A Poetic Odyssey for Complete Beginners

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A friend asked me once if I would call myself a poet. I said that the best I do is rant in the notes app of my phone. If you’re like me, but think that your ramblings are ready to see the light of the day, they would require a little bit of polishing first, and I hope this article can perhaps tell you where to start with your poetic journey. I wasn’t being humble to my friend, I was only trying to avoid accountability. So in that spirit, this article mainly draws upon A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste by Ezra Pound, further added by William Logan, Marjorie Perloff, and Sina Queyras in the April 2013 issue of Poetry Magazine, to guide you in your poetic odyssey. 

Never consider anything as dogma (including this article) – Nothing is set in stone, so don’t ever be afraid to carve out your own path. It is also important to remember that other people have walked similar paths before, therefore, they would always have interesting insights that deserve may your attention. “A result of long contemplation, which, even if it is someone else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”

Build upon your own skill – “Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music”, or painting, or sculpting, or any art form for that matter. Before you write, make sure you read. Once you think you’ve read enough, read some more. “Don’t think you don’t have to read. You read in order to steal. Read more, steal better.”

Read better – “Don’t eat jargon, because you’ll sh*t jargon.” Diversify your reading taste. Add something from all the different poetry movements of the ages to your reading list. Let yourself be inspired by poets of the past twenty years as well as the poets of four centuries ago. The more you know about poetry, the better you will be at putting it into writing.

Have a credo – Credo is a guiding belief or principle. Recognize where the urge to write is coming from, and don’t be afraid to christen it. At the same time, don’t be afraid to let your beliefs evolve, or completely change over time. Writing is an evolving process in itself, so let your poetic writing guide you to the kind of writer you want to be.

“Go in fear of abstractions” – Don’t try to fool the reader with vague, superfluous words. Give them details, particulars, like what exactly made that moment which you are trying to record. The full proportions of the room, of the furniture (the context is important); of your heart. 

“Don’t think you’re the only bastard who ever suffered-” “-just write as if  you were.” A caution against the habit of self-importance. Of course, what you are saying and feeling has been said and felt before. Instead, let your writing be a method for you to reach out and engage with your world. Let your reader relate and feel less alone with your poetic skills.

Poetry is not a trend – Don’t participate for the sake of likes. “Don’t do what all the other little buggers are doing.”

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – Look at your writing as a palimpsest. Keep striving for insights.

Meter, rhyme, and rhythm are important – Just because you prefer free verse doesn’t mean your poem should lose its beauty and lyricism. 

Explore but don’t feel compelled to write in every form – “You might love a sonnet, so love the sonnet. It doesn’t mean you have to write one.”

Poems are not always serious – Write a humorous poem, write a poem that may be silly, write about whatever you want. Poetry doesn’t always have to be serious, or have deep meanings beyond comprehension.

Be aware of your surroundings – The slightest loss of attention leads to death”– Frank O’Hara. Write a poem that’s in the world, and of the world; not about the world. Engage and be present. 

Try to catch the emotion, not the feeling – “Not the prayer, the moment before prayer.” The biggest struggle as well as the biggest achievement as a writer is to be able to make the reader so invested in your writing that they feel the emotions of each word. It takes time, but focus on portraying the emotion.

Practice, practice, practice – If you think you know all there is to know, you don’t. “The mastery of any art is the work of a lifetime.”

The very first step toward writing poetry is reading poetry. The poet Paul Celan said, ‘A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—the belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are underway: they are making toward something.’ These poems might sometimes make toward a reader, the unknown addressee of the bottle’s message, its heartland. In Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem, he designates the reader as someone whose first purpose is to be the recipient of the poet’s message, then someone who will pass it on, and finally, it is someone who will let the poem make a home in them. In that spirit, here are three poetry collections by three different wonderful poets, searching for their heartland.

Serious Concerns, Wendy Cope

This is a collection of light, often humorous verses dealing with some ‘serious concerns’ indeed. The poems are written in a straightforward yet witty manner and this book can be an excellent start if you have never tried poetry before. My own absolute favorite out of the collection would be The Orange.

The Carrying, Ada Limón

I wouldn’t call this light verse but this book is the next step in your poetic journey, commanding your attention to itself. The message in this ‘bottle’ is the hope that someone will find it and know it. Loss but also the bright fist of longing and perseverance. Favorite poem: Dead Stars.

Dream Work, Mary Oliver

These are radiant, thoughtful poems exploring the difficult exertions of the human spirit and the importance of letting the triumphs of human relationships overpower their shortcomings, evoking themes of nature. My favorite poem out of this collection that I love from the bottom of my heart is Wild Geese.

So, fellow poet, I hope you have the basic tools for poetry, and have more confidence in your writing; because the world is your slate and all you have to do is start your poetic journey!

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