How do I start writing poems?

Is there a way without clichés to make it leap off the page but avoid side roads that might lead to a cul de sac?

By Cary Tennis

Published February 22, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I'm a nonfiction writer who has dabbled  in fiction writing over the years. I hope to do more of both, but now I also feel called to write poetry. I enjoy the idea of packing big ideas into small spaces, which is what poetry represents to me. I know there is long-form poetry from "Beowulf" to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but the more traditional short-form poetry appeals to me. I'm neutral on rhyming poetry, but I think a good poet can make that work without seeming sing-songy.

For now, I'm not necessarily interested in writing for show or exposure, as I am with prose writing. I'm mostly interested in experimenting and flexing my creative muscles in a genre in which I have no experience and thus feel less pressure.

However, I basically don't want to waste my time writing clichés or other crap. Do you have any tips for me? I know it's a balance between being practical by practicing often and letting myself be vulnerable and inspired, but I don't want to go down any side roads that take me to a cul de sac. If I were giving advice to a prose writer, I would offer tips like, your writing will leap off the page if you use active voice, or show, don't tell. Do you have any similar concrete tips for me? Aside from analyzing poetry in school or reading it in the New Yorker, this genre is pretty new for me.

Sent From My iPhone

Dear Sent From My iPhone,

Maybe to some people it's just a "figure of speech" but I want to say this:

Your writing is never going to leap off the page. It can't do that. It's writing. So don't try to make it do that. That's silly. I would use some description of what you want to do in writing that is more exact because when you know exactly what you want your writing to do then you can actually make it do that.

Another thing. I'm not trying to start a fight but you asked me.

I don't like "show don't tell." That always tripped me up. I tried it and stuff died. Like, OK, I want to tell you about when I was 16 and my girlfriend came into the room. Am I going to try and explain her hair? Not a good idea. Do I have to then stick to just what I saw? What about the hot rock in my chest? That was invisible. Is that showing if I talk about what was invisible? See what I mean? OK, make it physical, to me that's a good rule. Make it smelly or make it slap. I can see that. I can see making it rub on your skin like a coarse saw file. I can see that maybe. Or feeling a whetstone with oil and without oil, those two different feelings on your fingers. If that's showing then OK. Maybe I misunderstood. But I never liked that rule. It made me mad.

Maybe "show don't tell" doesn't get explained right. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe whoever said it meant something else. But then that's not good writing, if you say one thing but mean something else and everybody for a hundred years is confused. Or however long ago it was.

Of course you have to show. Of course you have to tell. You also have to sing. You also have to demonstrate for the reader when you do something too quick to see the first time. You also have to confess. You also have to manipulate. You also have to play tricks. You also have to mimic. You also have to say things with a straight face that are funny. You also have to feel. You also have to remember. You also have to play by the rules. You also have to edit.

I don't want to get into it with you. You and I could be friends if we met under different circumstances.

Now about poetry. You want to know if I have anything helpful to say about your desire to write poetry. My one thing would be this:

Become an initiate. Become an initiate by surrendering to poetry that kills you. Find some words that slay you, that put you on another planet. I don't know what that might be. You mention "Beowulf" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." My guess is those poems don't slay you. What slays you? Think of rock 'n' roll or hip-hop or whatever genre of music slays you. Think of a song that just knocks you down or makes you shiver or if you had it on the radio in your car and your car was a convertible and you were rounding a turn on the Big Sur cliffs over the Pacific you would want to shout. Something like that. Find poetry that affects you in that extraordinary way. Start with that. Then in the privacy of your own room undress the gutsy and silly notion that maybe you could do that. Maybe you could make somebody else feel that way. Not with your hands like a lover but with words. Maybe you could do that.


Basically at this point who the hell knows. But that's the place to begin. All I'm talking about is how to begin and you begin by becoming an initiate. If you are not initiated into the ecstatic and private and ecstatic experience of poetry then of course you don't know how to begin because you don't know what you are trying to induce. First you have to experience it. Then you can induce it. If you were to sit with one of these poems that blows you away and read it aloud over and over and let it into your body until it is a part of you maybe after that you could make something like it.

So take one of these poems that really knocks you out and put a copy of it in your pocket and start walking. Walk somewhere high in the sun. Walk with nobody around. Pull out the poem and read it aloud as you walk until you can speak the whole thing without looking. Watch where you are going. Watch your breath. Pay attention to where you have to breathe. Don't walk off the cliff. Then when you can say it without reading it say it every day for a while. Then pick another poem and do the same thing. Do this until poems are ringing in your head all the time.

Then find words that fit the same rhythm. Find words that sound like those poems. Write a poem that is parallel to that poem, as if you had taken the same rhythm and just replaced the words. Like it was a skeleton, or a chord chart, or a rhythm pattern, or a pattern for a dress, or an architectural drawing, or a schematic, or an equation, or a drawing in the sand, or a set of breaths, or a chant, or a recipe, or a song.

Become an initiate. Start there. Fill your body with poems. Then if you are full of poetry some of it will start to come out. There will be too much of it inside you and it will have no choice.

Cary Tennis

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