By Dave Kavanagh
People write poetry for all sorts of reasons, I will often write a poem to record an event in my own life, a meeting with a friend, a particularly moving event, a sight that inspired me. Sometimes these poems are a way of recording these deeply personal experiences and are not written for others but written only for myself.
How you approach the writing of such a poem is as personal as the reason for writing them.
If however you are writing a poem and your goal is to communicate with an audience then you must draw in your readers, your poem needs to follow certain conventions and rules. If you wish to draw an emotional response from your readers then simply writing a poem from your own standpoint will not always be enough.
In this article, I am aiming to reinforce a few golden rules that I think are common to most commercial poetry. These rules are not for everyone, they are a step away from those personal poems which all of us enjoy writing and a step towards writing for others.
Before writing a poem which I intend for readers I like to draw a road map. I like to set down objectives and then I pin a list to my workspace to help me avoid common pitfalls. The list reads as follows.
- What are my goals in this poem?
- Avoid cheap cliche at all cost.
- Remove/Avoid sentimentality
- Avoid abstract words
- Create strong visual/aural/tactile images.
- Use creative / unique Metaphor/Simile
- Flip the commonplace on its head
- Be cautious of rhyme
- Check that my theme is well communicated.
So to step one: Goal setting
I ask myself the hard question. What do I wish to communicate with this poem? Do I wish to convey a personal experience so my reader sees or feels the experience as I did? Do I want my poem to be a protest? Am I describing a scene? It is vital for me that I know what my goal is before I start and that I then write to serve that goal only. Deviation from a goal will often lead you in new and fascinating directions but more often it will reduce your work and turn the possibility of something wonderful into something mundane.
With my goals set I will write a rough draft, I will let words flow and allow the writer within to work towards communicating meaning through text. This is the storytelling element of my poem.
What I will produce will seldom be a poem in any conventional sense, it will be an outline only. Because I have allowed my muse to write unchecked I will by necessity have to edit this draft several times.
The first phase of editing will be to strike out all cliche. Cliche, in this case, will be instances of metaphor or simile that are so common place that they have entered the lexicon. Obvious examples of these will be cold as stone, sick as a dog etc.
I also look for the less obvious cliche, old as oak, ink flowing like blood. Or words that have become so commonplace in poetry as to be considered cliche, Obsidian is one such word, overused and thus cliche.
The rule of thumb I use is to read my poem and if I find a line that sounds familiar or hackneyed then I will mark it and replace it.
When editing out cliche it is my job as a poet to remodel cliche, to express the meaning of the cliched lines using unique but understandable language. The art of the poet is to communicate the commonplace in a new and extraordinary way or to illustrate the beauty in an everyday scene in such a way as to raise it above the ordinary.
If I take the phrase ‘Cold as Stone’ as an example of a cliche I have used then I ask myself the question. ‘How do I communicate this meaning in a new way, how do I subvert the much-used cliche and give it wings.
The key word in this cliche is ‘COLD’ so I will write a list of words that say cold to me. It may look something like this.
From these words, I will fashion an image that most readers will emphasise with but not view as obvious.
‘The feel of frozen steel on ungloved hands’ is an image that comes to mind. The line may read
as the hard, blue-tinged steel,
on the paint bared handles
of the dairy wheel borrow’.
Ok, ok…… so this is convoluted and long but it is a vast improvement on the cliched line ‘Cold as Stone’ The line will need to be improved by further editing but it succeeds in communicating cold in a clear way while avoiding cliche.
Once I have eliminated cliched words and phrases from my poem I will then edit to remove sentimentality from my poem. In this case, I am talking about what I like to call ‘Chocolate Box’ sentimentality. IE Fluffy kittens, puppies, grinning grey-haired grannies. Those stock images which we are fed in Christmas cards and on the covers of biscuit boxes.
This type of sentimentality could be described as visual cliche and is so overused that it will not appeal to readers of poetry who are looking for a fresh unique approach. Readers do not want overly mushy language, they want instead, a poet who will show them the world through fresh intelligent eyes. So I eliminate and replace all sentimentality with fresh clean and none-cliched images.
Avoid abstract words.
So having eliminated sentimentality and cliche. I will now read my poem again and I will weigh the words I have used to eliminate ABSTRACT WORDS.
A common pitfall for many poets, myself included is the use of abstract words. We fall into using these words because they are not without meaning. In my case, many of these words will include in first and second drafts of my poetry.
