Revisiting the rules of poetry, answering the question ‘why bother?’

Why Should You Read This?

Because it may have content valuable to you as a reader or writer, that’s why.  Or not.  You won’t know until you read it.  Why do you read any creative writing?  Is there something wrong with you?

Thankfully, no!

In her October essay “How to tell a good poem from a bad poem,” Ellen Eldridge, editor in chief of Target Audience Magazine, outlines what makes a good poem.  She invited our opinions.  Internal Political Question: as poetry editor do I agree with Our Publisher who, technically speaking, is my boss?

Have I watched Game Of Thrones?

All that said, what in a good poem (also song, and probably short story, and maybe everything else written) encourages you to read it?  There are rules, so let’s have them!

Rule One: my great poem can be your stinker.

Well, of course not one of my poems.  They are all great.  But one of any of anyone else’s poems can be a stinker.  (There is an important lesson to be learned in those last lines, please advise me what it is.)

There are a relatively tiny number of modern poems which are generally agreed upon as being real good.  The same ratio of tons of stuff compared to almost nothing is true for any art form.  Arguably, sadly, the ratio of great to garbage is worse in current poetry than anywhere else, including mime.

This is a broad sweeping generalization—but really, does it not sound right?  How many great rock songs can you name?  How many movies?  How many poems?

Ellen wrote that poems need to get at the core of things, of the emotion, of the truth.  She writes of angry slashing words, of content which must be sharp.  And that has a lot of truth to it, although sharpness can be in the eye of the reader.  For some poets, a dab in your ear with a Q-tip is sharp when you think about it.

Ellen is not arguing for violent art.  She is arguing that the core of any art should be relevant and get straight to you.  Dynamic/emotional/searingly honest.

Poetry can be just as honest as any other art form, given the chance.  So why is street graffiti written about more frequently than the most published poet?  Why have the sales of even mainstream poetry devolved to a cult status compared with novels or short stories?  Why does the crappiest add-some-zombies rewrite of a Jane Austen novel (a great idea!) outsell the bestselling book of poetry?  (I’m making most of this up but it sure sounds true.  It should be okay that I am making up facts to support my opinions, after all this is the Internet.

At this point, please note that if the rules for writing a great poem were simple and I was that smart, I’d be on a Fellowship and lecturing somewhere to somebody.  But there are rules.  Read enough, long enough, and the rules become obvious, because they are staring back at you from the page.

Yet you can even write something great and not know quite what you did.  Someone once asked Daniel Keyes why he had never written anything else as successful as his short story, “Flowers for Algernon” (made into the movie “Charly” that got Cliff Robertson an Oscar.)  His response, as I recall, was he tried.  However, he could not figure out how to duplicate whatever elements came together to create such a memorable story.  (The story is about a very low functioning janitor who is given a brain boost drug.  He quickly becomes the person he could be—charming, inventive, smart—until the drug starts to fade and he realizes he is rapidly becoming low functioning again.  Anyone who reads the story and does not cry is an ass.)

Yet it is all there.  Apart from the solid writing, what lifts this story?  Mostly, first it is a low key personal tragedy.  It is one person’s story of watching his own intelligence and being increased until he realizes how much he has grown, and then it is taken away.  That is awful and we can all relate to it.  The appeal is intimate yet universal.  It is heartbreaking.  There are other elements that make it great, but then you start sliding into magic, where all the sections blend together and form something else.

It is true, as Ellen writes, above all there is one aspect of poetry which separates it from any other written art form: poems are usually real short.  You can read almost any great poem in less than ten minutes.  “Ozymandias” would hardly take Walter White a minute.

Because poems are short, there is no room for anything extraneous.

No room for writing which draws attention to itself.  Flights of look-at-me draw attention to themselves and away from what the poem is about.  In great poems you only notice the words the second or third time around.   It is astonishing how many current poets fail to realize this basic “every word counts” rule.  Many poems could see entire stanzas eliminated.  Many chapbooks could see entire poems eliminated (thinner is better than fake fat.)

Of course if you make every word count then you should know what you are trying to say.  Ellen is right in wanting poets to cut to the bone.  But some poets don’t know which bone to pick.  Nor do they realize that the bone they offer is nothing you want to chew on.

Probably another good rule, Rule Two, is that good poetry gives the reader something to relate to, which generally rules out poetry about whom the poet has sex with or what he or she drinks or which drugs they use.  Really, you have no reason to care.  When photorealism arrived, painters used it as an opportunity to reinterpret what they saw.  When novels arrived, many modern poets used that freedom from writing entertainments to instead write about their navels.  This was not the improvement one might think, and sales of poetry declined.  It would have been different if the poets had followed Rule Two, which is write about a navel, but it should be the reader’s.

A good poem can appear self-involved, but it is a communication to a reader.

The reader should get something to learn or think about.  And it should be sharp and cutting.  Wallpaper poetry, very popular in academia, at times boldly agrees it is about nothing more than the writing itself, how words play together.  A great poem can involve great use of words but it also has content directly relevant to a reader.  Many poems today are wallpaper, background, repeating the same pattern endlessly and you never care.  Readers are only a tiny consideration for such poets.

As you may have guessed by now, content is, for my money, the big deal.  Hopefully, if you are a writer or reader, this little essay may give you some thoughts about what you’ve been writing/reading and might like to try writing/reading.  Style is nice but means little.  You can have a beautifully written poem that is a dead end.  But a crudely written poem can be undeniably great because the content rises above incoherent rhythms and lousy rhymes.

This is saying what Ellen said, but from a different point of view.  What it means is that, as a poet, you might want to start out with why you’re writing about that tree, rather than just describing the tree.  Another way of saying it can be found in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, a little book culled from a New York Times Op Ed piece (illustrations by Joe Giardiello).  Leonard’s ten rules boil down to two, natural to a writer of excellent ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction: concentrate on the story and characters.  That’s basically it.  Forget the writing, or what he says John Steinbeck called ‘hopdoodle.’

New writers or long suffering ones want the writing secrets.  But there are no secrets.  They are all obvious in the writing you love.  Just figure out why you love it.  If the technical quality is a given, then it is memorable usually because of what it is about.  Dickens wrote wonderfully, his sentences flowed, but it was his content people respond to and remember.

If you want to write and are unsure, trying starting out by putting yourself in the character’s place, then open your heart and let the character take it from there.  Even if you have no idea where the poem or story will go, starting with a strong character helps.  Strong characters  inevitably lead to content, which in Western writing in particular usually translates into conflict.  That any poem needs some type of conflict is so obvious it is not even a Rule.

Poets who write “bad” poetry appear to need frequent reminding that writing is communication.  Somewhere in the poem a reason must develop, hopefully early on, that forces someone to read the whole thing.  A connection develops, with the author giving the reader something both entertaining and provoking.

If you are writing, don’t worry if the reason crops up halfway through or even at the end.  That is what a first draft is for.  You can always go back and rewrite.  Though rewriting is frankly easier with a short poem than with a 70,000 word novel.

Which comes down to,

Rule Three: a great poem says it and gets outta Dodge fast.