When I re-read my poems, I generally remember writing them. The ones I most enjoy crystallise a specific moment in time– not just the memory, but the feeling. That feeling might not be related to the subject of the poem. In fact, it’s usually kind of mundane.
It’s like being able to see myself as a stranger. That’s my favourite thing about writing.
When I originally posted the poem, I felt that it had potential.
I wasn’t totally happy with it but, at the time, I didn’t know how to make it work better.
I didn’t think it was bad, but it didn’t hit all the right beats.
It wasn’t unfinished, but I knew it would benefit from more work.
So here are the two versions of the poem side-by-side (you can also find the new version here).
The red text was removed in the re-edit, the blue text was moved or reworded, and the green text was added.
What did I learn?
1. The first version of the poem suffered from too many ideas.
There were phrases and images that I enjoyed, but I couldn’t make them fit well in this poem. That’s not to say they wouldn’t work in another poem. Equally, they just might not work in which case I can let them go.
It is possible to explain a thing too much. Being able to extend a metaphor doesn’t mean that you should. Sometimes stating an idea is enough.
On the plus side, I won’t complain about having too many ideas.
2. Structure is important.
The original poem is less easy to follow. I move between different metaphors and subjects. I like it when a poem feels like a good conversation. Moving things around in the re-edit helped the logical progression of ideas.
3. Words are hard.
I like to play with technical language. I find wordplay and double-entendre satisfying. However, in the first version, too much of this can compromise the intent I’m trying to express.
Simple words can do the job.
This poem might be written to be read aloud. I’d like to become better at distinguishing spoken word from written word. I’d like to better understand how to exist in that overlap.
Speaking of the spoken word
I record myself reading my poems. Here are the two poems for comparison:
I think the recent version is an improvement. I’d like to say something more insightful but I think it might be a little too close to home.
It still isn’t finished.
I just don’t think the poem is quite there yet, you know?
It’s worth saying that this poem might not ever be done. I don’t think all poems need to feel finished. Some poems, including this one, are a stimulus for other poems.
I think my favourite poems are my most authentic. I guess this poem isn’t true– I don’t really want to write you songs. This poem was more of a writing exercise; me playing with language.
The truth in this poem is that I feel frustrated when lack the capacity to express how I feel with words. Especially feelings that are worth sharing with other people; especially love.
The truth in this poem is accepting that it isn’t always possible to capture my feelings in words.
It’s a broad question which I hadn’t given much consideration until I was recently asked.
I’ve broken my answer down into two parts. In part one I discussed what it means for something to be a poem– you can find that post here.
In this post, I want to talk to you about my techniques for writing.
I don’t intend for this to be overly technical or instructive. The purpose is to offer an insight into how I work. I would love to hear whether you have a similar approach or, even better, an entirely different one.
Some of these techniques (“The Golden Shovel” in particular) are ones I encountered at Growing Poetry, an amazing poetry retreat that I attended last September. Do take a look at their Facebook page– there’s a lot of inspiration and new favourites to be found.
Stream of consciousness or “Free-writing”
This is how I write a lot of my poems. There’s no special secret; I write, write and rewrite.
There are blessed days when I start writing and I might be able to deliver a poem almost fully-formed and perfect. I might be suddenly inspired with an opening line and then find that the rest follows naturally. This is rare.
Often I’ll have a starting point: a phrase, a subject, an idea, a rhyme. Sometimes it’s a conversation I’ve had or one I wish I could have. It can be something I’ve thought of myself, or maybe something I’ve borrowed.
Then, I’ll allow myself to write without judgement. It might be for a set amount of time, a certain number of pages, or until I run out of steam.
Then comes the rewriting. Like I said, some poems need a lot more work than others. I go back through what I’ve written and pick out elements that seem promising. This could be a theme, a line or a single word. I might find a strong image that I want to explore further. I might find many things compelling in one exercise of this, or I might not connect with anything. The poem that results could be completely different to what I started from and it’s possible that more than one poem might come out.
Below is an image from my notebook to help illustrate what I mean.
In that session of writing, I was thinking about what makes a poem a poem. You can see that I explored a few different directions (“his face is a poem”, “a poem is perfume”, “a poem is an immune response”).
I haven’t finished putting any of those poems together, so I’m not sure where we’ll end up. Be sure to look out for at least one of these– now you’ll know where it started.
For a few months last year, I wrote one poem of twenty-five words every day. You can have a look at them here. The main purpose of this exercise was to get into a habit of writing regularly. Twenty-five words isn’t very much– it was something I could write and post from my phone.
