Sometimes, I think poetry slamsand open mics eat their young. In a coffee shop recently, a young poet screamed a list of all the things she wanted to write about and inserted the words revolution, Mumia, police brutality every five lines, at the top of her lungs. She waved her arms wildly. She squatted down. She jumped up. She stood on one leg.

The audience thought,
Wow! This is great poetry!
They stomped their feet, screamed affirmations and cheered.

I thought to myself,
”gee, I’m getting old. Really ancient, wizened
old. Sin, pyramids, horse and buggy, world without internet old.
BBS, monochromatic monitors remembering old.
Old in amazing ways like getting the same looks I gave my father
when I asked him what he watched
on television when he was a little boy
and he said, we didn’t have television
and I screeched in fear. A fear born of the idea
that in some reality somehwhere... television did not exist.
A primal yelp, similar to the one that happens
during that first awful discovery
that things die.

I howled,
”then what did you do?!?
Calmly he said,”We read books. In the living room,
we sat around and listened to radio
dramas.”
He smiled wistfully, "I miss it.
Those were great days...like when..."


I didn’t want to hear anymore horror stories from this old piece of gristle. Obviously, he couldn’t understand the modern world.

So, young screaming poet in coffee shop approaches. Shyly, she asks, what I thought of her poem. (My mother says, If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. “ There is power in clichés from old ladies. But, I’m still too much of a fool to listen to my mother. So thinking she really wants an opinion, I say,

”I think you’ve got great talent. You are thinking and writing about a lot of important issues. You might want tostudy sestina and pantoum, so you can make more effective use of repetition in your work. Let me explain, in a workshop once, Sonia Sanchez said something like, ‘repetition is the leading death among young poets who wish to publish’. So, studying forms which use repetition will help your poetry move to the next level."

I had the nerve to continue, even though her eyebrows knit, and her puffy lips pouted ever so slightly,

“What is so incredible, is that I heard six or seven poems in that one poem. How lucky you are to have so much to write about! If I were you, I’d seize this wonderful opportunity write all of the poems you mentioned in the poem you just read. But, I’d do it using a variety of poetic forms. You see, form is a useful tool to control the ways we talk about difficult subjects. Instead of allowing us to devolve into sociological rhetoric, form helps keep us true to writing poetry.”

She stormed off in a huff, obviously very angry with me. And I realized she must have been thinking, Stupid old bitty, how is poetic form going to help me scream about revolution?

Shouting is not poetry. Stream-of-consciousness pouring out of one's feeling onto paper (or pixel) is not poetry. Tossing line breaks into a paragraph or a sentence is not poetry.

Most amateur poetry I have encountered, and some I have written, comes off as a symptom of a serious mental disease.

I used to hold a genial, broad-minded, supportive attitude toward all attempts at poetry. This ended right around when I joined communities of people with multiple personalities,  extensive abuse histories, and encouragingly artsy therapists. I don't know which tumty-umty bit of doggerel about cruel mothers, or which goth outpouring about blood and knives, was the last straw for me. But at some point, I realized that the core problem with presenting these pieces as poems, instead of as brash and brave exposés, was that THEY WERE NOT POETRY GODDAMNIT. Worst of all, most of them would have made much better prose.

The same was true of much of the poetry turned out at my alma mater's poetry graduate program. So much so that my wife, who started out in their program, quickly switched to the Creative Writing of Non-Fiction emphasis instead, in order to avoid all of it. There, it is less a matter of angst, and more of intentional obscurity: most of the poetry appears to have every other word redacted solely to seem "literary". Turning it into prose might not have helped the problem, but it would at least have revealed where they had run off the rails of sense and into the deliberately and pointlessly unintelligible.

This leads us to a crucial question, one which it seems that many would-be poets never think to ask: Have I yet departed the land of prose and achieved poetry?

If you are a would-be poet, and you wonder what the point is of honing your craft when people will shout and cheer just as much if you simply stand there and yell key words from time to time, here is why: A sharp-edged poem acts like a knife to the brain. You are preaching to the converted, so your blunt instrument is equally effective in banging these ideas into their minds. That is, you don't have to hammer anything home: it's already there. If you want to change minds politically, or enlighten people personally about your experiences, you need a much sharper tool.

Prose or Poetry?

Now that we've moved away, culturally, from strict meter and rhyme forms, it's hard to point to a clear line in the sand between poetry and prose. Poetry doesn't have to be written in high-falutin' language with lots of thees and thous. It doesn't have to rhyme, it doesn't have to make sense, it doesn't have to be nonsensical. It can be about love or politics or koala bears. How do we know when something is poetry?

I Know It When I See It

Poetry seems easy to recognize. I always thought of it as a collection of words that boiled out of some white-hot place in someone's soul. Right? As long as it's passionate, it's poetry.

It wasn't until college that I was gently corrected on this matter. Poetry, my poetic friends showed me, has a second important quality. It is concentrated.

A good poem packs the absolute legal limit of meaning into each word. A great poem exceeds that.

