Improving Poetry in Image and Skill
Poetry is the great democratising art form. It requires no extensive technique to write your first poem and it uses the same elements we use in communication every day. The trick lies in boiling that down to reveal beauty in everything from the dark to the mundane and all between. But when you mention poetry to people, it can often trigger the wrinkled face of disdain.
I think the problem lies in the way schools teach poetry. While there’s some great stuff in the curriculum, much of what we’re shown uses the obvious tricks teachers want to point out rather than more subtle works.
Here are a few elements of poetry I use—or don’t use—and why I think they’re important to understand.
The Universal Experience
The broad strokes of modern living are much the same for everyone. We all deal with boredom, heartache and joy. The challenge is offering something new, and with an ever-expanding lexicon there will always be something new to say, it’s just a matter of finding out how.
This can be one of the more fun aspects of being a poet—finding new ways to express an idea by combining existing idioms. Recently, I’ve used the expression “you give my heart a boner” to mean love, but there’s a layer to it that implies superficiality that’s not understood by the person saying it. Sometimes the solution is multiple existing phrases that can be used to build a bigger picture, or where rhymes link and meanings offset.
Me, You and Them
It’s fine to talk about your own emotions, but the audience must be able to sympathise with that. If you are going to launch into the heart-rending, there must be grounds for connection. I like to think of three elements: Me, You and Them.
Me stands alone and is responsible for the self-indulgent.
You implies a Me, but it focuses on sympathy and empathy. It can offer understanding and leave an audience member connected to the work, elated that they are not alone OR it can condemn a target and urge them to reconsider an action. You doesn’t have to be a person, it can be an animal, an object or even an aspect of emotion that the poet personifies to understand or cast out.
Them is a figure, or figures, outside of the performance space or page. They can be an enemy or friend. It could be an ex-partner, morphed into a universal evil or totem of missed timing, or it can be a very specific individual, such as an icon such as Hemingway that everyone has an understanding or relation of.
These elements can be mixed. Me and You can create Us and We, an explicit relationship between poet and audience. You and Them creates a plural You; a full world, away from the poet and can be used to illustrate alienation or aspiration. Me and Them creates a different Us, one that is separate to You and either gangs up against the audience or welcomes them in. It can be used to symbolise the poetry scene itself or others like the poet. Those who suffer from unseen illness may find this particularly useful, to show the bond shared with others outside the performance or page and to illustrate that this is not a minor, forgettable group.
I’ve met a lot of poets who refuse to draw on humour in their work, thinking it might drag their work down from lofty art. Good! Poetry is meant to be a tool for connection and the closer you can make it to other people the better.
When taking the audience on an emotional journey, it’s boring, not to mention insincere, to keep the same pace. The odd joke is unexpected and stops the audience from predicting the flow of your words before they’ve even come out.
A humorous line, occasionally, can also be a great way to highlight the darker areas of a poem. If the same mood is maintained, sad lines lose their power because they are lost in a sea of dark stuff. By bringing us back to an emotional high, we can fall even further and the full impact can be felt. The reverse is true, if we surround ourselves with happy, a dark section can make the happy parts even happier. Emotions exist in contrast to each other, not a single state.
Once in a while, a swear word is the perfect tool to sum up reality. People swear: it’s a part of life. Using a swear word doesn’t devalue your work, it makes it more true.
I don’t believe your work should be a stream of blue language and smut (and if you want to go into schools, it’s probably best to forgo them on occasion or to have replacement words on the back burner) but in an adult context, they are true and help others to identify with intense experiences. Our first reaction when something bad happens is usually to swear, so why should it be absent in poetry?
On the other hand, some amateur writers will pepper their work with cursing as an excuse for lack of content.
I like to use swear words sparingly, but give them the place to breath so their force can be felt. English is great language to swear in, full of plosive sounds that have the required cathartic effect, but to fully draw on this it’s not enough to hide them amongst the other words. To fully benefit from an f-bomb, punctuate around the word. This takes us to a momentarily different flow in a piece and lets the word stand out.
Fight or Embrace Form
Poetic forms can be a great tool to tighten up your writing and inject a sense of familiarity to your work, but they aren’t the be all and end all of a poet.
Musicians work for years to learn technique and structure, then once they know it all they can break the rules and get away with it. Doing it by accident is not jazz. It’s not what you know; it’s how you apply it. A rule can be broken or subverted a hundred ways.
Just because you’ve used a rhyme scheme thus far in a piece, doesn’t mean your next line must rhyme. As long as you have a reason for doing it, you can get away with anything in poetry.
That being said, sometimes sticking to rigid form can encourage you to think of new ways of approaching it. I’m currently attempting 365 days of haiku whereas I typically sit down to write poetry once a week. This difference of approach has let me dream up many more lines of work than I thought I would otherwise, because of the emphasis on distilling ideas that the form insists on.
Clichés are there for a reason. Sure, they’re good sayings but we’ve heard them a million times and our interest in them has gone. Find things that can replace the cliché, invent the next, whatever it takes, avoid them at all cost. Poetry is about connecting with an audience or reader but the second you start recycling material from the big book of quotes, the second you lose the audience’s respect.
There is sometimes an image of poetry being self-indulgent, unskilled and clumsy. I don’t deny there are poetry careers built by individuals who haven’t learned and studied the rules, but in the majority of cases it takes a little more work. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the raw writing can be an immensely cathartic process for the poet, but this is the kind of poetry we often intend to leave in private. In the same way as prose, what we share with the world needs to be refined.
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© 2017 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.