If you found your way onto this page, poetry must have you in its sweet smelling, thorn-tipped grasp. Don't freak out. I know you're scared, but making you bleed is poetry's way of showing love. It's quite a demanding little sucker. Too bad you've already fallen for it.
If you're here, you must either be in the anxious oh my goodness I don't know what I'm doing throes of infatuation, or maybe those rose-colored goggles have gone a bit askew and you fear your poetry ain't that good.
Welcome, Humble Traveler!
Today, we'll be going over two ways that you can strengthen your poetry, and I'll be providing examples from my own work. Before reading on, I suggest you read my two previous posts on poetry writing: How to Write A Poem for Beginners and 6 Common Mistakes New Poets Make.
Now on to the first point!
Throw in a Hatchet
Got your attention, didn't it? I cannot take the credit for either of these tips because I learned them in a college-level poetry class. My teacher insisted we throw hatchets into our writing--no, not actual hatchets. What she meant is to throw in specific details (a color, an object, a concrete image) because readers' minds are designed to latch onto them. It'll stick with them so when they finish the poem, it's likely to be the thing they remember the most.
When writing poetry, it's easy to get lost in using pretty language to describe your thoughts without ever providing concrete details to ground your readers. I did this a lot in my earlier work. Here's an example. This is the first draft of my poem "Unclean".
To make ourselves clean
We call the other side depraved,
implying the strength of our superiority
by the power of our outrage.
In Jesus's day, to touch a corpse was
to make himself unclean,
but he cleansed the widow’s son with life,
moved by the sorrow he had seen.
The son of God cleanses man, his
righteousness unstained. But it’s impossible
to make ourselves clean
when we remain dirty prodigals.
We must lower ourselves, dropping our robes
of superiority, if we’re to intervene
to heal others of ignorance and to have the hope
to make ourselves clean.
This poem might not be bad, but there's definitely room for improvement. Another reason why I didn't like this version is that it comes off as super preachy, and I think that's partly to blame on the lack of imagery. Without imagery, the poem becomes just me ranting my thoughts to the readers rather than bringing them into an experience.
Here is the finished version:
Jesus touched a corpse to make it clean
when the Jews only knew death to cause defilement,
not its cleansing by life.
The body’s mother followed it out of town,
weeping, not thinking to ask that
Jesus touch a corpse to make it clean.
When it rose, a son, he clutched his mother,
his muscles strong and warm with life.
Raising hands, we stand on mountains to shout,
Look and see that our actions are good—how
Jesus touched a corpse to make it clean.
We paint our faces with righteous outrage
at others’ sin so we are known by our fruits.
Their rotten innards gush under the Word weaponized
to bring death to defilement as we forget
Jesus touched a corpse to make it clean.
Better, right? In this version, the scene of Jesus resurrecting the widow's son is dramatized rather than narrated. We see the son's mother crying as she follows his body out of town, and we feel the life that comes back into the son (strong and warm).
Later in the poem, the abstract image of the "fruits of the Spirit" are made concrete with the description "their rotten innards". This line causes the reader to bring up their own memories of rotten fruit and the disgust attached to them.
So next time you write a poem, throw in a detail--it could even be something as simple as a color--and see how it improves the work.
Conciseness is Key
Given the choice between using more words or fewer words, pick fewer words!
"But I thought poetry was supposed to be flowery and descriptive?"
Yes, but even rose bushes need pruning. The less surrounding words your images need to fight for the spotlight, the better. Let's look at an example. Here is the first draft of my poem "Visual Discourse".
When we look at things, we see a flag, a statue, a color
while connotation sneaks through our eyes to our mind
and whispers of ideas, beliefs, feelings
—quickens our hearts at the sight of red.
We crouch down on the cusp of all that we understand
but do not search through it in case it begins to speak.
The ones left behind after WWI watched
as sculptures of soldiers were erected.
The statues’ shadows swallowed the ground
as they were moved to stand in the sun’s glare,
showing the onlookers their unfamiliar beauty:
the finely chiseled lines of their brows and muscles
that they couldn’t remember in their lanky boys;
the elegant forms of Greek gods representative of the civility
of dying from disease in ditches;
their gazes forever set forward in the same serenity
of Jesus before his sacrifice for the good of mankind.
