Poetry Tips

_____ By far the most important piece of advice that an aspiring poet can receive is to read lots of poetry. Read enough poetry that you understand not only the difference between good and bad poetry but, more immediately, that there is such a thing as good and bad poetry! That is right. Many newcomers to the art form do not believe that even the broadest objective evaluation is possible!

_____ "It's all just a matter of taste," they say blithely. "So if people don't like our work, it isn't because it is bad. Different strokes for different folks!"

_____ Er, no. There really is such a thing as "good" and "bad" poetry. It is not merely a matter of subjective taste in choosing between our work and, say, Shakespeare's. Taste involves personal preference between items of approximately equal quality. We may prefer Garcia Lorca to Robert Frost but should still recognize that Frost was an accomplished poet. Even Frost's harshest critics would have no difficulty distinguishing his work from that of any novice. The quicker we learn that there are some objective standards the sooner we can understand what those standards are and how far we have to go before we meet them.

_____ Here is the gist of the stereotypical novice poem, complete with the naive writer's all-too-common gross overestimation of its worth:

Greatest Poem Ever Written

Look at me
now! Are you concentrating?
Can't you see
that I am fascinating?

_____ The first lesson that we developing poets have to learn is that the world (i.e. readers) may not be quite as spellbound by the minutiae of our lives as we ourselves are. A typical neophyte has no interest in reading other people's poetry (including if not especially works like their own) but is shocked to hear that others feel the same way.

_____ We begin here by defining the difference between poetry and prose.

_____ In short, poetry is bones, prose is flesh. Prose is a smooth ride, with all of the threads tied up neatly in a bow at the end. Poetry is a quick and bumpy adventure, with the reader often left in midair after the last and largest bump. Whereas prose fills in all of the cracks, poetry covers just enough potholes to make the road navigable and get the reader to a destination. Indeed, the bumps along the way are half the fun of poetry.

_____ Many novices feel that poetry is just prose with shortcuts (usually abstractions) around the details. Not so! Indeed, the poetry is in those very details! The only difference is that the poet will include only those details that are vital to the theme(s). No red herrings, tangents or blind alleys.

_____ Some novices challenge experts to come up with an objective definition of "poetry". After all, if experts can't define it then who is to say that the beginner's efforts are not poetry?

_____Here is a definition of poetry which everyone--expert or novice--other than a solipsist can accept:

Poetry is what poetry readers enjoy reading.

_____While a newcomer to poetry may like reading unimaginative presentations of vagaries and melodramas for a while, they will soon tire of it and move on to more innovative crafted works. By the time these audience members begin to define themselves as "poetry readers", then, they have abandoned the clichéd, abstract, maldramatic and often didactic efforts of novice poets.

_____ One helpful view of the basic elements of poetry may be the five "S's":

Also known as
Alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc.
Concrete images, not abstractions.
Precision, focus and theme.
The Succinct
Economy of language.
The Sempervirent
New, as opposed to clichéd.

_____ A second perspective is that the five quintessentials of poetry would be:

  1. Subtlety
  2. Clarity
  3. Brevity
  4. Technique
  5. Form

_____ The relative importance that the poet gives to these depends upon personal style and tends to vary with category. This is particularly true of the balance between clarity and subtlety. As we will see, the subtlety/clarity ratio should be highest in romantic and serious poetry, lowest in humorous verse.


_____ The most common mistake made by any poet is to "tell" rather than "show". This telling can come in the form of a modifier or a noun--usually an abstraction. What is an abstraction? An "intangible" is anything that you cannot sense via touch, smell, sight, taste or hearing. An abstraction, for our purposes here, will be defined as an intangible which is not thoroughly explained. The touchstone of abstraction comes if a reader can insert the word "what" before the word to form a valid question. For example:

I never doubted your courage
as victory bells chimed
so don't curse me for wishing
it were all better timed.

_____ What courage? "Courage" is intangible. If this were an entire poem "courage" would be an ungrounded abstraction--an untold story. If, however, it were preceded by clear and detailed examples of what courage the writer is mentioning, it might be readily understood by the reader.

_____ N.B.: Abstractions tend to make a reader's eyes glaze over, just a political speechs do--and for many of the same reasons.

_____ A tip: If you are in any doubt as to whether or not an intangible is unduly abstract, avoid the intangible altogether.

_____ Don't hand your reader ready-made conclusions. Don't describe a task as "arduous". Prove to the reader that it is arduous! This tendancy to spell out the themes of the poem is very common among novice writers. Unfortunately, this makes their works read like the answers page to a crossword puzzle--without so much as affording the reader the chance to have solved it first.

