Community writing program spotlight

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Three ways to become a better poet

I have read every how-to book ever written on how to improve as a writer. Okay, that's a lie, but I sure gave it a good try for many years. And I discovered a whole 'nother world of how-to when I was in my mid-thirties and finally discovered poetry.

I had feared and loathed verse for years because I knew it all meant something wonderful but I didn't "Get It," so I felt like an idiot.

Then one day at the local newsstand I discovered a magazine that was publishing some "lost" sonnets by someone named Ted Berrigan. I didn't know who Ted Berrigan was, but he looked like a big old cool beatnik of some sort, and although I had no idea what he was talking about in his poems (which only seemed to be sonnets in the sense they were 14-lines long), they nonetheless intrigued me, so I bought the magazine and took it home.

Berrigan (1934-1983) was a native of Rhode Island by way of Tulsa who went to NYC in the late 1950s and became a latter-day member of what is known as the "New York School of Poetry," a group that also included the prominent poets Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest and Frank O'Hara, and others.

Berrigan's major contribution to poetry is probably his groundbreaking 1964 collection The Sonnets. This book weaves together traditional elements of the Shakespearean sonnet form with the experimental structure and cadence of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, combined with autobiographical experiences from Berrigan's own life.

The result is poetry that plays with language, and that is my first recommendation to you if you want to become better poets. Play with words. If it's a chore but you want to do it anyway, try to find ways to loosen it up. It should be fun on some level if not all of them.

If you are on a roll, you will forget you're writing and sort of be drawn into what I call a writing trance. At the end, you'll have a bunch of lines, maybe a page or more.

The trick, I find, is that if I dig through a lot of possibly good/possibly not so good material, I will usually find some good lines.

Save those. Even if you don't use them immediately, you will find yourself down the road needing a good line or two to fit a poem you're working on, or as has been the case with me many, many times, a line or two you can use to build a poem around, like an oyster building a pearl around a grain of sand.

My second piece of advice is to immediately start keeping a notebook handy at all times to write down good lines. You will find yourself in the line at the supermarket or overhearing a conversation on some TV show or talking with a friend, and you'll hear a fragment of a line that is brilliant. Or it will just pop into your head.

Write it down immediately. That's why it's good to keep the notebook handy. Otherwise you will absolutely definitely forget it, and it will be lost forever. If someone asks what you're doing, tell 'em it's your grocery list or whatever.

I have notebooks going back at least 15 years. Once I started reading Berrigan, I found out who else he read, and hung out with, and who was influenced by all those guys, and I found myself much more drawn to language, to overhearing good bits and pieces I could use.

So, you have to write a lot and you have to gather stuff you can use. You don't want to have to start from scratch every time you want to write a poem. Sometimes inspiration isn't there, but if you don't write you won't get anything done. That's what the notebook is for, among other things.

My last piece of advice is you must read. You have to. Practically speaking, find what you like and read it. But explore. There are as many kinds of poetry as there are kinds of anything else.

Some people I have known have self-identified as "street poets" and told me they don't need to read poetry to write from the heart, etc.

OK. But that is like trying to build a house with one hammer and maybe a couple Phillips screwdrivers. In other words, you need all the tools you can get, and one good way to get them is to see/hear them in action.

I fall in love with people's work like that and have to read everything they wrote, and in the process I pick up techniques I can use in my own work, just as a guitarist might learn a new lick from watching someone else play it.

Start wherever you are and go forward. It takes time to become a better poet, but it is do-able if you want to do it. In the meantime, don't waste time and energy beating yourself up if your stuff isn't "good enough." Everybody starts someplace. You are somebody; so start already.

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