“Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s
good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat.” Osbert
number of people like to write poetry, try to write poetry, or want to write
poetry. I’m not quite sure why that is, but a growing number of people find
poetry attractive. Here are five mistakes that are quite commonly made when approaching
poetry for the first time. The reason I feel qualified to even talk about them
is because I have fallen into these howlers plenty of times myself.
1. Thinking strong emotion produces good
The first one
is thinking that poetry is all about expressing emotion. In fact, many people
seem to believe that the strength of the poetry lies in how intense the emotion
is. Here’s an example of a heartfelt poem such as you might stumble across on
any of the popular poetry websites:
I brought you apples, pears and
And you threw them back at me.
So I wandered among the bluebells
on the cliff.
My heart was bursting inside of me
and I wondered if
I could ever regain your love,
Which came to me once like a
lightning bolt from above.
Oh where can I go with my passion
I stand out here in the pouring
You are my love, my heart and my
You are what
makes me feel whole.
effort, and the poem does use metaphor and simile to express… something, but
we’re not quite sure what. It appears to be reporting an incident in which the
poet, after being pelted with fruit, has a heart attack while wandering about
on a cliff in the rain and is hit by a lightning bolt – a kind of primitive defibrillator, if you
will. There is obviously some deep emotion at play here, related to unrequited
love, but that doesn’t make it a good poem.
One of the most
common mistakes that is made in rhyming poetry is not adhering to credible scansion
or meter. Scansion can be described as “the dividing of lines of poetry into
feet by indicating accents and counting syllables to determine the meter of a
poem. It is a means of studying the mechanical elements by which the poet has
established his rhythmical effects.” In other words – at least for rhymed
poetry – the usual method is to have a set number of syllables in each line.
Iambic pentameter for example has ten syllables in each line, alternating short
and long, thus: de da de da de da de da de da.
The poem above
doesn’t follow any of these rules. Line one has eleven syllables, line two has
fourteen, line three has seven, and so on. It is a common practice to produce
poems that rhyme, but don’t scan.
3. Leaving yourself difficult rhymes
thing about rhymed poetry is that you have to make sure you don’t catch
yourself out by giving yourself some impossible rhyme to match. In the above
poem the poet falls into this gaping hole right at the start, by giving himself
the impossible task of finding a word to rhyme with “oranges.” It is a well-known
fact that nothing does rhyme with that word in English, so the poet simply
ignores it. The key to successful rhyming is reading ahead and working out what
you are going to say and how you are going to say it, to make sure you never
paint yourself into a poetical corner.
is starting to write a poem in the grip of some powerful emotion when you don’t
really know what you want to say. I’ve done that a number of times and what I
generally end up with is a poem that is vague, confusing and rambles on and on
with no destination in view. It’s amazing the amount of time you can waste on
this kind of drivel!
The best way to
keep your poetry fresh and convincing, I’ve found, is to come up with a theme.
Can you summarize in a few words what your poem is supposed to be about? If
not, you’re probably destined to be sucked irretrievably down into the quagmire
of mind-numbing mumbo jumbo (which is just as difficult to say aloud as it is
to read in a poem).
This may sound
weird, because in most other settings plain language is what people should be
striving for, but poetry is different. As mentioned, the above poem does use
metaphor and simile to get across what the poet wants to say – albeit somewhat clumsily.
If you don’t make use of these and other poetical techniques you can end up,
not with a poem, but with an advertising slogan, a news bulletin or a simply
paragraph of prose.
Here are a few
lines from “Dulce et Decorum Est”
written by the First-World-War poet Wilfred Owen:
Bent double, like old beggars under
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we
cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we
turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began
Men marched asleep. Many had lost
But limped on, blood-shod. All went
lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines
that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy
clumsy helmets just in time;
That sounds much more effective that simply saying “we were plodding wearily
back to the barracks when were attacked with poison gas shells,” now doesn’t
Labels: emotion, plain language, poetry, purpose, rhyme, rookie mistakes, scansion, writing poetry