That is the power of poetry, as well as one of its harshest limitations. Yet, as poets, we strive to communicate ideas in novel ways, using beautiful, embroidered language, or striking through the clutter to pierce your heart with a genuine insight you may not have noticed yourself. Thank god for poets, otherwise language would be a dull and utilitarian thing.
But poets, either because of or despite their creative mindsets, are practicing a CRAFT, which means that there are basic rules to be followed, steps that will give a certain result consistently. By learning these steps, a poet can ensure that the work they produce will be of a higher quality, but also be more likely to be accepted by publishers, thereby making it available for the public in the first place. Poetry that is not shared with the world is wasted, so allow me to offers some hard-won insights into what will help your poetry reach the marketplace in the best possible form to be noticed, appreciated, and most of all, published.
A brief bit of background – I am not a professional poet. Yes, I have had a couple dozen poems published in various places, like Boston Literary Review, Word Salad, & Frog Croon, I have had a chapbook published, which was well reviewed and well received, and I recently released a full-length collection. But I do not spend all day every day working at being a poet. I have a regular job, and market my poetry in my off hours, so I have learned to do it smarter, rather than harder. This has led me to the following insights.
#10 – Write the best poems you can possibly write. Seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many poets have never taken the time to learn the specific elements of their craft. There are poets who do not know assonance from dissonance, could not define a reverse-rhyme to save their life, and think Shakespeare was the last guy to write in pentameter. Take a course, read lots of poems. I highly recommend Mary Oliver’s book “A Poetry Handbook”. Absorbing this small book is better than a dozen poetry workshops. Learn the rules of poetry cold, only then will you be able to transcend them, and raise your craft to the point of Art.
#9 – Make them laugh. Not every poem you write should be a knee-slapper, unless you are shooting for Shel Silverstein’s crown, or want to be the next X. J. Kennedy, but inject a little humor, even in a serious poem, because everyone likes a little smile every once in a while. Editors, in particular, love to see a bit of whimsy in your work. Letting in a little laughter lets in the sunshine, so don’t be afraid to go for the joke if you feel like doing so.
#8 – Be brave! Poets are unique in the writing world that they can say ANYTHING! Any insult, rant, opinion, or complaint can be accepted and applauded by your audience if written as poetry. Unlike fiction, not every piece has to be logical, or sound like truth. So be daring. Try something outside of your comfort zone. No explorer had ever been lauded for tip-toeing through dangerous territory. Reach deep within yourself, dig under the rocks of your psyche, and then strap rockets onto your words and let fly. Safe is soft, and soft poems are dull.
#7 – Don’t tell us everything. Leave something to the imagination, in fact; leave MOST of it to our imagination. Anything the reader must supply in order to parse your language and read what you are trying to convey is the part of the poem that speaks to them personally. If you want your work to connect with your readers, the best way to do that is to ensure that your readers invest themselves into your work. One of the things that makes poetry magical is what is not said, what is inferred or implied by the words. Resist the urge to ‘explain’ in your poems.
#6 – Be succinct. Poetry is all about using the exact right word in the exact right spot to convey your meaning. Therefore it stands to reason that just one perfect word is better than three lines of text, if it conveys what you want.
#5 – Think like an editor. If being published is your primary goal, then you will want to tailor your work to fit into the mold that editors are looking for. I’m sorry to say that currently, unless your work is excruciatingly brilliant, rhyming verse is not in favor, and is unlikely to see print. Centered text and pretty fonts, while they can be creatively pleasing, and are sometimes essential to the work, mean that an editor is less likely to take your poetry seriously. Of course, I am not suggesting that you whore yourself out, or lower yourself to the lowest common denominator in order to be published, but if your goal is to be published, keep in mind what is currently sellable.
4# – Think outside the box. This is different from being brave. It means trying things that may or may not work. Write in a style that you have never tried. Take something that works, and then break it, shuffle it around, try putting it back together. Dig out the thesaurus and convert common words to highbrow language, change the perspective, take chances. You will not only grow as a poet, but your work will mature accordingly, and you may surprise yourself pleasantly.
#3 – Be unique. Think in ways that nobody has ever thought before. Sure, there are ‘no new ideas under the sun’, but why not take an existing idea and turn it onto its head? Look at old ideas in new ways. If you look at your work and think, “Everyone has felt this way at one time or other,” then it is likely time to rework your approach, try something different. Push yourself to make new, unused connections.
#2 – Be critical of your work. Poets can certainly get too close to their pieces to see the flaws, or want to leap to their own defense when critiqued. But the best way to write good poetry is to recognize good poetry when you see it. The best way to have a good idea is to have a LOT of ideas, so learn to recognize what is good, and what is not.
#1 – Read, read, read. The only way to accomplish the above nine is to read every poem you can find, even if it is not to your taste. Look at it critically. What makes it work? What makes it different? What makes it special? Only by comparing and contrasting your work with what has already been written will you be able to come to understand these ideas as they apply to your own poems. Join a forum and talk about poems with other poets, read their works, share your own. It is the best way to improve your poetry.