#WriteTip: How Do You Write a Poem? by Geofrey Crow

Today’s post goes much deeper than answering the question of how do you write a poem. Though not many of this blog’s readers write poetry on a regular basis, you’ll certainly be able to relate to the various theories of the writing process Geofrey highlights. I first encountered Goefrey’s poetry via tweets from the incomparable Aquileana. It’s safe to say I enjoy his poems very much. This post is the result of Word Bank’s May promo. In exchange for this enlightening post, Geofrey receives a free 25-page copy edit or manuscript critique from me.

 

Offical Bio: Geofrey Crow is a completely normal human being who promises he’s not writing this bio from the prison library. Some of his favorite hobbies include cursing his way through his morning run, finding ways to make himself uncomfortable, and hiding under the bed when the phone rings.

Geofrey runs a poetry blog called The Giggling Stream and has another site in the works, but it’s all very hush-hush, so you didn’t hear it from me. Really, I’d love to stick around and chat, but I think I hear the warden’s footsteps and if he finds me in his office it’s my a—

 

Picture of Geofrey Crow

 

“Approaches to Poetry”;

or, “How to Make Indecision Look Decisive”;

or, “Maybe it’s the Other Way Around?”

 

How do you write a poem?

 

How do you make that spleen in your gut into something that’ll fool other people into looking at it and enjoying it?

 

How do you take a bunch of senseless little black squigglies and turn them into genuine emotions for the reader?

 

The answer (as we all know) is magic, but since there’s no time to explain how that works we’ll have to settle for a few partial views of what poetry sort of is and how you might be able to think of it.

 

There’s the technical approach, where I’d say something like, “Well, when you’re writing a villanelle you’ve got to be careful to pick words with plenty of rhymes.” But you’ll figure that out yourself about five minutes into writing a villanelle. Necessary, but not what we’re after.

 

There’s the new-agey approach: “You need to go with the grain of the language, let the poem develop itself without forcing anything. It’s a river, not a building.” Which is sort of true, although when you get down to it I don’t think that’s exactly the kind of thinking that got Shakespeare comparing thee to a summer’s day. Go too far in the not-forcing-anything direction and you’ll get a mess.

 

Picture of Orange Poppy

Never mind that it’s in a garden. In a park. In a city. Where it’s regularly watered and nourished. Never mind all that. This flower is the perfect expression of nature at it’s most pristine and naturally beautiful.

 

There’s the formalist approach: “Poetry is about fighting the language and forcing it into meaningful patterns when all it really wants to do is degrade into everyday usage, slowly devolve into incomprehensibility, and take civilization and civil society with it. Poetry is about imposing order onto the chaos of our existence, and it’s got more in common with a spiritual discipline than anything else.” This is a great little attitude to have in mind if you’re working on formal poetry, but it’s dangerous because it leads to fascism. Go too far in the order-over-chaos direction and you run into the problem that organic systems (such as yourself) are inherently messy and not very orderly.

 

There’s the rugged individualist approach: “Just don’t worry about the political ramifications of what you’re writing. Yes, it’s the 21st century, but a human being’s still got a right to a division between the private, public, and political lives.” This would be very comforting and liberating, maybe, but it’s also got a major minus when you remember it’s completely untrue. Not that obscuring the truth is necessarily a problem in poetry, but when it comes to giving useful advice it’s important to stick as close to the truth as possible.

 

There’s the cynical approach: “Poetry is all about making simple things look complicated and making complicated things look simple. You don’t want to go with the grain of language at all, you’ve got to use language against itself using a whole stack of more or less dirty tricks. In the end, poetry is all about confusing people and getting them to thank you for it.” Not wrong, exactly. But the problem here is that it makes it look like you, the writer, were actually pulling something over on the reader, which is a very one-sided way of looking at the thing. It doesn’t allow for the playful element of poetry, which is absolutely critical. Poetry isn’t about fooling anybody into anything, and if you’re setting out to trick your reader you’ve got the wrong attitude to the whole thing.

