Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

Barbara Crooker

  1. 1.  A poem is a journey, not a destination. If you think you can see where your poem is going, start there. Don’t be in a rush to finish the poem. The world isn’t starving for want of poems. The world is starving for want of good poems.
  2. Write through the body; use your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. Think of the image as the driving engine of the poem.
  3. Don’t be afraid to engage the heart: “If you don’t risk sentimentality, you’re not in the ballpark.” (Richard Hugo) Dive deeper into the wreck.
  4. Banish the internal editor, the one that says, “This isn’t any good. This has been done before. This is boring.” Keep your pen moving; let that pony run. Don’t impose your will on the poem; the poem knows what it wants to become. Be open to everything that comes your way.
  5. Think of the line length as a unit of breath. Read out loud when you’re revising. Find your best line rhythmically, and try and cast the other lines in a similar rhythm. Experiment with regular meter. Try syllabics.
  6. If you’re using rhyme, mix it up with off-rhymes, near rhymes, slant rhymes. Don’t invert sentence structure just to get a rhyme in, and avoid “poetic” phrasing. (Avoid the word “poetic!”)  Fall in love with sounds. And the sound of sounds.
  7. Go for concrete Anglo-Saxon words rather than the fancier Latinate ones.
  8. Try using enjambment; break expectations.
  9.  “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” (Stephen King) and I’d add adjectives to that advice. Nouns and verbs are your power words.
  10.  Always be open to revision. “Revision is not just cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.” (William Matthews) Something to try: cut the first three and last three lines of a draft. Think about how you throw out the eggshells in order to make an omelet. Remember less is more. Less is always more.
  11. Try changing the tense of the poem. Try changing the pronoun of the speaker. Notice the different effect you get between “I said / you said / she said / the woman said.”
  12. “Don’t ask yourself if the poem pleases you. Ask instead, “Have I done everything this poem requires of me?” (William Dickey)
  13. The poem on the page will never measure up to the poem in your head. Learn to live with this.