ABSTRACT in terms of poetry are words that do not communicate a concrete image. Examples of abstract words are Sad, Happy, Angry, Freedom, Beauty and Love. All of these words have one thing in common, they are all abstract, they describe a state, the state of being happy or sad, or an emotion, anger but these words lack visual impact.
If I write ‘He is angry’…. the reader is left without a question mark, he or she has no anchor on which to hang the word.
If I instead use a line to SHOW anger ‘His bloodless knuckles’ or ‘Her twisted lips’ then the reader can visualise the anger.
Abstract words dampen a readers interest, showing through strong imagery draws in the reader.
Eliminating abstract words is all about the oft-repeated rule in poetry ‘Don’t tell…Show’.
Creating strong visual images
Images in poetry will appeal to a reader's senses and/or emotions. The senses which I as a poet am trying to trigger with my words are the primary human senses.
One of the very best ways that I can demonstrate the use of all of these senses in poetry is to ask you to imagine the making of an Irish Stew. If I was to write a poem about this it is easy to appeal to all the human senses.
The smell of earthbound vegetables, carrots & potatoes.
The Taste of the combined flavours
The feel of heat on lips and in a stomach
The sound of the concoction bubbling
The sight of pan braised meat crumbling
All of these can easily be described poetically and so a poem can be written to draw the reader into the whole experience of making and eating an Irish Stew. (I would be interested to see what poets reading this piece could produce using these ideas and images.)
Of course this is a very clear and easy example of using the senses in a poem, not all subjects or themes will lend themselves so easily to this but if you stop and consider the senses while you write then I assure you that your poem will connect on a deeper and more meaningful level with your audience.
Using Metaphors & Similes
to a large part, the art of poetry is in the creative and uncommon use of both simile and metaphor. Poets are those individuals who see the world in a slightly different way and have an innate ability to communicate this eccentricity through their writing.
A metaphor is a statement that pretends/states one thing is really something else.
‘Murphy was an eel, slippery, his skin oily and awful to the touch.’
In this example, the poet is saying that Murphy was an eel so this is a metaphor.
A simile is a statement where you say one object is similar to another object. Similes use the words “like” or “as.”
‘Murphy was as slippery as an eel, his skin as oily as a pooled slick’
In this example, we are saying Murphy was like an eel and his skin as oily as a pooled slick. This example uses two similes with the Like & As bridge words.
Both of these examples are cliched and obvious but I use them to demonstrate the differences between simile and metaphor. As poets, it is our duty to paint Murphy as a sly man in a more subtle way. Again I would love to see how any poet reading this would build the character of Murphy using less cliched images (Perhaps an idea for future submissions to the magazine)
Flipping the commonplace on its head.
A clever poet can utilise poetic device (Metaphor, simile, assonance, consonance, prosody) to take a common scene and make it uncommon, to show something mundane in a totally new way. I am currently on the island of Fuerteventura and as I write I am looking out over a long row of young palm trees that are weaving in the breeze.
So the scene is young palms in a row, the breeze is twisting them and turning them and I want to create an uncommon image to use in my poem.
What about using metaphor to describe the trees not as young palms but as a line of teenage girls bending to whisper secrets in each other's ears, and what if I say the secrets were told to them by the blue Atlantic.
‘As one they dip and turn, repeating the secrets the water swore them to tell no one.’
Ok so again this is simple and a little obvious but it turns the scene into something more than a line of palm trees.
This is how a poet views the world, not seeing trees but seeing something else entirely. I try in as far as possible to flip the ordinary in all my poems and thus leave a lasting impression and indelible image in the mind of my reader.
Once I have edited my poem to remove sentimentality, cliche and I have built my images using simile and metaphor I then edit it to stip away all words that do not advance the goal which I set at the beginning. I will of course use other poetic devices, I will consider the musicality of the piece and then I will put my poem away and forget about it for a few days.
You will often find a poem that makes perfect sense to you on the day of writing will not read so well a week later, this is, for me at least, a vital part of the finished poem. If I reread my poem some days later and am happy with it then I consider it finished but more often I will discover that the poem is not as smooth or as polished as I had thought. I can not stress enough how important it is for me to edit, edit edit.
After all if I am not willing to give time to my work then why should a reader.
Have a wonderful writing week
Dave Kavanagh July 2017