Poetry As Distillation: An Essay on Good Poems
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This piece was originally posted on The Wanderer's Library here. While this essay was created primarily for Wanderer's Library authors, any person interested in writing or reading poetry should find this useful, even when the poetry is tied to SCP writing.

Hi! I'm carolynn ivycarolynn ivy, and in this essay I'm going to be talking a little bit about my approaches to writing poetry, and some tips and general thoughts I have about the art and the ways one can practice it. Poetry is a highly underappreciated and misunderstood genre. In this piece I want to re-align a reader's expectations for what poetry can be, and leave prospective writers more confident in how to approach the medium. Ultimately, I want to express a little of what it is that drives my love for verse.

I want to note that all these suggestions are based off of my beliefs and aesthetics1, and that I am not the only readership in the world. I'd like to think I have good taste, and I really do think these suggestions should be universally helpful if your goal is improving your poems' readability and capacity to emotionally impact a reader. But maybe you think some of my advice would be dulling your work, or hey, maybe you're not actually interested in your poem sounding nice. Don't feel held to any of this!

I also recommend you read Avelon21Avelon21's guide to technical elements of poetry and poetry critiquing. This essay works well as a partner to that. This piece will focus more on the abstract elements of poetry, and I will be more specifically concentrated on free verse, though I will touch on fixed verse near the end.

A Word on Inspiration

I'll preface this essay by noting that, since my last poem, I have not written much if at all in the last few months. I am not the sort of person who believes that productivity must be constant or regular. When I write, either a song or a poem, I do not feel like I am creating something out of nothing. I am largely writing from an abundance of experiences, thoughts, and phrases that I have had stewing inside me; when that spirit is brimming, when it overflows, I produce a work. This is to say that, if you feel like you do not have a lot to say at the moment, you do not need to say anything.

Ninety-five percent of my time as a poet or musician is spent taking walks, going to work, making food, taking more walks, falling in love, having weird dreams. Part of what makes poetry and music important to me is that, at its best, it reflects life. This is true of all mediums. Personally, my circumstances have been a quarantine and a lot of social isolation—this means my cup of spirit is filling very, very slowly. That's okay. I will write when I am ready.

This is not to say this holds universally; many artists I know find that they can simply work diligently every day, hammering out songs or poems about whatever crosses their minds, and eventually produce pieces of beauty. This is fine! This is good! I only mean to say that one should not feel pressured to be persistently productive. There is no right or wrong to be creative; whatever makes you feel better about your work will do.

With that being said, let's assume I am ready to write a poem.

Content: Marrying Abstract and Concrete

Poetry, as a genre, is well known for using line-breaks liberally, and in fact many naïve definitions of poetry depend on this characteristic to describe the medium. This is not universally true2, but it does scratch at a deeper truth about poetry.

Line breaks in poetry are one manifestation of the genre's more defining trait of using language abstractly. Poetry allows a writer to play with word order, to play with meaning, to play with metaphor, and of course to play with how words are placed on a page (i.e. line breaks). This, in many ways, means that poetry is, in some manner, unconstrained.

There are two complicating factors here; to be a good poem, a meaningful poem, it must make a reader feel something, and relate back to a reader in some concrete manner. In order to be a good poem, a poem must also not squander its abstractness, its freedom; even a reader not looking for it can tell if there is wasted potential.

Thus, a good poem tends to relate the abstract with the concrete:

  • Langston Hughes wrote "Harlem" as a meditation on a few different ways to concretely describe what happens to "a dream deferred," ranging from raisins in the sun to festering sores, before suggesting an explosion.
  • Walt Whitman wrote "Song of Myself" with a lot of vast language about cosmos and multitudes in conjunction with very strong, detailed language about his body and his surroundings, creating an abstract sense of awe and self-love at the junction.
  • "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, after its first four words, is comprised solely of an extremely specific scene that "so much depends upon," but it provides a window to an abstract feeling that I could not describe, but I know that it is there.

All three of these examples simultaneously frame these concrete elements in abstract ways; with rhyming, with alliteration, with line breaks, with punctuation. When you write a poem, try to consider how to connect the abstract thing you are relating—love, a particular fear, how you feel when you look at your dog in the snow—to a concrete object to help ground both more strongly in a reader's mind.