 

 

There’s the exhibitionist approach: “Poetry is the striptease of the mind. If it has rhythms, it’s because it’s got a heartbeat. If it wraps itself in layers, it’s because it wants them peeled off one by one. If it keeps its secrets, it’s because it knows enough to leave you wanting more.” This is the element of showmanship in poetry, the seductive element that draws us in. It fits, but then again not quite, it’s there, but then again it’s not, it wants to cohere, but then again it wants to resist. It’s crucial to remember this element, but unless there’s more to it a poem will never stand on its own.

 

There’s the theatrical approach: “Poetry is about letting the thing speak of itself, without judging it or trying to reconcile its contradictions. If anything, poetry wants to emphasize the contradictions, to force them to the surface by whatever means necessary. If there’s any such thing as poetic judgment, it’s only there as a matter of presentation or ornament, or as a way of bowing to the reader’s expectations.” Actors will always tell you that if you’re going to play a character you can’t judge the character, no matter how evil or despicable they may be from the audience’s point of view. The most beautiful moments in poetry are the ones where it feels as though the poem were speaking directly to us, and that never happens unless the poet refuses to judge the thing that’s being written about. The really liberating thing about writing poetry is that it gives you a wonderful space where you don’t have to make up your mind.

 

Picture of Dead Fish

Does the dead fish tell us some really deep feel-good thing about how we’re really all the same? Or does it tell us that life is a cruel and constant struggle for survival? Or does it just tell us it’s an awful lot easier to find dead fish lying in the sand by their smell than it is to find them by looking for them? Because I’d have never found this thing if it didn’t reek to high heaven!

 

There’s the authentic, humane approach: “When you write poetry, you have to try your best to meet people where they are, wherever they are. You can’t be afraid to expose those parts of yourself that you’re most afraid of having seen by all the world. Other people carry the same private pains and little shames that you do. Other people walk around with the same anger and the same violence that’s constantly eating at you. Poetry is about learning to see things in a wider perspective, to pull us up out of ourselves for a while to remember we’re all human beings, we’re all very much alike, and we would all like to feel a little less alone in our own skulls, once in a while.” Poetry is about shedding light on every part of the self, even those parts you would most like to keep hidden. It’s about being willing to embrace your own embarrassment when you fail—and if you seriously try, you’re bound to have your fair share of failures! It’s about being willing to suspend judgment, or it’s about not being able to make up your mind (if you prefer)… or at the very least it’s about acting like you’ve suspended judgment.

 

As far as concrete advice goes, it’s pretty much the usual kind of thing. Write regularly, try to write fast enough that you can’t think too much, and edit the hell out of whatever you produce. With enough practice you’ll be able to feel out the rhythms and meters without thinking about them all that much. I’ll leave you with the best bit of writing advice I’ve ever received: when you write, keep telling yourself no one will ever see your work. Along with typing faster than you can think, pretending the reader doesn’t exist can help you get through the moments when your writing makes you uncomfortable. And if you can get through that, maybe, just maybe, you can rip the reader’s heart out and stomp on it give the reader some frou-frou warm fuzzy feeling or whatever.

 

And Your Line Is…

 

“Be my love forever?”
No, no good at all. Much too strong.
Besides, she might take it literally.
“Leave me alone?”
No, that’s worse. Or maybe better.
It’s true sometimes, at least,
so it beats the first one in that respect.
Hmm… “I love you?”
Nope. Generic, and too much.
Sounds desperate.
Plus she’ll read too much into it.
What about “I hate you?”
No dice. Much too personal.
She’ll think I’m just playing coy.
“You have a fantastic body.”
Nopers. Too straightforward.
Too stiff, really.
She’ll think I’m
not respecting her intelligence.
(They always like to figure it out for themselves.)
“How do you feel about leather?”
No!
Best to learn the girl’s name first,
at least.
Guess it’s back to the Gold Standard:
“Hey baby, buy you a drink?”

 

You can connect with Geofrey and his social media accounts via his blog The Giggling Stream.

 

What approach to writing poetry have your former teachers taken? In general, what part of the writing process described here do you most relate to? 

 

 

Guest Post: Truth in Creative Nonfiction: What factors should writers consider when crafting reality? Join me for a discussion over at author D.G. Kaye’s blog.

 

Photos appear courtesy of Geofrey Crow. Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.

