How to Write Better Poetry, Page 2

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013

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The dialog continues.

Old Professor
Then how about my new poem? What do you think?

Some poems
so called
are actually kind of like
regular sentences
chopped up like liver
and laid out unevenly
maybe to pass for salmon
but they're chopped liver

Eager Young Poet
Hey, that’s pretty good.

Old Professor
It does have metaphors. But let’s continue to think about the difference between poetry and prose. For example, here is a prose account such as you might read in a newspaper:

Before he left, he wrote a note telling his wife that, even though they had to be apart for awhile, she should restrain her unhappiness because they would be together in spirit. In fact, he added, her spiritual power provided a guiding focus for his life.

Brief, clear, understandable. Now, what if we make it look like a poem?

Before he left
He wrote a note
Telling his wife
That, even though they had to be
Apart for awhile
She should restrain her unhappiness
They would be together
In spirit
In fact he added
Her spiritual power provided
A guiding focus
For his life

Eager Young Poet
That’s really good. You’re not going to criticize that, are you?

Old Professor
Well, it is a bit touching and has an image or two, but it’s still really a simple prose account dressed up in poetic garb—no not even poetic garb. Poetic underwear is more like it. The question is, could it be expressed in a richer, more beautiful, artistic—poetic—way? Here is what 17th Century poet John Donne wrote to his wife in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
    "The breath goes now," and some say, "No."
So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
'Twere profanation of our joys 
    To tell the laity our love. 
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears ;
    Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
    Though greater far, is innocent. 
Dull sublunary lovers' love
    (Whose soul is sense)cannot admit 
Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
    That ourselves know not what it is, 
Inter-assurèd of the mind, 
    Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
    Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
    Like gold to aery thinness beat. 
If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two ; 
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show 
    To move, but doth, if th' other do. 
And though it in the centre sit, 
    Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it, 
    And grows erect, as that comes home. 
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end where I begun. 

Eager Young Poet
That went completely over my head. In fact, it doesn’t communicate. I can’t understand it. Doesn’t that make it a bad poem, according to your own rules?

Old Professor
It’s a beautiful poem. Why don’t I paraphrase the first few lines for you into plain English? That will help you understand the meaning of the poem and you’ll see the difference between the poem and a paraphrase of it.

Eager Young Poet
Okay. Go for it.

Old Professor

In the same way that virtuous men die
Telling their souls to leave their bodies
So quietly that even their friends don’t know
Exactly when death occurs

Let us part from each other without any commotion
No tears or sighing.
To make our love public
Would debase our happiness.

Eager Young Poet
I can understand that better. But I kind of see how the original has more to it. Like rhyme and stuff.

Old Professor
Yes, you can see the difference, can’t you? Great. Now let’s say that my paraphrase is actually a competing poem on the same subject as Donne’s. That brings us to the next question.

Eager Young Poet
Which is?

Old Professor
The question is, What makes one poem better than another?

Eager Young Poet
Isn’t it just personal preference? You say tomato--.

Old Professor
As much as I hesitate to express a thought that runs so counter to the reigning opinion of the world, I must say that it is not just personal preference. Indeed, the fact that so many people say, “It’s all poetry, and all judgment is personal and subjective,” explains why so much poetry is so much less that it could be.

Eager Young Poet
Were you this negative as a kid?

Old Professor
Bear with me. Much modern poetry falls short of what it could achieve simply because it has no images or worn out images and it merely describes a feeling or experience, rather than recreates it.

Eager Young Poet
What do you mean?

Old Professor
Too often we get something like this:

My cat
on the mat
and I was angry
at the world
for the injustice
of sitting cats

Eager Young Poet
Ooh, that’s cute.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com