Recently someone close to me asked my opinion about her poems. And another old friend is sending me his poetry book to review and edit. In fact, I did edit a book of poems for a former student about a year ago.
I find commenting on the poetry of others to be very tough!
When, in the seventies, I began writing poems fairly frequently, I did it for enjoyment and self-expression. As an English literature instructor, I was familiar with much poetry, most of it old. I did sit in on a colleague’s modern American poetry class, however, where I gained a deep appreciation for e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. I’m sure I began to try modeling my work after theirs.
In the eighties, I was tremendously fortunate to become involved in the Macon Poetry Group and later the Georgia Poetry Circuit. Adrienne Bond got the poetry group started, and other members included Judson Mitcham, Seaborn Jones, Mike Cass, Adrienne’s sister Charlotte, and a few others. We were not a group of hobbyists. We were very serious about improving our ability to write good poetry. Members made detailed, constructive recommendations. There was little deflection to avoid hurting members’ feelings or vanity. Still, one (well-published) member admitted he only brought his poems after he was sure he had thoroughly revised them. Both Jud and Adrienne had been to the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, and their experiences there must have informed our discussions. Several of us subsequently attended writers’ conferences at Callanwolde in Atlanta, at Sandhills at Augusta College, even as far away as Birmingham and Indiana University. I gradually found my voice, at least some of the time, and I succeeded in getting a few poems published in minor literary magazines. You might say that some principles or rules were drilled into me by these experiences, except that I also learned that any rule about writing poetry can be broken for a reason.
So I feel that before I give constructive criticism to other people who have written, I ought to provide a disclaimer, or several. As a result of my experiences, I have developed biases and tastes as well as a recognition that there are all kinds of poets and poetry in this world. The kinds of poems I work to write are not the only forms of value, not the only ones that are published. Each poet has to decide on his or her form, but, as it was for me, individuals can learn from reading other poets and understanding their techniques.
My biases and tastes derived from the advice of William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Koch, and the good poets I was privileged to interact with. They include, but are not limited to the following:
* When possible, use short or even single syllable words with clear vowel sounds.
* Longer lines with five or six or more strong stresses carry more weight or seriousness than shorter lines. A caveat: I love the work of Williams who in some of his poems attempted to emulate American speech, using three beats per line.
* Deciding where to end a line is very important. It can be a full stop, or it can lean into the words in the next line.
* The more images and the fewer abstract and/or Latinate words, the better.
* Less punctuation is called for than in prose, but some mechanism should be used to indicate ends of sentences or transitions. Poems should convey complete thoughts in most cases rather than being a stream of words.
* Titles are very important and should bring something to the poem that you maybe couldn’t put in the lines of the poem, but it’s possible for the first line to also serve as the title.
However, these are only biases and tastes, even if I do share them with other poets. Out in the world of published and recognized poetry, there are prose poems, abstract poems that make little or no literal sense, Walt Whitman type poems that go on and on, and, of course, a panoply of rhymed and metered options, both old and new.
I will inject these ideas into my comments on my friends’ poems, but I wouldn’t dare to tell them what they should say.
Now, having considered all of this, I need to go back to work and write more poems.
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.