They would not meet their families’ eyes
for them to tell if the terror had remained in their faces.
Their fight has endured in our society’s selective memory
which favors the strong certainty of granite men over the weakness in flesh.
As past becomes history and becomes written words,
we see only the meaning of what’s before us. The creators of these caricatures
win the argument before we realize it’s a thing—their last word
that they died for King/(God?) and Country.
Before moving on, take a few minutes to see what words you would cut from this poem. Where are the excess words? What sentences or images could be phrased better?
Now, I'm going to show you the same poem but with where I cut words out. I'm going to bold what I cut because Wix doesn't have a strikeout text feature. (Please start writing angry letters to the company immediately. Thank you)
1 When we look at things, we see a flag, a statue, a color
2 while connotation sneaks through our eyes to our mind
3 and whispers of ideas, beliefs, feelings
4 —quickens our hearts at the sight of red.
5 We crouch down on the cusp of all that we understand
6 but do not search through it in case it begins to speak.
7 The ones left behind after WWI watched
8 as sculptures of soldiers were erected.
9 The statues’ shadows swallowed the ground
10 as they were moved to stand in the sun’s glare,
11 showing the onlookers their unfamiliar beauty:
12 the finely chiseled lines of their brows and muscles
13 that they couldn’t remember in their lanky boys;
14 the elegant forms of Greek gods representative of the civility
15 of dying from disease in ditches;
16 their gazes forever set forward in the same serenity
17 of Jesus before his sacrifice for the good of mankind.
18 They would not meet their families’ eyes
19 for them to tell if the terror had remained in their faces.
20 Their fight has endured in our society’s selective memory
21 which favors the strong certainty of granite men over the weakness in flesh.
22 As past becomes history and becomes written words,
23 we see only the meaning of what’s before us. The creators of these caricatures
24 win the argument before we realize it’s a thing—their last word
25 that they died for King/(God?) and Country.
Words and lines were cut for different reasons so I'll go through them all.
The first part of line 1 can be understood by reading the second half so it got cut. We don't have to say we looked at something when we describe later how we see it--the looking is implied.
Much of what was deleted from stanza two are small words that you might not think are unnecessary but that you can do without. It might make your essay teacher's eye twitch to cut them, but poetry breathes with more fast-paced, condensed writing. Also, "that" can almost always be deleted. "The" and "and" often can in poetry as well. Ex. lines 11, 12, 13.
Notice how the em-dash makes the turn in lines 14-15 sharper compared to "of".
In lines 6 and 14, the words were replaced with shorter ones or a phrase was replaced with one action verb to strength the sentence. Also, in line 20, "has endured" is replaced with "endures". It is good to turn passive constructions into active ones where possible.
Finally is something I am still guilty of to this day and have to correct in my new work still, and that is showing and then telling what I'm showing means because I don't trust the reader to understand it on their own. The lines 2-3, 19, 23-24 are all deleted for this reason. Trust that your images are doing the work and that your reader will figure out the meaning. You can also get critique partners to help you understand what is too obscure and what you beat like a dead horse.
Now, let's look at the finished version.
We see a flag, a statue, a color;
our hearts quicken at the sight of red.
We crouch down on the cusp of all we understand
but do not listen in case it begins to speak.
Those left behind after WWI
watched as sculptures of soldiers were erected.
Their shadows swallowed the ground
as they were moved to stand in the sun’s glare,
showing onlookers their unfamiliar beauty:
finely chiseled lines of brows and muscles
they couldn’t remember in their lanky boys;
elegant forms like Greek gods, symbolic of civility
—dying from disease in ditches.
Their gazes are forever set forward
in serenity like Jesus before his sacrifice
for the good of mankind.
They would not meet their families’ eyes.
Their fight endures in our memory,
which favors the strong certainty of granite
over the weakness in flesh.
As past becomes history,
our fountain of knowledge flows penned lines,
black and murky—their last word
that they died for King God and Country.
Now all that fluff has been taken out, the strengths of the poem can truly shine. Channel your ruthless self. Cut until it feels uncomfortable and then you'll know that you've done enough.
That's all for today! I hope this post helped you, and thank you for reading.
If you'll forgive me one last bit of self-promotion, both of the example poems come from my poetry collection "Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?" If you liked them, please consider buying my book from Amazon.