From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
How Can I Write Better Poetry?
As a Publisher and as a Community Teaching Assistant at U Penn’s ModPo, I get this question now and again.
I am NOT an expert on how other people should write poetry, in fact; I often have self-doubts as to what my poetry is, or even if it is poetry, but I have been writing whatever it is I write for well over 50 years. I am still learning, but I have gotten pretty good at what I write.
First, I always advise any poet to be completely honest. Too many poets try to write around what they want to say. Say exactly what you mean. Emily Dickinson famously said tell the truth but tell it slant. I understand what she means, but remember, as a rule, the slant can sometimes lose the meaning.
I also advise most newer poets to avoid form and rhyme until they have mastered saying what they mean. I know traditionally rhyme and form were considered key parts of poetry, but the problem is that most poets let both get in the way of what they are trying to say. If you have to choose a word for a rhyme, a meter, or a form, and it changes what you were trying to say, maybe you need to think about if it was even worth saying to start with.
Whether you choose to write free verse or formal and rhyming poetry, it’s a good idea to read other poets. Read the poets who write like you. Read the poets who write so differently you can hardly understand them. I find when I read a new poet, I feel the urge to mimic their style. Typically, I will write one or two poems in their style. These poems tend to be a bit substandard, because they are copies of someone else, not me. After I get the one or two experiments with the new poet out of my system, I realize I learn new things. I learn how to appreciate a different voice than my own. I learn to see things in a different way. These make me a better poet, even when I settle back into my own style.
Another thing to try to know is why you are writing, and who you are writing for. I say it’s good to try to know these things, because after all these years I realize I neither know the who nor the why. I simply write because I have an overwhelming urge. But maybe I would be a better poet if I knew either, so I am suggesting other poets might as well.
If, at some point, you fall in love with a form or a rhyme scheme, master it. If the rhyme sounds good to your ear and comes easy, it may be a cliché, and if so, it should be discarded. Remember that masters speak in original ways, not in clichés. I also think it is important to realize writing poetry can be both an art form and a system of mental health care.
We have a weird set of standards for the arts. If you like to swim, to play golf, to play tennis, no one suggests you should give it up because you aren’t good at it. If you enjoy writing poetry, or painting on a board, and if no one else in the world likes your work, so what? Do your best work, but remember, unless you are being paid to do something in particular (and only a handful of painters and poets make a decent living at their work) do your art, enjoy doing your art, share it, and if you don’t find an audience, that is the world’s problem, not yours. I hear two complaints, sometimes from the same people: “Poetry is dead.” and “There is too much bad poetry in the world.”
Both are lies! There can never be too much poetry, good or bad, in the world, and as there are billions of poems written every year, poetry is a long way from being dead. Write what you want. Write your truth. Take advice that you find helpful, then discard the rest, including mine, if you don’t think it helps you!
My moderate level of success is probably due as much to luck as it is talent and hard work. I have been publishing literary publications off and on since 1995. I have made some connections. I am not really diligent about submitting poetry to publications. One reason is that I like to post my poems the minute I write them. To many publishers, that means they are “previously published.” I think publications that reject previously published poems are like radio stations that don’t play a song if another radio station had already played it, is in a word “nuts.” Nuts or not, it is the common practice, so most of my poems aren’t eligible to be published. Thus, the name, Written in Darkness, because most of the poems in this collection were withheld from my Facebook and personal blogs. I hated withholding them, but I am excited to have them published now.
You can find my new book on Amazon. Just click on the cover. — Anthony Watkins
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