_____ Poetry lies between synonyms.

_____ Serious poets spend days or weeks selecting exactly the right word, examining all possible alternatives before making the final decision. If a flash of inspiration strikes you and you manage to produce a bunch of lines in a matter of minutes know this: the chances of it being poetry are about the same as the odds of winning back-to-back lotteries. This explains why novice poets are so much more "prolific" than experienced ones.

_____ What new poets see as "introspection" or "self-expression" experienced readers almost invariably view as self-indulgence. The new poet typically adopts a "shotgun" approach to poetry: they will "reveal the depths of their souls" and hope that it resonates with some readers. If this navel-gazing piece doesn't succeed they can always crank out another such diary entry "poem" in an hour or so.

_____ In the meantime, readers clue in that the writer is completely focused on hir own wonderful self and reciprocate with apathy. This may explain why, on
vanity boards, you see thousands posting but so very few people reading.

_____ Note: There is no law against novice poets using first person singular pronouns (i.e. "I", "me", "my", "mine") or clichéd abstractions such as "soul", "love", "heart" or "spirit".

_____ This is most unfortunate.

_____ The difference between self-expression and communication is poetry.

_____ Another novice pitfall comes in violating the "GG Dictum": Don't write about writing. If you disregard this rule you risk writing something like these actual ending lines from a new poet's work:

my god

my torment

my inspiration

a dusty hole



_____ If your question is "What is wrong with that?" please re-read this section.


_____ The most difficult issue regarding clarity and subtlety is the difference between the ambiguous and the vague. The distinction is quite simple: ambiguity involves more than one clear meaning, each supported by the "evidence" presented by the writer, while vagueness involves no clear and discernible meaning whatsoever.


They believe that, like the dead,
They can get nowhere
until they get carried away

_____ The double entendre of "carried away" is clear enough to any reader: literally carried away by riot police or pallbearers versus the idiomatic meaning "going to far".

_____ A line such as "our souls reached new levels of consciousness" would collapse under the weight of the abstractions (i.e. "soul" and "consciousness") and leave the reader wondering what specific meaning the poet had in mind. Incidentally, this tendency to try to compress the "meaning of life" into a string of vague homily-wannabes is typical of the novice poet.

_____ Perhaps the most common error that novice poets make is in assuming that this art form uses a far more "poetic" language than prose. Typically, they will use inversions (e.g. "the heart broken"), archaic language (e.g. "thee") and nonsensical descriptors (e.g. "the treeless forest") in an effort to "sound poetic". Always bear in mind this overstatement as reflecting a fundamental rule of the art form:

Never say anything in a poem that you wouldn't say in a bar.

_____ Speaking of hyperbole, never use it except, perhaps, in humourous verse. This includes the appearance of hyperbole. Avoid using large round numbers. "The vase broke into a thousand shards" will look like a hyperbole even if the poet had gotten down on the floor, counted the pieces and ascertained that there were, indeed, exactly 1,000 of them.

_____ So what is the difference between the language used in poetry and that used in prose? Poetry relies far less on descriptors (i.e. adjectives and, especially, adverbs) than prose. Poets tell their story with nouns and verbs. Poetry can also seem more "clipped": small, rather insignificant words (e.g. conjunctions, repeated pronouns, articles, etc.) may be dropped if the poet can do so without making their absence too conspicuous and without compromising clarity and proper syntax.

The Barnacles Test
_____In an effort to be "poetic" developing writers will often insert a word that seems to have been plucked from air. To test for this phenomenon simply replace that word with the appropriate variant of "barnacles". If the phrase makes just as much (or as little) sense after this substitution as before it the word has failed the "Barnacles Test". For example:

I sat in the crying darkness.
I sat in the barnacling darkness.

_____If the second sentence seems at least as pertinent as the first then "crying" fails the Barnacles Test.


_____ By "brevity" we mean an economy of language. We do not necessarily mean that poems must be short (although they should be much shorter than the same story told in prose). "The Iliad" would be an example of a great but very long epic poem as long as it exhibits this economy of language throughout.

_____ In addition to plain wordiness, many novices use qualifiers which are either redundant or weakening. "The weather outside" should be expressed as "The weather". Indeed, qualifiers and quantifiers such as "nearly", "only", "almost", "very", "many" and "some" should usually be avoided.

_____ In short: Write succinctly.


_____ Technique is, by far, the largest single consideration in writing poetry. Unlike the three thematic issues (i.e. subtlety, clarity and brevity) and the abritrary selection of form, technique is poetry at the tactical level. Whole books are devoted to this subject alone:

Poetry Handbook' by Mary Oliver
'The Poet's Companion' by Kim Addonzio and Dorianne Laux
'The Discovery of Poetry' by Frances Mayes
'In the Palm of your Hand' by Steve Kowitt
'Understanding Poetry' by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren
'Sound and Sense' by Laurence Perrine
'The Redress of Poetry' by Seamus Heaney

_____ Here is a list of just some of the issues that technique embraces: