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What Poets Do and Don’t Do–Maybe

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For any would be poets and writers, here are two lists that I give to my creative writing students:

    Things To Be Careful with in Writing Poetry

    • Cliches
    • Ugly words
    • Pointlessness
    • Ridiculous metaphors/symbols/similes
    • Overly mixed-up word order
    • Overuse of adjectives and unnecessary words
    • Using words just because they rhyme or fit a rhythm
    • Overuse of poetic devices
    • Unrhythmical sound
    • Tasteless/bland–it’s not beautiful, ugly, or anything in between
    • Vagueness
    • Redundancy
    • Obviousness
    • A poem that is ordinary–not unique
    • A poem that is overly abstract
    Some Things that Poets Do

    • Defamiliarize
    • Convey ideas, emotions, beauty, ugliness, universal truths; disturb, please, entertain
    • Affect the reader–make an impact–make the reader participate (not passive)
    • Create colorful sounds
    • Make poems that have philosophical and aesthetic value
    • Play with language
    • Use not the nearly right word–but the exact one
    • Make poetry that is dense (change one word and it makes a significant difference)
    • Compress experience and intensify language
    • Challenge conventions (and anything about this list)
    • Represent abstract ideas with concrete imagery
    • Appreciate language (“Let it drip from your tongues like honey”)
    • Name experience–express the seemingly inexpressible
    • Allude, compare, contrast
    • Leave something for the reader to decide/conclude

John Gardner, in his book, The Art of Fiction, cautions teachers about using such lists. It was a tough call for me. I don’t want to restrict my students or try to force them to conform to one person’s criteria. Over and over, I emphasize that it is not a “not-to-do” list. We spend a lot of time looking at examples and doing activities that are designed to heighten students’ awareness of the different items on the lists. So far, I think I have seen positive results, but every day I wonder if I should take the lists down from the wall in my classroom and start over from scratch (oops, a cliche). If you have any ideas or maybe something to add or subtract from the lists, please leave a comment.

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About Dirtgrain

  • interesting. Were i to try and actually be a poet (on the rare occasion i do write poetry, it’s merely for personal reasons. I don’t really care if anyone likes it or not) such a list would make a good guide. It’s possible to have a guide that is not “set in stone” i.e. you don’t HAVE to follow EVERY SINGLE point in the list.
    Sometimes, people need a little guidance. I’d say writing poetry is no exception to this.

  • Eric Olsen

    I love the word “poetaster.”

  • I prefer poetastiest.