Tagged with "poetry"
Understanding Poetry Tags: Writing Poetry


Understanding Poetry

On more than one occasion I have noticed a reader responding to a poem, or poetry in general as: “I really don’t understand poetry.” As a poet I have often wanted to respond. This looks like a good opportunity.

To begin with I should explain that I am an uneducated poet. My degrees, gleaned many years ago, were not in literature, journalism, or poetry, or English. I have never learned to spell, in all these years, and confess that there is poetry I simply do not understand. At best I comprehend about a third, or less of poems I see in the New Yorker Magazine. So many times I just don’t get it. There is a sort of intellectual, educated, learned, intellectual, and academically correct poetry that goes right by me. I once asked a more literate friend to explain this mystery to me. What was between the lines, unseen by me?

He said the reader was supposed to experience an epiphany.

I think this may have happened to me once, if ever, but it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of poets and poetry I understand immediately, without effort.

Though totally untrained I have been able to have some of my own poems published now and again in literary journals edited by learned professionals and graduate students. It’s interesting to realize my work is being decided on by graduate students—twenty-one year olds who are still in school. Some get their work published in The New Yorker. Some will graduate to become editors of commercial journals—that pay.


This modest success is within the reach of all of us. Few of us write poetry with the thought of making a buck. To do so is crazy, but crazy might be a good thing for poets to be.

About forms:

There are many forms, sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles are a few. I honestly could not define what any of these are. It doesn’t matter. Though some contests and journals might look specifically for one of these or other forms, they are a minority – in my opinion.

Rhyming poetry is another form. It used to be almost required, but not anymore. Many literary journals will not accept it, which is a shame. I am a rhyming savant, it comes easy to me. Maybe that’s the reason, too easy. It’s considered sort of corny now . . . but fun. My rhyming poems have gone over big at retirement and birthday celebrations—modest social events. There are, however, journals that look for this form. The following is an excerpt taken from a contest listed on line this month.

Two prizes of $1,500 each and publication on the Winning Writers website are given annually for a poem in any style and a poem that either rhymes or is written in a traditional....


Rhythm is always important – cadence. But don’t get put off by mind numbing concepts such as, iambic pentameter.

The following abridged excerpt is from an interview with Allen Ginsberg in The Paris Review.


I think Diana Trilling remarked that your poetry, like all poetry in English when dealing with a serious subject, naturally takes on the iambic pentameter rhythm. Do you agree?


Well, it really isn’t an accurate thing, I don’t think. I’ve never actually sat down and made a technical analysis of the rhythms that I write. They’re probably more near choriambic—Greek meters, dithyrambic meters—and tending toward de DA de de DA de de ... what is that? Tending toward dactylic, probably. Williams once remarked that American speech tends toward dactylic. But it’s more complicated than dactyl because dactyl is a three—three units, a foot consisting of three parts—whereas the actual rhythm is probably a rhythm which consists of five, six, or seven, like DA de de DA de de DA de de DA DA. Which is more toward the line of Greek dance rhythms—that’s why they call them choriambic. There are definite rhythms that could be analyzed as corresponding to classical rhythms, though not necessarily English classical rhythms; they might correspond to Greek classical rhythms, or Sanskrit prosody.


 And in Howl and Kaddish you were working with a kind of classical unit? Is that an accurate description?


Yeah, but it doesn’t do very much good, because I wasn’t really working with a classical unit, I was working with my own neural impulses and writing impulses. The difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern, and perhaps even arriving at a pattern that might even have a name, or might even have a classical usage, but arriving at it organically rather than synthetically. Nobody’s got any objection to even iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind. What’s important is the breathing and the belly and the lungs. We all have that ability. American poets have been able to break away from a kind of English specified rhythm earlier than English poets have been able to do.


Do you think this has anything to do with a peculiarity in English spoken tradition?


I don’t really think so, because the English don’t speak in iambic pentameter either; they don’t speak in the recognizable pattern that they write in. The dimness of their speech and the lack of emotional variation is parallel to the kind of dim diction and literary usage in the poetry now. But you can hear all sorts of Liverpudlian or Gordian—that’s Newcastle—you can hear all sorts of variants aside from an upper-tone accent—a highclass accent—that don’t fit into the tone of poetry being written right now. It’s not being used like in America—I think it’s just that British poets are more cowardly. 

*       *       *

Ginsberg is one of my favorite poets. One can always understand exactly what his work is about, and there are many others.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, another favorite said: “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” Spot on. Let’s all be artists

I Don’t Know

Wislawa Szymborska

The excerpts and comments below are from a review I saw on the Polish Poet, Wislawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel Prize lecture.

“Poets, if they are genuine, must keep repeating ‘I don’t know.”

Her poetry demonstrates this ideal through its allegiance to astonishment, a feature that’s perhaps her most lasting influence on poetry. Astonishment is a surrender born out of inquisitive and active humility; its sympathetic refrain of “I don’t know” offers poetry space for a wandering imagination.

The phrase “I don’t know” is “small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. It is the core of curiosity, and, paradoxically, it’s perhaps the phrase most integral to empathy. “I don’t know” doesn’t mean I don’t want to know but rather I want to know more. It is an allowance of space meant to be filled. It makes room for the other and for other people.”

Poetry, Szymborska contends, is the operative exercise of not knowing.