I want to stress: you are trying to instill an emotion in your reader's mind. Simply describing that you are happy will not make your reader also happy; saying "I'm sad!" will not make your reader also sad. You'll just get vague pity at best. Abstract-concrete relation is the easiest way to get around this by far. It capitalizes off of the fact that humans feel things not when they hear other people describe their feelings, but when something happens. Simultaneously, it makes concrete imagery more vivid, because we remember things more deeply when emotions, novelty, or abstract experiences are involved.3

Poetic language, phrase-by-phrase

The application of abstract to concrete and vice-versa applies on a phrasal level. So much emotive and sensory work is done by a well placed metaphor or simile, and this helps you save a lot of space that would be eaten up by more a more exhausting elaboration of some abstract feeling.

If I were writing a poem about some friends and I in the desert at night, and I wanted to evoke a loving, nostalgic setting while also describing a visual element of the scene, I could describe a "firefly flashlight" I was carrying. This takes two disparate concrete nouns, one real and the other imagined, to create a third more abstract conception of the social dynamics; warm, loving, bitter-sweetly communicating at a distance; all through the readers' personal associations with fireflies. It also would give a striking visual for the flashlight, as being less harsh and more of a soft summery glow. All in two words!

That particular phrase, "firefly flashlight," relies on some fairly conventional associations with fireflies in popular culture that have diffused into society; fireflies are romantic, glowing, summery, and they use their diffuse light to signal to other fireflies and blink in unison. It would be very different if I described the flashlight as a "lightning-bolt flashlight" or a "television flashlight." Half the joy is experimenting with your language to convey different things; be aware that the more specific the feeling you are trying to evoke, the more specific associations the concrete imagery you use must have. This means that if you use very clichéd imagery, the feelings you will conjure will be very vague and barely felt. If you use imagery that is specific, that has never quite been described the same way before, you will retrieve the reader an emotion that is similarly specific, though you will lose out on cultural associations, if that is something you care about for the piece.

In my recent piece "Glass Apartments (For Janelle)," I closed with describing:

…the city The City

and the river The River, whose water looks up close like breaking glass

but from a distance like satin.

This is an ending I am very proud of; it marries abstract usage of language with a very specific and concrete simile to visualize water, all to produce a very particular feeling in the reader, as well as create subtle symbolism. It produces both engaging and emotive visuals. I honestly could not describe what I mean here fully; it is a rare work of writing I produce where I can read it again and find something new in my own work.

Practicing your metaphors

One way of practicing this skill is to write a list of concrete nouns you can see wherever you are:

  • leather boots,
  • a pepper grinder,
  • a perfume bottle,
  • a deck of cards…

Create two other lists, one of the first abstract things that come to mind:

  • a soft kiss,
  • a major third,
  • a searing pain,
  • a lost memory

…and another of various concrete things not in your vicinity that come to mind, fantastical things included:

  • a tightrope,
  • a dragon scale,
  • a cirrus cloud,
  • molten lead.

Combine things from the first list with elements of the other two.

  • a pepper grinder pain,
  • dragon scale boots,
  • perfume like a cirrus cloud,
  • lost memories like a deck of cards.

Think about these different combinations and how they make you feel, what imagery they bring to mind. Then, try this exercise again, adding in lists of different smells you get on a walk, sounds you can hear, things you can feel. The more details of different senses you can provide a reader, the more immersive the imagery will become.

Seriously, add sensory details

As a concrete element, the inclusion of varied sensory details is probably the singular biggest thing beginner poets forget to do, even though it is a founding element of the poetic tradition. Poems, songs4, and novels all stem from ancient mnemonic traditions used to transmit folklore, law, and cultural memory between generations. All of these genres stem from a need to document and remember the past and present of the world around us. One's goal as a poet is to use the abstract form of poetry to reflect the reader's world back at them in a new light. Nothing is more useful to this end than sensory details.

I do not claim to be a synesthete, but any good work of art should induce synesthesia in a viewer. Good songs do this; a beautiful painting of a metro station should recall the clatter of a train coming to the platform. A good few lines in a poem could bask the reader in the moonglow of a vineyard at midnight. There's one rock song with a chord change that always makes me feel, physically, like I am falling.5 All art—especially poetry—is relational, relating sights to sounds; things to other things; words to emotions.

What world does the metaphor describe?

Whenever you see an interesting metaphor in a poem, or you come up with an interesting metaphor yourself, it helps to probe that metaphor strongly. Do this by taking the words of the poem or the metaphor very literally. Ask yourself of the words: "If these words are literal, meaning exactly what they say, what would need to be true of the world this poem takes place in?" For example: What world is it where pains can be pepper grinders? Try exploring this with the metaphors you came up with in the previous exercise, and with any language in any poem you come across in the future. What world is the poem describing?

The ability to marry the abstract and concrete is the crux of a lot of artwork, and it is a centerpiece of healthy imagination. Allow yourself to communicate in metaphors and symbols that even you do not fully understand. At first you may feel clumsy, but over time you will find an enriched way of existing in the world, where everything is connected to something else, and all of your life is dripping with beauty and metaphor.

Lyricism: Poetry as Music

The lineage of poetry is one that stems from music traditions. The earliest poems we in the twenty-first century have any knowledge of were those that were originally sung as hymns, chants, or epic works of bards. As I mentioned, these were often employed as mnemonic devices; ways to remember things about the world around us.

When I write a song or when I am writing a poem, though my processes are different I am ultimately still seeing the two works very similarly. Even when I am writing without melody or instrumentation, I am always looking for the music in my poetry. How does this line sound when I say it out loud? Where should I place a line break to keep the tempo of the poem? Does this phrase have the right cadence? You'll notice that to make your poem sound better, you might have to give up full control over the words you use, and have to pick a word to satisfy a nice rhyme. This is good! You may find you won't say what you thought you were going to say, but the language, like an oracle, will give you an answer you didn't know you wanted. Let your poem surprise you.

I'll break this down into singular considerations for when one is writing a poem. Firstly:

Line breaks

You don't always have to break a line at the end of a clause! Many beginning poets feel like a line break only feels right when they use it after a comma or a period. Let yourself experiment more! Read your poem (or any poem) aloud, with little breaths taken at the line breaks. How does it feel? Does it feel fast, does it feel relaxed, does it feel hurried? Does it feel conversational, or disoriented, or childlike? You might even find that well-placed pauses give the lines before them extra meanings!

This is not to say poetry demands line breaks. As mentioned, there are many prose poems which forego line breaks in favor of paragraphs.6 You'll have to rely on other elements of poetry besides line breaks to write one of these—metaphor, abstract word placement, linking concrete and abstract, etc. These can also have a rhythm and a meter to them, if a bit more subtle than strict end-rhyming.7 Speaking of which:

Meter

Your poem does not have to be in iambic pentameter, though if it is, you should be sure any line-by-line deviations from that meter are intentional. Even if your lines do not use meter, they should still have some consideration made to rhythm in the lines. Take a line from your poem and read it aloud; does it flow nicely? Do the words play together well, do the stressed and unstressed syllables sit well with you?

Often one of the easiest things to do to improve the rhythm of a poem is to say less. Avoid repeating yourself unless you are doing so very deliberately. Avoid using more words than is necessary to convey your meaning. If you read a line out loud and it feels bloated or exhausting, this is by far the first thing to try. Often when I write a poem I just scrawl a big ugly thing, and then whittle it down to a more polished piece. Cut away the fat! This is true not only for words but for lines that are not useful. Is a line interrupting the poem, or not adding much value? Out it goes. Give every single word you write purpose. When I explain what a poem (or any line of a poem) of mine means, what it conveys, I want it to always take more words than the poem itself.

Rhyming

Another extremely useful tip: don't perfectly rhyme all of the time! Good poems do not always rhyme cat with bat. What you should try to use more often are near rhymes, or slant rhymes.8 These are words that are close to rhyming, but slightly off. One fantastic poem that demonstrates near-rhymes mixed with perfect rhymes is "be careful", by Ed Roberson. Here he rhymes:

  • air with jar
  • precarious with air (and with similar sounds as mistake)
  • rock with fog
  • oak with snow
  • far-ness with jar

…and so on. None of these rhymes match perfectly (and some of them even happen in the middle of lines!) though some are more perfect than others. This is good!! When mixed in with perfect rhymes like scared/snared you don't simply have Words That Rhyme and Words That Don't Rhyme in your poem, but a lovely gradient between the two. You'll also notice a lot of these rhymes happen inside the lines of the poem, and not always at the ends. This is called internal rhyming, and if you want to avoid some of the nursery-rhyme nature of excessive end-rhymes, these will be an invaluable tool.

Narrative or musical arc

On a grander scale, it helps to consider the greater narrative or musical arc of a poem. Where is your poem going? Is it leading a reader somewhere? Does it have building tension, a climax? Does it have little call-response phrases like a symphony or a blues song? If your poem only builds on one place for the duration of the poem, it should at least produce an interesting texture and scene during that time. As mentioned, cutting out repetition can be useful here.

There's not much more I have to say about narrative. If you have experience writing stories, that might help. Every good poem has some motion, even the ones that don't have a clear story. Simply consider how your poem will unfold to a reader as they go through it, line-by-line, for the first time.

