Second-Hand Poetry Advice
One of the great benefits of attending writers’ groups, readings, and events, is the vast range of people you meet. Over the last few years I have had the privilege of spending time with some incredible poets, and during the conversations that have taken place I have managed to glean the following advice.
Structure Isn’t Everything
Just because poems can rhyme, or follow iambic pentameter, or have four lines to a stanza, doesn’t mean yours have to. Break the rules, change the game, do your own thing. If you want to offer some internal rhymes, and add a few lines to the middle verse, then why not? Use poetry to express what you think and how you feel, not just follow a laid-out plan that someone else came up with.
Make Your Own Clichés
If it’s been said before, there is no need to say it again. Why waste your words recycling someone else’s cliché when you can create your own? By forming unique phrases you can impart whatever it is you want to say in a way that is distinctive and special, without sounding like another poet.
Keep Words in Order
There is a habit that developed from the Victorian age of moving words around to make them fit or rhyme. This is an archaic tradition that results in lines that would be better suited to Yoda’s dialogue than a poem, and is a trap I have fallen into many times. On each occasion, those with greater knowledge and experience told me to change the wording to how I would actually say it, using my own vocabulary and speech patterns. I did, and it worked.
Read It Aloud
Words on a page and words that are spoken take on different forms. Don’t just read your poetry in your head; vocalise it. Record yourself using your phone or computer. Listen to it back. Do the words scan right? Did any phrasing trip you up? Use the spoken version to improve the written text; poetry is meant to be read and if you, the writer, are struggling to say that one particular phrase, you can almost guarantee that a reader will also falter.
Refine Your Lines
A full draft of a poem will almost always feel complete. The best thing to do, instead of putting it out there, is to set it aside. Leave it and come back to it later. Give it a week, a month, and then read it again. Edit the wording, check the tempo; make those tiny adjustments that almost seem redundant but will change the poem from good to great.
There is no greater test than reading your poetry to other people. Go to a poetry night, or a writers’ group, or an open mic session, or just gather a few friends around. Read your poem aloud, perform it; become your words as you say them. Does it ring true? How are the reactions as you say those crucial lines? What do people think? Use their critique to better both your words and performance. You never know, you might just enjoy it.
The best, most poignant and profound poetry comes from within. It is deep and expressive and full of passion and heart. Let your gut lead you, say what you want to say, and use whatever words are right for you. It doesn’t matter if Shakespeare wouldn’t write it like that: you would. Use your voice. Write your own poems that are yours and no one else’s.
Not only are these worth applying to your poetry, but also your prose. To truly stand out and write something incredible you need to look at your work from a different angle, and these small pieces of advice I have absorbed from others have allowed me to do just that with my own writing. Take all the advice you can, especially from those you respect, and try it out for size. It might not work for you; but if it does, you’ll thank me later.
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.