Poetry is one of those subjects that seems to court strong opinion on not only its value, but also on what it actually is. There are countless blog posts; usually written by poets, arts journalists or reviewers, about what makes good poetry, how to write a good poem, what poetry isn’t, even what the correct and incorrect way of reading poetry is. I genuinely think that these sort of posts must be written by people totally at ease and confident in their own poetry and their own style of poetry, people that are absolutely certain of what poetry is. God, how I envy those people! I find posts that tell me what the wrong sort of poetry is make me a bit wobbly, they make me question whether my own poetry is wrong. I also see a lot of blog posts and social media posts talking about the poetic voice, specifically the ‘I’ voice in poetry. These posts tend to infer that the ‘I’ voice is too inward looking, too navel gazing, that the way to write poetry is to look outwards, not inwards. Of course, the ‘I’ voice, by its very nature, tends to talk about personal experience, either of the writer or through the prism of the writer’s experience. Are we not to write about our own personal experiences? Is that navel gazing? The idea that people shouldn’t write about their personal experiences is an odd one. Every poem ever written was written with the writer as filter, and that filter is always the writers personal experience, whether they are the subject or not. You cannot avoid that filter, nor should you, that’s what makes poetry the incredible and subjective art form that it is, not whether it has the word shard in it, or whether it explores the breakdown of your marriage, experiences of illness, sex, body image, death, being unstable or mentally ill, or the experience of watching a play of drinking a coffee or imagining the rustle of Elizabeth the first’s dress or describing a journey or the existential crisis of the human condition, but whether it connects on an emotional level to the reader, whether it elicits an emotional response and causes a reaction. That’s a difficult quality to define.
There are lots and lots of absolutely brilliant writers writing about their personal experiences at the minute, a lot of them are women. For a long time, women were put off writing about there own experiences, because women’s experiences tended to be unrepresented in what was a very male dominated arena. The idea was that women’s experiences, and I’m specifically thinking about experiences seen through a woman’s eyes whether childbirth, menstruation, motherhood, sex, marriage, work, whatever, that those experiences were unimportant because the world was directed in its gaze to the ‘real’ world as seen from a male perspective. I think writing about the experience of being a women is still somewhat frowned upon, even women writers question the validity of their story. But my point, my very long winded point, is that who’s to say what is right and wrong here. Good poetry is good poetry and what is good to one person isn’t necessarily good to another. I think there’s room for a lot of different styles and voices as I think there is room for lots of different styles of music. In fact, poetry is very much like music. There are the same sort of arguments that go round and round about what does and doesn’t constitute music. If you’re trying to write poetry and are being frightened off it by what is and isn’t a poem, don’t be, especially if you’re just starting out. So here are my top five tips for not being put off by all the top ten tips available to poetry writers:
- The first rule of poetry club is to write it, don’t talk about it, don’t think about it, just write. You can’t write a poem unless you actually write a poem. It doesn’t matter if you never show it to anyone, it doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish or you think it’s rubbish, if that pen isn’t on the paper or the keys aren’t being pressed then it’s never going to be written. What’s the worst that could happen? You write something that someone else doesn’t like. So what.
- Bear in mind that articles that tell you what you are doing wrong are click bait, they play on the insecurities of emerging writers looking for advice, they’re there to boost blog posts and draw people to websites. Every time you search for advice and all those negative sites come up, ask yourself why they aren’t telling you what you’re doing right when you write.
- As just mentioned, if you’re looking for advice, look for websites and blog posts that tell you what you are doing right, or what you could do right rather than pointing out what you’re doing wrong. They are generally more genuine and helpful. Also look on reputable websites where it is in their interests to encourage good writing: magazine and society websites are a good starting point.
- Allow yourself to get it wrong. With all due respect to the brilliant writers that are trying to help emerging writers along, the only way to get it right is to get it wrong a few times. Set yourself a challenge: my big challenge was always sonnets and how not to make them look like awful twisted Shakespeare rip offs. Keep going, keep making mistakes, and at some point you will have made all the mistakes and you’ll be poet laureate and ride around in a gold carriage wearing a crown made out of parchment. Or at least you will know that you have learnt the rules. A long gone friend of mine used to say ‘you can’t follow the rules unless you know how to break them first’.
- You don’t have to be the best. If you want to write, just write. If it makes you happy to write, then write. If you do want to be the best, then keep going. Ask advice from real writers and editors, the best way is to fork out the six to twelve quid that it might cost you to get feedback on your poem from a genuine writer that you admire, they will usually critique poetry but we do like to buy food and pay our bills too so best to offer payment. You could always take your work to a writer’s surgery or apply for some of the brilliant free enterprises that are about that are designed to help writers gain experience from other writers.
Finally, write about your own experience, they make the world richer. How does anyone ever know what anyone else’s experiences are if we don’t write about them. Try and be unique with it, try and write in a way that means that you own it, that your story is yours alone, but do not be put off telling your story because someone else thinks you should only write about stuff that isn’t you. Write about that AS WELL. The two are not mutually exclusive and a poet that can be as easy in their own skin, opening up their heart to the world as they are describing a stage show, or a flower or a drink or a pike or a hawk in the rain is holding all the cards. Don’t label yourself and put yourself in a filing cabinet, just write.