A few years ago, I took a one-week poetry workshop at Kenyon College with David Baker. In that short summer class Baker shared a semester’s worth of his knowledge with the dozen or so of us new and accomplished poets. I was, and still am, a fledgling poet, yet I periodically take poetry workshops in order to hone my prose. The same rules for creating successful poems apply to prose. Both are a means of telling a story.
Don’t be afraid of being clear.
In literature units in school, students tend to shrink at the mention of studying poems, fearing the “old dead guy’s” words and their esoteric meanings. Granted, many poets such as T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound are a hard sell. But instead of studying the whole map of the world, if students isolate passages and lines and study them, this allows them to look at locations on the map in order to move through the poem. Poems often require several readings in order to fully absorb them.
Clarity in a poem is measured in concrete detail.
The tree is lovely and mysterious is a valid description, but the words “lovely” and “mysterious” are abstract, so the image is unclear.
The tree is laced with ice is a precise image with an economy of words. “Laced” creates a picture of tree branches covered in an intricate filigree of ice, and provides a sense of temperature without stating outright that it is winter.
Another idea Baker shared with our group it is not enough to have ONE good idea to make a poem; you need TWO. These contrasting ideas create a dialogue with one another.
For example, in one of my favorite poems by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, the Lanyard appears to be a simple tale of a boy recalling creating lanyards at summer camp, thinking it’s a suitable gift for his mother. With clarity and humor, Collins unearths a revelation that this simple gift will never be enough, that “you can never repay your mother.”
A poem is finished when it accomplishes what it set out to do.
That sounds easy, but how do you know when something is finished? Sometimes it isn’t. I often attend poetry readings, where I’m holding the poet’s published book in my hand so I can read along and they will delete lines and entire stanzas that appear in print as they recite.
The idea of “accomplishing what it set out to do” applies to any form of writing. The key is in knowing what you want your poem or story to do. What story are you trying to tell? Why is it important?
Read poetry and pay attention to how the poet uses concrete detail. Take a poetry class. Write poems. You never have to show them to anyone, but the act of creating poetry informs all of your writing. It forces you to sit up and pay attention to the words. Lace your trees with ice.
— By Laura Moe