Author: JeriWB Guest

If you would like to write a guest post on a writing or literature related topic, please contact me. Aim for 800 words and be keyword specific.

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32 Comments

  1. Astoundingly profound advice… to write like no one will ever see your work! Seriously never thought to do so and just the idea of it is beautifully freeing!

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    • Thanks, Jacqueline! It’s definitely a big help with that first draft, at least for me personally. It’s hard to get into the meat of the subject if I’m always worrying what Mom’s gonna think, you know?

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  2. Wonderful post! I’ve dabbled in poetry but it intimidates me still. To write as if no one will ever read my work is the best advice I’ve read yet. Thank you Jeri and Goefrey for a fun and informative post.

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    • Thanks Marie! Poetry can definitely feel a little intimidating at first, but then later on you find it’s not intimidating, it’s just terrifying. 😉

      Another thing that’s helped me is to try to feel as ridiculous as possible about the fact that I’m writing a poem to begin with. Sort of a, “Well I’ve got my dunce cap and my red nose, so I’m all ready to write poetry,” attitude. It can be really helpful.

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  3. Wow! Loved reading this! What made me smile is that “poetry is making simple things look complicated!” The beauty of poetry is that it reveals many aspects of the topic yet keeps it ambiguous by leaving it open to interpretation. Yes, it is more like a river, sometimes volcanic too! I love dealing with both. 🙂
    Thanks Jeri and Geofrey for this wonderful post.

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    • Thanks Balroop, I’m glad you liked it! I think poetry’s just one of those things where things could be really simple, but if we left it simple we just wouldn’t have anything to talk about, now would we? So let’s make it complicated! I like what you say about how poetry can be volcanic, because it’s definitely like that some days. Those are the best days, because I can get my writing over and done with and get back to doing nothing! 😉

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  4. Highly entertaining post, Jeri and Geofrey! And I think if I try writing poetry, no one will ever actually see it. for reals.

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    • Thanks Laura! I hope you try your hand at writing some poetry. You might be surprised what you come up with!

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  5. **Poetry is about imposing order onto the chaos of our existence, and it’s got more in common with a spiritual discipline than anything else.”**

    I cannot tell you how much I love thee.

    Well, A Lot!

    Geofrey, your words and descriptions of poetry caused my heart to perform somersaults!

    Thank You!

    Post a Reply
    • Goodness, somersaults? You’re a funny one, aren’t you, Chick? I mean, going into somersaults over imposing order onto chaos… how chaotic!

      Anyways, I’m truly honored that my writing touched you so deeply, and you’re very welcome.

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  6. Interesting post and I loved the poem. I rarely write poetry but when I do there’s absolutely no thought involved and I always have the instinct to delete it!

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    • Uh-oh, it was interesting? That means you didn’t like it, doesn’t it? 😛

      But thanks for commenting, Jan, and I’m glad you liked the poem. Now why would you go and delete your work, I’m sure it’s better than you give yourself credit for!

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  7. I used to write a lot of poetry throughout college (even won an award), but stopped when I began to work on longer writing. Spewing out a good free verse every now and then still feels good.
    I like the sense of fun you have with poetry–instead of making it into an intimidating thing.

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    • Thanks, Rosemary. I’m really glad the fun, lighthearted element came through! I think that’s one of the real problems of the craft, is how to create something that’s substantial enough to draw a serious reader in, while still being light enough that somebody could just enjoy it on the surface. Because it needs to be fun if it’s going to have life for the reader, you know? Or at least it seems that way to me. It’s great to talk to a fellow poet!

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  8. I have always gravitated towards poetry. I like that it can be anything you want it to be. Poetry is a way of expression your feelings – it cannot be “wrong”.

    Some poets are known to be pretentious, their drama and flamboyance is what attracts so many people to them.

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    • Well, I’m definitely a fan of the drama and flamboyance, Phoenicia, but I try to avoid coming off as pretentious. But then again you’re right that there’s no “wrong” way of doing poetry, so I guess we’ve got a place for the pretentious stuff too! It’s always good to meet a fellow poetry lover.

