectious (and righteous) of marches. It's the march of humanity and we're all in the ranks, following the beat (and overcoming the beatings) of life.
Let me know your thoughts and follow me on Twitter @BlackstonDan