Inspiration isn’t a promise and it isn’t magic. Writing every day meant writing even when I wasn’t feeling inspired or creative. It proved to me that I can do it. Now I can’t tell myself that I have writer’s block because I know I can write something every day.
These short poems forced me to focus on choosing my words carefully for clarity and impact. The poems cover a range of topics, from the mundane to the magnificent. Looking back over those poems, I have been able to learn a lot about myself as a writer. I’m able to identify strong themes running through the variety. I can hear my own style emerging but I can see where I need to challenge myself more.
I’ve also found that if you tell yourself you only need to write twenty-five words, you can often end up writing a lot more. Sometimes making the time to write is more difficult than the act itself.
Writing from a prompt can be useful when you’re faced with a blank page and you’re not sure what to write about. The prompt can be used as strictly or loosely as you choose. I like to break the rules and often try respond to prompts obtusely. Sometimes I challenge myself to take them more literally. Whatever the approach, you’ll end up with something at the end.
Almost anything can be used as a writing prompt. I might choose a random word or a line from a book, listen to music (with or without words), pick an image, look for new words or concepts. How I interact with any prompt will vary: it might be something I choose to describe, it could spark a new idea or an old memory.
If all of that choice seems too overwhelming, look for more prescriptive prompts online (e.g. “Write a poem about silence”)– have a look!
Poems which have clear rules for their structure give us an opportunity to play with words and rhythm. It can be a fun way to challenge ourselves, almost like a puzzle. It’s also a good tool to develop our writing by switching focus and trying something new.
Have a look for forms of poem you’d like to try. I often use poems that play with syllable structure like tankas, haikus and limericks. Other types of poem that I’d like to try in the near future are sonnets, acrostics and concrete poetry.
“The Golden Shovel”
This is a technique in which you take a line (or lines) from a poem of your choice. Each word of that line then becomes the last word of the poem that you write. You must keep the words in the same order as the original line.
So if you choose a line with four words (e.g. she sells sea shells), the poem you write must have four lines and each line must end with one of those words in order (e.g. line one ends with “she”, line two “sells”, line three “sea”, line four “shells”).
You can find more background and explanation on this technique in this article from Poetry magazine.
This particular technique isn’t one I use a lot, but there are many ways to borrow from poems that inspire us. Rearrange all the words in a poem, borrow a title, use the same subject, or repurpose a line. It could be interesting to use a poem that you’re less familiar with– a different poet, era, genre or style. I’ve even thought about using my own work.
One of my favourite ways to do this is by starting with something that isn’t a poem; what about a newspaper or a shopping list?
In its simplest form, this can be a helpful starting point to write from. It can be further used as an appreciation of others’ work, or a way to enter into dialogue by offering different perspective on a theme.
The more invested I’ve become in writing, the more important it has been to remind myself that I write because I enjoy it. I enjoy it, I love it, and I don’t want it to become something I dread or torture myself with.
I love working on this blog. It is both gratifying and humbling to have my poems read, listened to and liked. The danger is that this can bring a sense of pressure. Sometimes I find myself becoming very self-conscious about my work– Will people like it? Will they read it? Is it good enough?— often before I’ve written anything.
That’s just no good.
Of course I want always want to improve my writing, but I don’t want that to stop me from writing all-together. After all, that’s what the whole “bad poetry” concept is about.
When the going gets tough, the tough get silly. When I’m struggling to write, it can help to take the pressure off of myself completely. I hope I always enjoy writing about animals, farts, pizza, and making silly puns.
What do you think?
Those are my thoughts, but I’d love you know what you think (for all of my writers, not just poets):
How do you write? What techniques do you use when you’re struggling to write?
It’s a broad question which I hadn’t given much consideration until I was recently asked.
To give you my answer, I’m going to break this down into two parts:
What is a poem?
How do I write a poem?
Welcome to part one,
What is a poem?
The short answer is that I’m not entirely sure.
For me, a poem is an encompassing idea. I think it’s something that is subjective. I’m not sure who decides whether a poem is a poem. Is it the reader? Is it the writer?
Does it matter?
However, at some point I clearly decided that what I was writing was poetry. I even put it in the name of the blog.
So here’s what I think:
A poem is more than a piece of writing.
Being written seems an intrinsic characteristic to some of the dictionary definitions above. I would argue that this is a limiting perspective.
