- Ed DeButts
"In a poem, the secrets of the poem give it its tension and gift of emerging sense and form, so that it’s not always the flowering in the poem and the specific images that make it memorable, but the tensions and physicality, the rhythms, the underlying song.
The high spots of a poem could be said to correspond with the bloom in the garden. But you need the compositional entity in order to convey the weight and force of the poem’s motion, of its emerging meaning.
And you need the silence. So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn’t say as much as in what it does say. As when a flower is preparing to bloom, or after it has bloomed, when it is suspending its strengths and its potency and is at rest – or seems to be, its mission to flower and to produce seed having been fulfilled.”
From The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz. He became Poet Laureate of the United States for the second time at the age of 95.
But how does a poem come to be? Here are some more books, an audio recording, and some Web sites that might tell:
Billy Collins Live is a recording the former Poet Laureate of the United States made, with a five-minute introduction by actor Bill Murray. In addition to the readings, Collins spends some time in a question and answer session reflecting on what makes good poetry, his process of reaching his audiences, and the success of his Poetry 180 programs in schools nationwide. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and this is an extremely fun and instructive recording.
Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry presents the elements of poetry in a progression in which each new topic builds on what preceded it and offers a step-by- step illustration of poetic techniques. A poet friend spoke highly of this book.
My daughter likes poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. I can tell, because every time I check it out, it disappears into her bedroom. She has turned out some decent poems, too. A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Wooldridge “wants each of us to connect with our inner poet. Savvy… optimistic, warm, unpretentious.”
Poet Kenneth Koch (pronounced “coke”) wrote two wonderful books on teaching poetry to children: Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? and Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. For older folks, he wrote Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, and I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry to Old People. The two about teaching children have been in print for over thirty years, and the methods can help, no matter what your age.
R is for Rhyme: A Poetry Alphabet by Judy Young, illustrates poetic tools, terms, and techniques for children (I like it, too!). Poetic terms from A to Z are defined and accompanied by an example poem, with humorous illustrations by Victor Juhasz.
Paul B. Janeczko’s The Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Work includes thoughts, inspirations, anecdotes, and memories from 39 poets (with a poem by each) to help the reader explore, and maybe be inspired to create.
Poetry from A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers was also compiled by Mr. Janeczko. He includes advice from Samuel Johnson, who wrote, “Never trust people who write more than they read.” See also Janeczko’s How to Write Poetry.
Former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets includes sample poems to illustrate his ideas on revising, the power of simile, the use of narrative, etc., all presented in a friendly, conversational style.
In The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, another former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, says his idea “is to help the reader hear more of what is going on in poems, and by hearing more to gain in enjoyment and understanding… Every speaker, intuitively and accurately, courses gracefully through immensely subtle manipulations of sound… It is almost as if we sing to one another all day.”
In The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, editors Robin Behn and Chase Twichell collected more than 90 exercises for poets enrolled in writing programs or working on their own. The “poets who teach” include Rita Dove, Donald Justice, Maxine Kumin, and Anne Waldman. This is an inspiring and helpful book.
“Entertainingly written and downright useful … full to bursting with the author's delightfully impish wit. Students will learn more from this … than … from a stack of more traditional textbooks.” So wrote David Pitt, in his Booklist review of The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry. It is witty. Fry obviously had fun writing it.
Bill Moyers interviews poets and features some of their work in Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft and in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. Lorna Dee Cervantes told him, “Poetry has been an exercise in freedom.
Freedom is like a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Poetry can give you a sense of choice. It’s free on every level. Language and memory have no price tags on them. You have limitless choices – in form, language, subject matter – that spill over into life.”
Mary Oliver is one of this writer’s favorite poets. She has written two books to help one learn the craft: Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse; and A Poetry Handbook. The second half of Rules for the Dance is a collection of metrical poems that Oliver selected “primarily as useful illustrations.”
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland includes chapters devoted to the sonnet, ballad, villanelle, sestina, blank verse, etc. The helpful introduction to meter features eight suggested books for further study.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry by Nikki Moustaki has a chapter on revision, with this helpful advice – “I’m here to tell you that if you practice a lot, read reams of great poetry, and don’t become too self-satisfied with your work, you WILL get better at writing poems.
“This is a great theory, because it means that you’ll be able to help your first attempts to be better poems. As you learn to write, you’ll learn to revise too. Poems that you once felt were helpless may become your best work.”
Poetry for Dummies was compiled by The Poetry Center and John Timpane with Maureen Watts. The book includes sections on reading and understanding poetry, writing poetry, “an intelligent hustle through poetic history,” a glossary of terms, and a helpful appendix listing resources (organizations, events, magazines, books, and ten poetry-related Web sites).
Communities of aspiring poets post and critique works-in-progress at these sites: