Today we continue our discussion about the art of poetry with Meg Freer, a poet and writer, who reviews poetry submissions for The Sunlight Press.
by Meg Freer
What makes a poem a poem, as opposed to flash prose?
My view is that line breaks and blank space have to matter in a poem. If one can read a poem and get the same meaning out of it whether it’s formatted with line breaks or as prose paragraphs, then it might be better off as a short prose piece. In a poem, you might want to mimic natural speech, with line breaks at the end of sentences or phrases, as in prose. But poetic line breaks in other places can create more rhythmic interest for the reader and make layered meanings possible.
Although flash prose has to have tight and concise language, I think most poems need to be even more concise if possible, to capture all the significance of a moment in time and communicate it to the reader in few words. The meaning of a piece of flash prose might be more transparent and easily grasped on first reading, while a poem might require more than one reading to feel its full effect. Then there is prose poetry, which combines the best of prose and poetry – but that is another topic.
What makes a rhyming poem work?
A rhyming poem works best, I think, if it has a regular rhythmic pattern of stresses, and/or is humorous, or sounds like it could be song lyrics. You can try singing the poem to help hear the rhythm, or see if you can recite it to a recorded beat. The rhymes don’t have to be exact rhymes, but should at least be close rhymes that don’t disturb the rhythm. One danger with rhyming poems is that they often fall into clichéd language of the type you hear in many contemporary pop songs.
For emerging poets, what books are good to turn to?
There are many good books on craft, such as Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, Kim Addonizio’s Poet’s Companion, or The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. But you might learn just as much by simply reading some poetry every day. Go to the poetry section of your public library and start checking out books, or explore online journals to find ones that publish poetry you like to read. Read widely, many different authors, to discover the writing styles you enjoy the most and those you don’t.
Do you have favorite poems you like to reread?
The poem I probably re-read the most number of times when I was growing up, just for fun, is “Dinky” by Theodore Roethke (a great example of a rhyming poem). Currently, I’m less likely to re-read specific poems (there are too many that I love) and more likely to re-read specific authors or collections generally, but even then there are too many to choose from. I grew up with American poets William Stafford and Richard Hugo as family friends, so I like to revisit their work, as well as that of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the living poet Ricky Ray. British poets: Shakespeare and Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Geoffrey Hill, the wartime poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Canadian poets: Steven Heighton, Anne Michaels, Sue Sinclair, Patrick Friesen, and Lorna Crozier. I also like to re-read certain poems by some of my poet friends. Then of course there are many international poets one can read in translation, such as the great Russian poets Mandelstam and Akhmatova.
What are the most common mistakes poets make?
There are many definitions of what a “mistake” is in a poem, but here is my list of tendencies I had when I first started writing poetry a few years ago. I sometimes still have to remind myself to avoid these:
- overthinking the poem and not letting it speak for itself
- imposing “craft” on the poem
- being too wordy, or too abstract
- using passive voice and passive verbs
- skipping over the surface without creating layers of meaning
- describing a scene without a purpose other than description
- using clichés or overused language or too many repeated words
- ending lines with weak words (pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions)
- starting or ending with an uninteresting line
- trying too hard to tie everything up neatly at the end
How does a poet tackle revision?
I have a general checklist that I refer to, but ideally each poet would create their own list tailored to their own style of writing:
- Read the poem out loud, slowly, to check the sound and pacing.
- Do I know what I’m trying to say, where the heart of the poem is?
- Is every word and detail in every line essential to the meaning?
- Is there at least one unexpected element or image?
- Does it have rhythm, musical flow, internal rhymes, clusters of similar sounds?
- Does it bring attention to details that others may not have noticed before?
- Is the first line unique enough to draw the reader in?
- Do the last line and the last word create a strong ending?
- READ THE POEM OUT LOUD AGAIN.
How does one know a poem is done?
It can be hard to know when to stop tweaking a poem and call it finished, but your inner instinct can give you some sense of when there isn’t any more you can change without changing the character of the poem. In most cases, a poem needs some time before you start sending it out; or, rather, you need time away from it to let yourself settle down from the excitement of having written a new piece. Even a few days of working with or reading other material will give you some perspective from which to look more objectively at your work and do some revision. I wouldn’t call a poem done unless I had revised it and read it out loud numerous times to verify there are no places with awkward wording, or words that are hard to say one after the other, or where the rhythm seems off.
How do poets find mentors to work with them through the process?
If there is a regular open mic night or reading series in your area, you might find writers who offer mentoring sessions or workshops, or at least you might find some kindred spirits who would like to work with you in a small group to workshop each other’s poems. Or there may be an organized writing group you can join. There are also many online courses, some free and some for a fee, such as those offered by The Poetry Barn or the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Some community colleges offer writing programs or workshops. If you sign up for the free newsletters put out by many literary journals, you will occasionally hear about opportunities for mentorship or workshops.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr