Looking at what I do first when I write a poem, and what follows, I find there’s little consistency for poets; that said we can point at some common ways in which poets work.
I decided to compare my own tips and ideas for writing poetry with those of veteran Peranakan poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim, with whom I had the pleasure of chatting via video call recently.
As you’ll see, we agreed on almost everything.
Editor’s note: Please click on the hyperlinks so that you can better understand some of the poetry terms used in this article.
Shirley Lim (SL) told me: I want younger poets to know the poems published before they were born; if you don’t know your family members and your community before you became alive, then there’s a part of you that’s not grounded. Likewise, your poems are not grounded.
I (LP) say: It’s easy to skip reading, but it’s really the foundation. You won’t find a mediumly-good poet who doesn’t read most days.
One exercise I give students is to ‘translate’ a published poem from a book or the Internet, into their own version. It works wonders, including curing writer’s block.
It makes you read the original work closely too. It puts you through something, as your own work has suddenly acquired a weight it hasn’t earned; you want to shave and shape this new thing while keeping some of that. You may feel you owe something to the original; that may simply be lightness and humour.
Often, I’m just trying to write down lines and phrases and words, following an image or a thought, passing by a neighbour’s house and noticing they haven’t been out a lot, and then telling the story, you know, making up a story, that he’s lost his job, and they’re in economic trouble, and behind that Santa Barbara (California) middle-class living, there are all these other hardships happening.
Then I come home, and maybe input it into my computer or write it out fully, and at that point, I look to complete images, or cut down excessive wording – dropping words like a, the – ‘The memory of the beauty’ – That kind of repetition of the ‘of’ phrase, it’s something I’m trying to control. Then I look for line breaks and poetic devices like that.
The next day I’m writing another poem. Maybe in a few months, somebody asks me for some poems and I’ll look at what I’ve already written, and I’ll pick a few and work on them. I’ll really, really tweak them, with deletions and paring them down.
Sometimes I amplify the language as I’m writing, but often I don’t, I do that much later. That’s a form of revising and perfecting the language. And often I throw the draft away. But usually, it forms the scaffold. Sometimes, after I’ve “perfected” the poem, I dismantle the scaffold and make it into a prose poem.
I spill ideas out into the computer or get them onto paper in shorthand. I don’t put line breaks in yet; I feel where they are though because I overuse the same metre. Sometimes it just doesn’t sit right in iambic pentameter, which means it needs something else.
I keep one massive Word file for new lines and notes on projects. I go through it as often as I can, pairing existing material with new ideas. I sometimes re-paste my best ideas to the top, for fresh attention.
When I get a line or three together I can often add more. I lay it aside and return to it a day or so later and reinhabit it. It takes time.
More often I get a ‘clever’ phrase which seems at first to be out of character, tone, or relationship with anything else I’ve written. There’s a high ratio of that compared to coherent material.
LP: Beginner poets are often intimidated by metre or beat. The easiest is iambic pentameter. Those two words may sound elevated or complicated, but it’s just our natural speaking rhythm.
Given that when we read poetry aloud we naturally pause at line-ends, it’s worth placing a keyword there rather than an ‘a’, ‘the’, is’ or ‘at’ – a non-emphatic word there is a wasted opportunity for impact.
That means relaxing on the syllable count too; if your word ‘bang’ or ‘cement’ takes you to eight syllables, you don’t need to fill the line with lame words just to meet the strict count. Let those ‘and’s and ‘but’s come down to start the next line.
It should be the opposite of machine assembly work, but even free verse uses lineation – conscious line breaks.
No famous poet I’ve spoken with has told me they lose sleep over exact syllable counts or form. Get your basic frame up, then play confidently. Look at Paul Muldoon’s work; he’s having a laugh!
SL: I tell my students, don’t worry about being worried about the line breaks; as with form, you have to work at it, but at a certain point it becomes easier; it no longer seems artificial, or artifice. It seems more spontaneous. With the line breaks, I’m still an amateur; I count – I do syllabic counting, still.
LP: I give students an exercise to put their poems into prose lines, as you said earlier, rework it all, then put them back into poetic lines or lineation again.
SL: Correct; you do and undo, and in that way, you piece together something that is “original”; you know, rather than conventional.
Shirley says alliteration comes so easily to her, “…‘cause that’s the English language; with much of its roots in Anglo-Saxon, it’s completely alliterative.”
Alliteration, she says, is not always at the beginning of the word, it can be in the middle.
“When you read the poem aloud and listen to yourself, you may find, say, ‘l’ sounds in the middle of words.
You’re looking for musicality, which is mnemonic, so that if you can write a poem, and then memorise it, I mean recite it – now that’s a challenge. Most students will write short poems anyone can remember – but write a lengthy one, for them to stand up and recite from memory – that tells them they need more in that work that will string the memory.
When they can recite their own poem, what strings it are the poem’s craft aspects: alliteration, internal rhymes, rhythm, line breaks – craft makes a poem work as a poem, as opposed to just a piece of writing,” Shirley said.
LP: Professional poets don’t overthink devices such as alliteration; it just comes as you’re working and reworking a piece: ‘Seven sizzling shotguns’.
Poets often reject rhyme because it forces you down an unintended path you can’t get back from; which could be interesting occasionally if it doesn’t lose focus.
Double rhymes – ‘bucket’ with ‘cook it’, are reserved for satire and children’s verse. I find slant- or half-rhymes such as spine/meridian or tape/grip far more interesting.
I’ve rejected it all my life, but more recently I find rhyming sometimes helps me when the subject matter is intense emotionally; it helps minimise distractions.
Writing the villanelle form especially, plus my own sonnet variations, I feel I’m being nudged to go deeper into both meaning and feeling. Even writing haiku, the air feels different; the form hones my focus.
Sometimes, if it’s all ‘whatever’ and nothing’s nailed down, anything could happen — including nothing.
Shirley related form to spontaneity and lightness rather than intensities, saying, “The embracing of form allows poets more spontaneity and lightness.
“One local poet here (California), Chryss Yost, wrote a poem about baking bread, and she used it as an analogy for poetry – If you knead the bread, it will rise, and be light; and have air bubbles. If you don’t knead before you bake it, it will be like stone! A poem needs to be kneaded with a form to appear light and spontaneous.
“One poem I wrote, Imagine, ends with “All poetry begins with a lie.” Emily Dickinson says tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” said Shirley.
LP: No one needs to know if my narrative poems are about my life or not; they’re collages of what could have been, my acquaintances’ more interesting real-life episodes, some realities.
It’s art, not documentary; the possibilities are endless. If it resonates, that’s its truth that people relate to.
LP: It’s good to get opinions; the more honest the better. Poet Philip Gross’ feedback put me off writing for a year because it was spot-on; not cruel. My degree and MA Creative Writing tutors, Tim Liardet and Carrie Etter were total opposites; that forced me to find my own evaluations between those strong reference points.
If one poet tells you poetic form helps you get serious and another says light, try writing a pantoum or sonnet and see for yourself.
As a graduate student, Shirley studied with JV Cunningham, who was a very dark, brooding, reclusive, strict, critical professor.
“I’d just come from Malaysia, I was a young, eager graduate student and I wanted to write poetry. He said to me on the very first day: “This is not a poem”!
“I walked back to my room and I said to myself, ‘Oh fuck him’, you know. Instead of accepting that this was not a poem, I rejected his critique of it,” Shirley said.
I give this younger Shirley Lim kudos for that, that backbone; and I would say to every young poet, don’t listen to me, Shirley Lim; listen to your inner voice. If you believe in what you’re saying, you’ll say screw the rest of them.