     “Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot.” Poems are not parades of the known but rather failed attempts at knowing—much like the essay, named thus for the Old French word meaning “to try— essayer.”

Reminds me of a Buddhist koan: What are the first words of wisdom? Answer: I don’t know. 

*       *       *

This blog is getting longer than intended, but before I end, since we’re into Asia, and forms, I want to say a bit about Haiku—traditionally a short three line poem (5 syllables, 7 syllables. 5 syllables).

One of our Writers Abroad members recently wrote a very nice piece about Haikus, and I thought I would see a lot of responsive attempts to write them. This didn’t happen. Another member advised readers not to get too hung up on Haiku forms, which are some of the most restrictive, in my opinion.

There were no attempts, at my last look. I suspect most of us were put off by the rules and perhaps, as for myself, uncertainty as to how many syllables were in certain words. But you can Google them, i.e. ‘How many syllables are in phenomenal?’ One gets an immediate answer. As for form, forget about it, unless you are submitting to a contest with specific requirements. Have fun!

Japanese Haiku master, Basho’s koans, rarely end up 5 -7 -5 in English. Maybe they do in Japanese script. I don’t know, but they work. Below is my Basho favorite.

Look Children

Hail stones

Let’s run out!


Wow. It’s got everything, including humor. That’s hard one, getting humor in the punch line, a surprise. Not easy, but this is a fun form, or not-form, educational in both syllablic understanding, rhythm, and economy of words.

Let’s all run out without the fear of rules and what we don’t know. “What’s important is the breathing and the belly and the lungs.” We all have that ability.


We are all poets, some of us don’t know it.



Are you a poet and you didn't know it? Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers poetry

Some members of Writers Abroad write poetry. Some of us don’t. If I’m honest, I am always slightly uncomfortable critiquing a poem, since I don’t feel qualified in the technical aspects. I often read the winning poems in Writing Magazine competitions, but I skip over the accompanying critique.

The leader of our writing group suggested recently that we look at using poetry to sharpen our prose.

“Let’s all try writing a Haiku for homework,” she said.

I wondered if I could plead a prior engagement for our next meeting. I’ve heard of Haikus (Japanese poem of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 non-rhyming syllables), but this will be my first attempt at writing poetry since I was a child. And that was pretty turgid stuff.

When I read the material she circulated about using poetic techniques in writing prose, my interest was pricked. Poets use words to present an image or an idea, often in a very economical way. I learned that the first line of a poem is crucial in challenging or surprising the reader and setting up the idea. The last line is equally important in rounding off the theme. The two provide a unity that the lines in between develop. Try applying this to one of your favourite poems.

I tried this with John Donne, one of my poets of choice.

1st line: No man is an island entire of itself

Last line: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In between: development of the theme of our common humanity.

Sounds familiar? You can apply this to the first and last lines of a short story or a novel. Is the theme clear from the start? Have you taken the reader on a journey from a problem or a challenge to a destination? Does what happens in between develop that journey?

The use of individual words or phrases is also significant. To keep the reader’s interest, poets have to find new ways of presenting emotions or describing images without falling back into cliché. The novelist Helen Dunmore was a poet. The language in her novels shines. She sometimes used words that made you sit up, but when you thought about it, you knew they were exactly right.

Have a look at one of your works in progress, identify any clichéd language or emotion and try to come up with more original turns of phrase. Focus particularly on the first paragraph or two.

Now I am off to tackle the biggest writing challenge of the year so far: composing a Haiku.

Focusing on Theme Tags: writing fiction poetry non-fiction theme

Focusing on Theme

Since inspiration and fresh ideas seem to have flown off on holiday together – hopefully, only for a short break – I’ve been digging into the archives of my short stories. Some of them are unfinished, or finished but unpolished. Others have been unsuccessful in competitions. Rather too many! Reading over them, what struck me most was their lack of a clear theme. 

As a reader, when a story grabs me it’s because it leaves me pondering afterwards. I may have learned something that I hadn’t thought much about before, or at least can relate to. A strong theme is what makes the story memorable. I think I’m safe in saying poetry depends on theme too – poets will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong. Even non-fiction, in some cases, has a theme. In a novel, more than one theme is possible, and just as important. For me, anyway.

So what’s the best way to go about it as a writer? Let’s fast forward, as I’ve taken the easy way out via my best friend Google to find out what other writers thought.

Some thought it best to start with characters and plot and a theme would emerge organically. Lucky them. Preconceived themes often seem contrived. Stephen King apparently agrees. Certainly looking at one story I wrote, I saw that by choosing the theme first I had made it sound a bit preachy. Others say that theme has become a lost art in fiction, sometimes considered old-fashioned.

Other writers didn’t care about theme at all, preferring to just stick to plot-driven action. Of course, all our tastes are different. Thankfully. I can understand that the world-building qualities of science fiction might be as satisfying as theme, but I’ll leave opinion to the experts in that genre (you know who you are!)  

An Australian academic site suggested a theme was of great importance, but that it shoud be 'underlying’ and ‘subtle’ and then went on to explain how to develop this. As you’d expect, showing not telling came into play. At the same time, it did suggest beginning with a theme, although perhaps this was aimed more at novel writing.

Personally, I think a theme is important. What do you think? And how do you approach it?


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