This is an essay I wrote for the last issue of Philadelphia Stories about poetry.
Here's how you start a poem. First, find a subject matter that’s dear to your heart (and try to work the phrase “dear to your heart“ into the poem if you can). Possible topics include: death of your grandma, death of your cat, death of your friend’s hamster, death of your virginity. Once you have a topic, begin constructing your lines with the intent to confuse the reader. Never use an obvious word when you can choose a mysterious one. For example, instead of writing the word “yellow” substitute “corn,” so that a line that could read “her hair glowed yellow” will instead be more intriguing as “her hair glowed corn.” The whole point of poetry is to prove that you are smarter than your reader; you want the person reading your poem to wish she could call you up and ask, “What did you mean when you wrote ‘with moon so deep the harvest purple’?”
Rhyming is also something I highly recommend, my friend. A poem isn’t really authentic unless you are able to easily memorize it and rhyming helps with this goal, along with making the poem lyrical (the evidence is empirical). See? Easy-peasy. Be careful of making your poem sound too much like a limerick. You can avoid this by just never starting with the line “There once was a man from Nantucket.”
Another thing these poetry people talk about endlessly is line breaks. When should you break a line of verse? I vote for whenever you feel like it, but preferably when you: (1) run out of space on the line; (2) are trying to make the poem into a particular shape, like a cat’s head for a poem about Halloween; (3) have a word like “the,” “and,” or “or.” Again, it goes back to leaving the reader wondering, “Why did he want the emphasis to be on the word ‘because’?” Well, that’s for you to figure out, dear reader. Poets aren’t required to know what they mean; they must only know what they feel and put that down on paper for us to puzzle over. Have you ever met a poet in real life? If you haven’t, go to any coffee shop right now and look for the man in the flannel shirt who hasn’t shaved or combed his hair for three days or the woman in striped stockings rocking back and forth in the corner with three pencils sticking out of her top knot. Those are poets and they need caffeine to access the Muse. Caffeine and Internet access to do Google searches to find words that rhyme with “ennui.”
Lots of teacher-like people recommend that fledgling poets read the masters—sonnets by Shakespeare, the nature writers, Emily Dickinson, Muhammad Ali, Jack Handy. But I disagree. Reading other poets leads you either to feel like you can never be as good as they are or to believe you could do even better. I once read a poem by T.S. Eliot and ended up accidentally copying him for a homework assignment by turning in a poem entitled “The Dumpland.” So, it’s dangerous to read other writers. You could be accused of plagiarism by your English teacher Mrs. Bytheway (I swear that was her real name), or worse, be expected to continue to produce more poems as good as, if not better than, your faux original.
I’ll leave you with the immortal words of one of my personal favorite poets, Pat Benatar. I think her advice about writing and love is a slam-dunk bull’s eye for all aspiring writers, big and small. “Hit me with your best shot. Come on, hit me with your best shot. Fire away.”