Poems use these elements in wildly different ways, and to develop a sense for how to use these elements well, it helps to read a lot of poetry. Let's see how to not use them well. "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is frequently considered one of the worst poems ever written. Take a moment to read as much of it as you would like. As you do, consider the childish rhyme scheme, the clumsy meter, and the unnecessary repetition. The narrative that goes nowhere, not treating the disaster with the levity it deserves; the way the poem lingers on the most boring of encyclopedic information, while providing nothing in the way of emotive or sensory details.

Okay, that sucked. I have linked at the end of this piece some good poems to cleanse your palette. Poetry, when written well, is a joy to read and a joy to write. Nothing sparks so much joy in me as realizing I've chanced upon a particularly beautiful phrase, one that I cannot wait to share with the world.

A Few Thoughts on Poetic Form

I write most of my poetry in free verse, generally without binding myself to any fixed form such as sonnet, haiku, or villanelle. This is the modus operandi of a large portion of modern poetry, from the early 20th century to the present day. That said, if you want to play with more interesting constraints and fixed constructions, fixed verse can hold a lot of joy.

Since I do not frequently write fixed verse, and since it is relatively uncommon in published modern poetry when compared with free verse, I only have a few tips for it. Firstly, if you write in a form, be sure you understand the basics of the form. Let's take the haiku, for instance.

The haiku, for instance

A haiku is not just three lines with five, seven, five syllables. (In fact, many English-language haiku writers explicitly eschew the syllable count. See here for a good explanation why.) Far more important is that haiku frequently contain cutting words, kiregi; a brief interruption9 at the end of one of the first two lines. Haiku also contain seasonal words, kigo; a brief phrase or choice word that describes what season it is, from early spring to late winter; these also frequently allude to other haiku. A thunderbolt would signify it is the summer, for example. Haiku frequently describe specific flashes of a scene, in the present moment, and scarcely mention human beings or their creations. Their goal is to create moods, to provide feelings without describing those feelings themselves, but by painting a picture.

Haiku have all of these particular restrictions because they grew out of a separate tradition called Renga, a sort of communal poetry writing contest, which sprouted into many different forms of poetry from tanka to haibun to the painted, medium-crossing haiga. All of this is useful to know when writing a haiku.

I use the haiku as an example largely because the Western popular conception of haiku misses the forest for the trees; those raised in Western literary traditions (like myself), when they see a brief form of foreign poetry, tend to fixate on a particular structural guideline and patronizingly think "oh, that sounds easy!" Haiku are small, but not simple! As you approach the form, you should always remain curious and with an open mind; seek out haiku you haven't read, seek out literature about haiku, seek out experienced critique of your own haiku. You could spend years and years studying haiku, and still have more to learn.10 Embrace that learning!

Here's a gorgeous example of a haiku by Kobayashi Issa, as translated by Jane Hirshfeld.

Do I have to use cutting words in my haiku?

You don't have to use the particular restrictions I mentioned when you write a haiku! You can bend the rules, ignore the cutting words, include humans, describe your feelings; the entire genre of senryu is based off this kind of irreverence! The important thing is that you are at least somewhat aware of the connotations, the cultural meaning, and the conventional rules of the form you are writing in. Again, this is best done by, say, reading some good haiku. This will inform you as you write the piece, and, even if you ultimately throw out the rules or go against the cultural associations, you will be doing so deliberately.

The same goes for the sonnet, with its volta11 many beginner poets neglect, and the villanelle, with its pastoral associations. One villanelle, "Do not go gentle into that good night," by Dylan Thomas, explicitly subverts the pastoral expectations of the villanelle form, framing the poem's subject matter, death, as a thing of nature. He also deliberately chooses the repetition of the villanelle form to underscore the urgency, the begging, the grief he feels over his father's death. By understanding the form, Thomas used it more deliberately, and created what is frequently considered the most famous work of that form.

There are a lot of poetry forms out there, and they all have a storied history and a cornucopia of works that play with the medium well. Read enough sestinas, and you'll be capable of writing a good sestina yourself.

Final Thoughts

I do not presume to say I am the sole arbiter of what makes and does not make a good poem. Feel free to take all of this advice and toss it out. But, if nothing else, remember to read a lot of poetry, and as you do, always consider what the artist is doing. To this end I am providing a list of poems that I find demonstrative of various poetic techniques. While I will only comment on one aspect of the piece, if you enjoy a poem I have linked, I encourage you to analyze it on multiple fronts.

Poetry is not a simple alternative to prose. Poetry provides the ability to abstractly link the concrete, and create something bigger. I often imagine writing a poem as playing an organ; each phrase like a chord playing to hit some unforeseen emotion, and the poem as a whole as a string of those chords; a melody to create a motion in your reader. A poem can provide a wholly unique experience no other medium can provide. As Rita Dove put it, "Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful."

Further Reading

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