Top 5 Tips for Beginning Poets

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Over the next four months, I will offer five tips to students writing in each of the four genres covered in my textbook, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. The suggestions will highlight advice that, over my decades of teaching, I have found to be the most useful for writers just beginning their journeys into the creation of literature.

I’ll begin with poetry, the first genre covered in the text, and also the one that I turn to first when I have something to say. Many students approach the writing of poetry with the sense that anything goes, that whatever leaps from the writer’s brain to their fingertips is, almost by definition, a poem.

I don’t believe that’s the case, which may make me sound overly fussy, but if each utterance is the equal of every other utterance, there’s no real point in holding a class on creative writing. Everyone who composes a poem is already writing as well as they ever will.

So, granting for the moment that student writing may be made stronger in a classroom setting through mentoring by instructors and peers, here are my Top 5 Tips for Beginning Poetry Writing Students:

  1. Use the concrete and specific to evoke the universal. One of the most common assumptions new creative writers make is that the more general and abstract their work, the more likely readers will insert themselves into the piece. The idea is that specific details about specific experiences shut out those who have not experienced the exact same events. In fact, the opposite occurs in creative writing. The vaguer the presentation, the more likely the reader is to drift away from it, whereas vivid details help us to imagine seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and touching what the poet hopes to convey, thereby triggering similarly rich visual and sensual memories of our own.
  2. Compose in terms of lines rather than sentences. The prose poem aside, free verse and metered poetry consists primarily of lines rather than the sentences that run through them. This is one of poetry’s great, and underappreciated, freedoms—the right to stop and start a poetic line wherever that break can open up meaning and insight and generate excitement. The least interesting poems tend to be those whose lines consist solely of complete sentences. Simply running one sentence into the next line (enjambment) can suddenly open up a range of new ways to envision the poem.
  3. Read your work aloud before presenting it to others. Unless you’re a musical marvel, you wouldn’t impose a song you’d never rehearsed before on friends and family, much less on an audience of strangers. Make sure that at the end of every draft, you let your poem be heard—even if you’re the only one listening. How a poem sounds aloud is often quite different from the way you imagine it in your head.
  4. Revise. It’s the rare poem that cannot be made better through serious reconsideration and rewriting. Especially when you’re starting out, you’re likely to use language you’ve heard before, phrases that make strike the ears of more experienced readers as cliché. As you rework your images and lines, try to create a poem that’s both strange and clear. That might sound like an odd combination, but we can only view new worlds and ideas when we can plainly see them.
  5. Read, read, read. It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: good writers are good readers, and great writers are great readers. Being familiar with renowned work from the past and present, if only because it will help you decide what you don’t want to do yourself, is essential. In fact, many writers believe that the best cure for writer’s block is reading the work of other writers. Poets, in particular, benefit from encountering as many short poems as possible. A topic, specific form, or even an image or a phrase encountered in another poem can be just what you need to get started on your own.