I think there are three keys to writing great poetry, give or take a dozen. I don’t want to really pretend like I have all the answers, even if I do have all the answers. It just seems sort of pompous. Besides that, I’m sure a dozen very learned professors have already said whatever I should actually say, and will shake their heads sadly at my ignorance.
That said, I really do think there are three keys, and I’d like to hear you’re thoughts on them. If you disagree, please let me know.
Key #1: Read Poetry
If you want to write great poetry, you have to read great poetry. To me, this is the most important thing of all. It’s a matter of knowing what has gone on before you, what has been said, how it has been said, why it was said in it’s time, and why it was said where it was said.
If you want to get out there and produce writing that is interesting, that is witty and deep and worth the investment of time that someone will have to make to read it, then you have to know what they may or may not have read. And you have to have an actual experiential knowledge of the art.
I would like to also add that I used the words ‘great poetry’ on purpose, even though it’s impossible to define. To my thinking, “great poetry” means poetry that has survived over a long stretch of time, or has been vetted by the masses and found interesting and good enough to buy and share extensively. I know there is a lot of great poetry on the internet, but it is very hard to be sure what is good and what is not, particularly if you haven’t read a lot of poetry. So, I tend to go back to the classics and the ‘big names’ and start there.
So there there is my number one. Read the damned poetry.
If you want to write poetry, you have to write poetry. That means that you have to actually do it, not just think about it, or occasionally toss one off for all to ogle and marvel at.
The truth is, if you just write once in a while, the ogling and marveling will be quite limited. You need to really write often, not only to generate sufficient volume to give you a ‘productive feeling’ but more importantly to hone your skills. Writing is definitely an art that improves with practice.
Talking about writing. Thinking about writing. Imagining writing. These are all fun, but really they’re not that productive. The second key to being a great writer is to write.
This is the most complicated of all the keys I think, but every bit as important. People want to read interesting things. They want to read thoughts that they’ve never thought, and be spurred on to imagine things they’ve never imagined. As a writer, a person has the responsibility to do that for them.
Great writing takes complicated or important ideas and connects them to grand or small ideas. Understanding that concept of connection is huge, but it’s only the first step to thinking differently. The next step is connecting things that are not easily connected – logically or illogically.
In the case of prose a writer can take a little story about something very mundane and connect it to the audience because everyone knows someone in that particular situation, or they’ve been in that situation, they make the story interesting by adding little twists, whether they’re internal/dialog twists, or external forces acting upon them, and the story is only as engaging as it is unpredictable. The reader does not want to KNOW the ending, they want to be brought there and have it revealed to them. In situations where people know how the story ends (particularly non-fiction) they want to see how the characters will move forward after the events.
Poetry is really the same as that. Readers are looking to be taken through a thought and arriving somewhere they didn’t expect, or, if they get where they expected, they want to see some glimpse at a new future or thought that never occurred to them.
This imagining is not easy. And while I do think there are techniques that can help a person see the world in a different way, I believe everyone has to find their own unique way by themselves.
If I could give any advice here, I think it would be this – be a prism for ideas. Take disparate thoughts, and splash them together to see the patterns that arise where they intersect, or the shapes of the spaces between them when they do not. Prose or poetry, non-fiction or fiction, take every idea and divide into as many parts as you can, look at every part from every angle, and then take another idea or image or sense, and divide and reconnect them together.
I’m very abstract there, which might not be helpful, so let me be more specific.
Take a spider.
The spider is an idea.
It is also a thing.
A spider has eight legs.
Look at the spider from the end of each leg. Look at the spider from above from the side, from below.
A chair is an idea.
It is ALSO a thing.
The spider and the chair have no immediate relationship.
However, if you look at the spider from some angles, they are proximate or not. The chair is an obstacle or a danger for the spider. The chair means nothing to a spider. The chair, if moved, might mean death to the spider.
The chair has half as many legs as a spider.
The person has half as many legs as a chair.
The legs define each of them.
The spider means nothing to the chair.
The chair is to the spider
as a building is to a human
The chair is to the spider
as the skyline is to a human.
continue on. Break it down. These ideas are still mundane, but if you keep abstracting it, if you keep putting the prism to the two ideas, and consider how they intersect, how they relate to each other, how they relate to us – eventually, you find something interesting to write about. Eventually you find that you are thinking about things differently than everyone, anyone else. THEN you can write great things.