When I tell other writers that I write poetry, one of the responses I get the most is that they themselves have tried to write poetry once but it came out cliché or sounding like Dr. Seuss so they never attempted it again. They might understand rhyme and meter and whatnot—they have the tools—but they don’t understand how to avoid the pitfalls of bad poetry.
This post will cover the 6 common mistakes new poets tend to make.
In case you don’t know, clichés are overused phrases. All idioms are clichés but not all clichés are idioms. Idioms are fixed phrases that don’t have a literal meaning but are used a lot in everyday speech [like “a rolling stone gathers no moss” or “cat got your tongue”]. Some examples of clichés that aren’t idioms would be: “my love’s lips are as red as rose” or “my heart’s one fire” or “gut-wrenching pain”.
The main reason you want to avoid using clichés is because they’re unoriginal. Your job as a poet is to paint your subject in a new light. You can’t do that if you’re using language that is so commonly used everyone knows it. Also, if a word or a phrase is used over and over again, it starts to lose its punch. Take for example, the word “awesome”. It used to mean that something made you full of awe of it, but now that it’s been used so much, it just means that something’s “cool”. Clichés are the exact same way. People use them in so many different situations that they don’t mean much anymore.
There’s always a new way of writing about something. It just takes a lot more thought and creativity. But that’s your job as a poet.
Before you point out that some clichés appear in older poet’s work, let me explain that they were the first to use those phrases originally. When their poems became popular, everyone started copycatting them. They made those phrases the clichés of today.
If you find yourself comparing your electric love to the scope of the universe and the brilliance of the stars or if you describe your sadness as a bottomless pit of grief that overflows with your tears because no one understands you, you’ve fallen into the trap of melodrama.
I get it. Poetry is supposed to super emotional, and we’re poets—so of course we have strong emotions—and the only way to get other people to know what we’re feeling is to hit them over the head with the board of our passion, right?
No *shakes head*
Melodrama loses its touch with reality that we need in order to connect with a poem. It uses comparisons to such big things out of the realm of experience so much that it becomes meaningless. And it also just makes you sound like an angsty teen who thinks the world’s gonna end because of a minor emergency. And you end up writing some really stupid things when you’re trying to sound dramatic.
I find it useful to think of small, physical details that ground you to the subject. Less is more. Focusing on tiny details can make a big difference. We may not be inclined to notice them but they’re there.
3. Doing Thing To Sound “Poetic”
Using Archaic Language
Like thees and thous and other archaic words. They may appear in the poems you had to study in high school, but the thing is, that was how they spoke. Those poets weren’t trying to sound old, and neither shouldn’t you.
Inverted syntax is when you place adjectives after nouns, objects before verbs, and other things like that. So instead of saying “John caught the ball”, you’d say “John the ball caught”. Now, people weren’t talking with inverted syntax all the time, but around Shakespeare time, English syntax was more free than today for reasons that I won’t get into in this post. Inverted syntax was also a literary convention that was more accepted then than it is now. English syntax is now more rigid, and modern audience tend to dislike inversion. There are some cases where I think it is worth it, but it’s best to avoid it.
Centering Your Poetry
The convention is left-aligning poems. And the reasoning is is that centered poems give off the vibe of “this is a poem. Can’t you tell? I need to look more artistic so you know it’s not prose”. Only amateurs center poetry before they realize that everyone left-aligns them.
Only Writing in Quatrains
This, like everything else in this group, results from a narrow view of what poetry is. There are so many different forms a poem can take. And quatrains are the most boring and overused one of them all. They’re cliché *see above point*.
If your teachers dared to make you write poetry in school, they introduced you to either the concrete poem or the list poem. Those are good introductions, but they’re super easy and simple because kids are supposed to be able to do them. You’re more sophisticated than that, I hope.
And another thing about the list poem is beginner poets will often just use a constant stream of participles like running, flying, crying, gleaming, whatever, and have no subject and the idea of the poem is just a blur of images. It gets repetitive, and having just a list of images as your poem is simplistic. While it’s a good start, you need to move past it. Get rid of those training wheels.
So the thing that all the above mistakes:
- archaic language
- inverted syntax
- centering your poetry
- only writing in quatrains
- list poetry
Have in common is that they’re all a byproduct of the poet trying to sound “poetic”. It comes from having a narrow view of what poetry is and trying to make yours fit into the mold.
4. Abusing Figures of Speech like Metaphor and Simile
Every line shouldn’t contain a metaphor or a smile. Everyone needs a vacation including figures of speech—give them a break. There are other characteristics of poetry that you should use like alliteration, assonance, images, etc.
A lot of the time, figures of speech are merely repeating something that has already been said, are cliché, or can be so outlandish they alienate the reader. Like most techniques, these should be used sparingly and alternated with using others.
5. Forcing Rhyme or Meter
First of all, we can always tell when you put that word in just because it rhymed or fit the meter. If you have never used that word in your life, don’t start now just so it makes the poem rhyme. Same goes with meter. Don’t strangle your syntax into incomprehensible sentences so it reads sort of in iambic. Or worse, settle for “Well, since the rest of this poem is in this meter, maybe they’ll just stress this word on the other syllable and it’s not a problem”. Now, there are a few words that this will work for. But they’re the exception not the rule.
If writing a particular poem in a form starts doing more harm to the poem than good, it’s time to either try a new form or go rouge—I mean, free verse.
6. Your Free Verse is Prose With Line Breaks
You can’t just hit enter in the middle of the lines of your prose piece and call that poetry. There’s nothing poetic about it. And I know I might start sounding confusing because several points ago, I told you not to do things just so your poem sounds “poetic” and now I’m telling you that you need stuff to make it sound “poetic”. Within all of this lies the question of what is poetry anyway? And that is a whole post in of itself, so I won’t be diving into it today. But I do believe that there is a healthy middle between not having any poetic devices (besides line breaks) and throwing them in just to have them be present.
These are the main problems I see in aspiring poet’s work.
A lot involved in improving your writing skill comes with practice. Keep these 6 tips in mind, write some more, get feedback from others, revise, and keep writing.
Thanks for reading!