How to Write Poems - Poetry Techniques 3

This is Part 3 of the CWN series on How to Write Poems. To go to Part 1, click here.

How to write poems - poetry problems you can avoid

Here are some common problems that often hurt the poetry of new writers. Of course, there is no law against doing any of these things; you can try to get away with them if you want. But you have a better chance of writing a good poem if you can avoid them.

Top poetry pitfalls:

1) Thinking beautiful things make a beautiful poem. Roses and jewels, we can agree, are beautiful. Including them in your poem does not make it more beautiful. You can write just as beautiful a poem about rotting fish or the gunk under my refrigerator (not beautiful). The beauty of a poem comes from how it's made and what it does, not from what it's about.


2) Sentimentality. Sentimentality is false or excessive emotion. Have you ever had to listen to someone repeatedly saying, "Isn't that nice?" or "Isn't that lovely?" or "Isn't this fun?" about something you didn't honestly think was all that nice, lovely, or fun? You may have noticed that the more the other person insisted, the less nice/lovely/fun whatever it was began to seem to you. In general, we don't like to have emotions rammed down our throats. We all like to decide for ourselves how we feel about things.

When I was about twelve, I wote to my Turkish penpal that I felt like a prisoner because my parents didn't let me (I don't remember what, although I do remember writing the letter from my "jail cell"). This is an example of an emotional response totally out of proportion to the situation. It could have been the beginning of a very bad poem.

Sentimentality in a poem can end up feeling whiney, self-pitying, insincere, or sickeningly sweet, depending on which emotions the poet is overdoing. So how to write poems with the right amount of emotion? What's the right amount of emotion to feel about a subject? The best practice is usually to let the readers decide for themselves. Instead of telling them that something is sad, show them the aspects of it that make you feel sad. Chances are readers will come to the same conclusion. And whatever conclusion they come to will be genuinely felt.

3) Archaic or "poetic language". Yes, a lot of the great English poets used words like "thou," "doth," and said things like "O! Beauteous moon..." They also lived in times when this was a normal way of writing. If they had lived during the 21st century, they would have written in 21st century English, as should we.

4) Clichés. Sparkling like diamonds," "pure as snow," "fiery hot," "a warm heart," "silent as the grave," - these are examples of clichés. They are phrases or ideas that have been used so many times that they have lost all freshness.

When I say that someone is "as sweet as sugar," the "as sugar" part is a waste of words. It doesn't provide any additional information about this person. And it doesn't offer a new perspective on sweetness -- you've heard it before. It waters down a poem because it takes up space without adding any power. It also gives the reader the impression that I, the poet, don't have anything original to say. This is a pity, because every poet does have something original to say. If I am writing about someone's sweetness, I should think harder about what exactly makes this particular person sweet, and what this person's particular sweetness is like. Instead of using ready-made phrases, I should choose words that express the unique qualities of my subject.

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