Some poems are rich and deep. Their intricacies and complexities require the permanence of the written word. They are built to be read and re-read.
However, some poems are composed to be read aloud. They are lyrical and they need to be spoken to be appreciated; they need to be performed.
So many poetic devices– rhythm, rhyme and wordplay– work best when read aloud.
Some poems exist only as spoken word and these are often the most accessible forms of poetry. I believe that nursery rhymes, prayers and song lyrics all have a place in poetry.
These are the poems which are ubiquitous. They’re the poems for people who don’t read poetry and they’re the ones that we recite together.
A poem has a meaningful structure.
Structure is a integral to clearly conveying information in all forms of communication. We are familiar with the concept of a beginning, a middle and an end; an introduction, a discussion and a conclusion; conflict and resolution.
Structure may vary depending on media, purpose or concept. However, it is a common success factor in most endeavours, be it a film script, a corporate presentation, or an argument with a loved one.
In poetry, structure is more than a vehicle for getting a point across. The use and exploration of structure may be the purpose for writing a poem.
There can be a joy in the puzzle-like quality of working with different styles of poem.
There are many forms of poetry, some with a defined set of rules. Their structure could be dictated by syllable patterns, line breaks, repetition… Think sonnets, haikus and limericks, for example.
Sometimes it is less defined. There can be list poems and letters. There can be poems which are narratives and monologues. The boundaries can become blurred.
Structure is not just linguistic. Concrete poetry is concerned with typography, the visual structure of the poem on a page.
Even stream-of-consciousness or free form poems follow structure, be that loose or fragmented– that’s the point.
The variety of poetic structure offers options for how to present information and concepts. When implemented well, an awareness of structure gives the poet an opportunity to add another layer of meaning to their work.
A poem uses its words with precision and purpose.
It is good practice, both in writing and speech, to choose our words carefully for meaning and conciseness. However, in poetry, the use of language is celebrated beyond this and, again, could be the purpose of a poem.
On first consideration, I decided that poetry was about distilling an emotion, memory or concept into something eloquent and easily understood. It can be a kind of therapy. I’ve heard it described as the study of simple things. Some say poets search for beauty and meaning where others might overlook it.
These things might be true but, overall, I find it a bit too serious.
There is an idea of a lonely poet who sits in the dark thinking big thoughts and writing very profound things. Whilst there’s a time and a place for this, it is also important to remember the contribution of silliness and nonsense poetry.
I have written poems where the primary purpose has been to make cheap rhymes, bad puns, and fart jokes. I love it and I’m not sorry.
There are so many poetic devices– simile, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, just to name a few. These can be very technical but they can also be a lot of fun. For me, they are an opportunity to celebrate language, to play.
I don’t think that poems need to be beautiful in a traditional sense. By which I mean that they don’t have to be nice, or florid, or finished.
I do think that poetry is beautiful but I think that because I love it.
For me that beauty can be in being raw, vulnerable, honest, unapologetic, joyful… It could be in being ugly. Just vulgar and ugly and a bit gross.
I find beauty in authenticity. I also find it in the fantastical.
It’s contradictory, isn’t it?
Sometimes poetry really speaks to something in us, and sometimes it is totally surface-level. Sometimes it’s about love, sometimes grief, and sometimes it’s about toilets. Sometimes all three.
Overall, for me, wordplay and the manipulation of language are a defining characteristic of poetry regardless of the subject matter.
The short answer is still that I don’t really know what a poem is.
I’ve done my best to articulate my thoughts above, but they are intentionally vague. I think it’s subjective.
Poetry is broad and poetry is personal. It can be laced in meaning or it can be matter of fact.
In my own writing, I can identify some major themes and topics. Despite this, there are pieces that I revisit and even myself be unsure of what they’re really about.In the writing of something, the intended meaning can change entirely.
I enjoy playing with different styles, structures and subjects. I’m interested to see whether this will continue or whether it will change as my writing becomes more established.
I would be interested to know your thoughts:
How do you define a poem? Does that carry through into your own work? Has your perspective changed over time?
I always was a poet but I think that I forgot.
I’d overlooked to celebrate the rhyme in every thought.
I’d assumed that words escaped me but that just wasn’t the case;
I’d accidentally kept them captive, kept them in some quiet place.
Now I’m poeting my poe-hims, and my poe-hers, and poe-theys,
And the more I seem to poet, the more poems come my way.
Now I simply stagger, stumble, onto lines and onto verse.
Now the issue’s not the writing but that I need to learn more words.