Your Poetry Sucks!
Five Ways to Improve
It seems everyone is a poet these days. The internet is nothing but a glut of would-be Emily Dickinsons and Charles Bukowskis all trying to force their words into your brain. This explosion of creative freedom has created a market saturation of word porn. There has never been this much poetry available to the world at any given time. Prior to the internet, if you wanted to be a poet, you had to pursue the craft relentlessly, honing your skills at home alone among stacks of old books and journals like some kind of word miser, becoming a bitter old curmudgeon toward the publishing industry and critics who never seemed to appreciate you, until you died and suddenly everyone realized you were an undiscovered genius of language. Today, all you need is a facebook or an instagram or a twitter account, and a willingness to spam your words into the void.
The abundance of voices vying for attention online has become a double-edged sword. For one thing, wow, so many choices! For another, ugh, too many choices. Scrolling through poetry groups online or searching the #poetry hashtags on twitter or instagram, one might come to realize the depth of the slush pile a good editor has to swim through in order to find a decent gem worth sharing to their readership. It’s too easy these days. It’s all product product product, with no dedication to the art of the craft. No sacrifice. Everyone is privileged and believes their work deserves to be the next viral sensation, without having earned it. Without having bled. Without having suffered the tortures of editorial rejection. To put it bluntly, most of what you will find online, is shitty shitty shitty writing. I know, shame on me for being honest, but if you’re willing to listen, here is why your poetry sucks:
- Where is the imagery?
The tell-tale sign of an amateur poet is one who delivers stanzas devoid of concrete images. Instead of painting a picture with their words, they choose to ruminate on ideas and abstractions. This is always the wrong direction to take. It doesn’t give the reader anything to latch onto at a deeper level. It doesn’t engage the imagination. The craft of poetry is one of concision, using the right words in the right order, but it is also one of choosing the right photo to convey an emotion, rather than simply stating the emotion. Poetry is artful photography, in words.
Think of William Carlos Williams’ most famous works. Imagine if instead of showing us the classic “red wheelbarrow” beside the white chickens, he had said something like, “my heart is lonely child’s toy, and I am a chicken farm.” Imagine if instead of painting the picture of plums that are so sweet, so cold, he had simply said, “forgive me, I ate your dessert because I am selfish and I was thinking about missing you.” Surely you can see the difference? Far too often, poets these days are trying to cut corners. Rather than trying to find a meaningful way to convey their thoughts, they simply state those thoughts. It leaves the readers with very little to digest, other than maybe a slight tinge of familiarity, a quick and relatable snack of empty calories, instead of a nutritious meal that lasts and fortifies the mind.
People consume poetry these days like memes. They chew and swallow the tidbits of sugar to release the dopamine in their brain, and they move on to the next thing. No need to study it or wonder what it means. There’s no hidden metaphor or depth of value to pursue. It’s quickly relatable content that might as well be a sappy greeting card you’d give someone for their birthday. Art is supposed to take work and some effort, it’s supposed to be a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the audience. Sure, art is in the eye of the beholder, but are you hanging memes up on your walls? Are you building a library of memes that you wish to revisit and spend time with like old friends?
2. Stop it with the cliches!
To use a cliche here, avoid cliches LIKE THE PLAGUE. (Relevant to today.)
I’m not saying that this is possible all the time. Sometimes a cliche is a cliche simply for the reason that it works so well, there really isn’t a better way to say it. However, you should think of it like this, if you’re going to use a phrase that is common in a poem, it better be absolutely necessary to the poem. There’s almost always another way to say something rather than use a phrase so common everyone’s heard it before.
A poem is supposed to work to present a reader with something NEW. Always, always, always be trying to say something in a way no one has ever heard it said before. One way to do this, is to utilize your own unique voice. If you focus intently on your own perspective, ideally no one else thinks exactly the same way that you do. Another thing is to cut any and all phrases that seem overly familiar when revising. And yes, you have to revise. What? You think poetry is easy?
3. Revise Revise Revise
No one is perfect. That means no poem is perfect. And especially, no first draft of a poem is perfect. If you belt out a draft of a poem and assume it is already worthy of an audience, you have most likely embarrassed yourself. Not taking the time to revise a poem opens yourself up to the possibility of presenting work riddled with spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and typos, all of which are nothing short of amateur hour.
Finishing something new brings a certain excitement, and a luster of newness clings to it that resonates with pride for the author. This is a trap. Distance yourself from the new work as soon as possible. Hide it from yourself for at least three days. Then read it again with a fresh sense of perspective. You will notice the flaws now, and be able to adjust accordingly. Unless you are a narcissist and think yourself incapable of less than perfection, in which case, seek a psychiatrist, not an editor.
If you have revised your own work relentlessly for years, you might get accustomed to your own methods of working, and you might MIGHT be able to start revising your work as you create it. But one should never get too comfortable. This is the road to regret. Remember, a poem is never finished. It is merely abandoned.
4. STOP PREACHING!
No one likes to be preached to. This is a golden rule of good poetry. If a poem spends time beating a message over a reader’s head, it has lost the thread. This is called didactic poetry, and it usually sucks. It’s a common problem found in political poetry and amateur poetry posted online. Generally, refer back to question number one in this essay.
Berating a reader with a political or moral message automatically removes space for imagery. If you want to deliver a message, in a poem you should try to do this with a specific image, or a metaphor. Never just say something like “racism is bad!” Yeah, everyone already knows that. To tell it to a reader, is to come across as condescending. Readers don’t like to be talked down to. They like to feel like they discovered the intention of the poem, without being told what that intention is. Give your audience some credit.
5. For the love of God, stop trying to rhyme!
Unless you are writing for children, and want to sound like Dr. Seuss, it’s time to stop rhyming. All too-often poetry online reads like cutesy sing-song stuff that would be better found in a kindergarten class.
Not all rhyming verse is bad. But it’s best to remember that formal verse has been around for centuries. It would be fairly presumptuous of someone writing today to believe they can write a love sonnet better than Shakespeare. This comes back to the newness issue. Do you want to spend your time rewriting the classics, or do you want to try and invent the new classics?
If you are going to rhyme, at least try to be original with it. Find a natural and internal method that doesn’t feel forced. Use unique sounds. Try not to rhyme simple words. Again, keep it new. The odds are not with you that someone hasn’t already rhymed a word, and it’s likely they did it better than you.
These five bullet points are the most obvious areas of improvement that stick out to me when trying to engage with the majority of online poetry people have published themselves. If you work on these areas, I promise you, your work will improve, and you will help reduce the virtual trash pile that is internet poetry. I thank you for your service to the language arts.