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  9. You can compare poetry with painting. Painting with words if you will. Both can be done with a technical approach or with no boundaries of any kind. It’s about what the viewer/reader sees not necessarily about the structure or proficiency.

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    • I think you’re definitely right that you can compare poetry with painting, but I also think the poet or the painter has to have a good deal of proficiency if the viewer or reader is going to see anything worthwhile.

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  10. Sad to say, I didn’t have poetry in school. This is very informational. I liked to hear about the different types of poetry, thank you for sharing.

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  11. A very insightful post! I am not that much into poetry, but enjoyed learning about the different motivations/approaches. As a writer, I especially love the concept of the “grains of the language.” Thx Geofrey and Jeri!

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  12. I truly enjoyed this post… I like Geofrey´s sense of humour, intelligence and irony…His poem and some excerpts of this post made me think of Woody Allen… I know, I am taking a risk by having said so… as there is a chance he might tell me he hate him… ha… But well, I just thought of his monologues and so on… 😉
    Questions to Geofrey: do you write mainly from one of these approaches … or use many of them? … and in this last case, which are the reasons which might lead you to switch approaches, so to speak, in case you might be able to recognize them?
    Great post, Geofrey and Jeri…. all my best wishes. Aquileana 🙂

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  13. Jeri and Geofrey – what fun. I enjoy reading poetry to an extent but I’m too much of a straight-line thinker (maths and that stuff) to ever think of writing poetry.

    However, if I ever tried it I would want to write it with the same lighthearted sense that Geofrey does. After reading this post I can completely see Geofrey laying on that grass spouting out different lines of poetry.

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  14. Really fascinating Jeri. I know zip about poetry, and while I never thought it was easy to write, I had no idea the process was so complex. Definitely gained a new level of appreciation for the craft with this. Thanks!

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  15. Sounds like you included everyone in their approach to writing a poem. Very informative and entertaining. Thanks for sharing.

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  16. Interesting rules/guidelines/approaches. Personally, I have been all over the map. It used to be where I would tune in to how I was feeling and then let words fly out on the page, whether they seemed related to each other or not. The hope was that the reader would simply be able to “feel” what I meant.

    When it dawned on me that not everyone would interpret the poem the same, I switched it up. I tried writing in a way that did not directly say what I felt, but was a little more coherent.

    These days, I couldn’t tell you how I write poetry because I have not written poems in ages. What I do know is that I have a style that crops up in any form of writing I have. For example when it comes to song lyrics, my girlfriend said, “You write song lyrics like you’re writing a story.” She claims to have never encountered that before, but the humble part of me thinks, “No, there is NO WAY I am that unique.”

    In any event, I’m sure that all these approaches have merit, but I don’t like to limit myself. I remember writing a poem that used the word “ugly” once, and a teacher said to replace it. He said, “You shouldn’t use words like ugly.”

    I don’t remember why he said that. In my mind, poems use words, and “ugly” is a word. So therefore, what’s the big deal?

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  17. I definitely like the “theatrical” approach, which is often how I feel when I’m writing anyways. By going into a character, or type of character, creative energy just seems to flow more freely. It’s often amazing what can be dredged up in the guise of “trying on” a different skin. In the end, it’s all authentic anyways, since it’s coming from the heart – no matter how well you try to hide it.

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  18. What an interesting post. It would be a wonderfully liberating experience, writing just for the love of writing without the constant worry about what others will think of it. I like that idea. 🙂

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  19. I am incapable of writing poetry, but have such a respect for those that do. They possess a skill, which although I lake, can move my emotions.
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful writer, and his work with us.

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  20. Some good advice for writing poetry. I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to write a poem before. I think I may have enjoyed poetry writing. Sadly, I had a horrible poetry teacher in high school who was very discouraging and I just started to hate poetry because of her. Though I think we were only reading it at the time. I love the way Geofrey Crow describes writing poetry. It makes it seem more approachable.

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  21. I loved reading your take on poetry. I love poetry, but it is so hard for me to write.. and seems almost unreachable now that I’ve had kids. However, your take on getting personal, and just writing is usually how I write my blog posts. I get so much heck for writing about personal things… but I think that’s how you touch people. It’s how the light gets in. Thanks for the entertaining, informing post.

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