That, they suggested, was one of the basic differences between poetry and prose. If a poem were not more concentrated, if it did not pack more meaning into each word and phrase and line, the whole thing might just as well have been a short essay. This made sense to me, because I remembered having to analyze poems and books in high school. It took me a full five pages to analyze a twelve-line sonnet, and I always felt I had only scratched the surface.

Analyzing books took about the same amount of space, but I could see that I was describing wildly different machinery. I could write the same amount about a motif in a twelve-line poem as a twelve-chapter book, because the soul of the book was spread out more. And the space around it was filled with different things: intricately painted still lifes, slowly-developing characters and relationships, winding plot twists like mountain roads... It was like describing all of Ireland's beauty versus the intense and minute life of a tide pool. For me, Ireland is a lot easier to do.

Rule of Thumb

This led me to develop a rule of thumb for poetry. If taking out the line breaks made it read like prose, it wasn't poetry.

I know what the beginning of poetry feels like. Often, to me, it does feel like words and emotions are boiling up out of some white-hot et cetera. And far too many of us think that that's it: we have poetry.

throat parched
the poisons wrack her system
dust flies over the chasm between her withered breasts
settling on the hollow cheeks, filling in the cracked lips
a soul-less nuclear wind blows, no child of earth, 
its cries the cries of true death, erased. 
Her fruits have died, cyclically,
she waits 
for a drink....

That's a short excerpt from something I wrote when I was 16. When I subject it to "the prose or poetry test," I think at first that it looks like poetry: throat parched the poisons wrack her system dust flies over the chasm between her withered breasts settling on the hollow cheeks, filling in the cracked lips a soul-less nuclear wind blows, no child of earth, its cries the cries of true death, erased. Her fruits have died, cyclically, she waits for a drink....

But poetry isn't just the absence of prose. What I've written doesn't make any sense. And since it was intended to make sense, it's not poetry either.

If I were E. E. Cummings, this might have worked; but if I had been E. E. Cummings  I would have understood how much more straightforward E. E. Cummings is than he looks.

 

Then How....

What was most agonizing to me, when I was younger, about writing poetry, was that very intersection between Super-Personal and Unknowingly Terrible. I was more afraid of exposing my poetic inadequacy to the world than of exposing my feelings, and so I stopped.

I was, however, lucky enough to encounter a book on a friend's shelf entitled June Jordan's Poetry for the People. Inside it, I found a clear set of guidelines for telling poetry from prose, and for retooling it accordingly. I have yet to procure my own copy and set about writing decent poems - but it did at least let me feel that if I really wanted to, I could! I will therefore excerpt for you:

June Jordan's Guidelines for Critiquing a Poem

Her guidelines here are in bold. My commentary is what is left over.

1. Read it aloud. This is key. Even with prose, I find that reading my work out loud exposes errors, redundancy, and infelicitous choices. It is much more important with poetry. How are you going to pack the maximum meaning into a line if you can only use the printed words, and not the rhythms and sounds they make together?

2. Is it a poem?

a. Poetry: a medium for telling the truth.

b. Poetry: The achievement of maximum impact with a minimal number of words.

c. Poetry: Utmost precision in the use of language, hence, density and intensity of expression.

These are not three separate categories into which your poem may fall. They are three requirements your poem must fulfill - by definition. 

3. What is its purpose?

This seems to need no commentary. "Oh, this is just something others will use to critique my poem!" my inner bad poet says to herself, blithely.  

But if the poet does not ask and cannot answer "what is its purpose", then it is fairly likely that the piece is self-indulgent nonsense.

Yes, I am harsh toward bad poetry. But the good thing about it is that most bad poetry only needs a little revision to become good poetry.

Embrace your terrible poetry. Thank it for being a lump of dessicated cow dung. There are tremendous gifts hidden within it.

Out of respect for the fact that I am trying to encourage people to write well, I will spare you a metaphor about using dung to light fires here.

Could I have answered this question about the poem excerpted above? No, I could not. I probably could have stammered something about how it was supposed to awaken people to the environmental degradations of pollution and encourage them to recycle. Is that the purpose of the poem? Then it teaches us a corollary to this question: "Does it effectively fulfill its purpose?"

4. Is it coherent?

"Oh, but it doesn't have to be!" the Bad Poet chirps. "It's Art!"

The hell it is!

Look at poor old Cummings again, doomed to be held up forever as an example by starry-eyed teenagers. Sure, his poetry is full of line breaks and punctuation and word breaks and sometimes noises and so much more that makes it seem, at first glance, to be incoherent.

But if you look past that - perhaps by reading it out loud - you see that it's generally at a perfectly standard level of poetic clarity.

Moreover, if you're going to write in a style that you consider to be incoherent, you must study it enough to understand where its coherency lies first.

The argument that "my kid could make that" is hackneyed by now as a response to modern art forms. If you're going to choose one as your way of communicating with the world, you have to go far more deeply into it than that. People love poetry because it speaks to them. If it's not coherent enough to speak to them, there's nothing left for them to love.

5. What are the strengths of the poem?

6. What are the weaknesses of the poem?

This is a solid pairing to consider, and a good opportunity to ask for outside help, especially if you are not used to all of the elements people look at in a critique. There may be strengths and weaknesses in the arguments and perspectives you are putting forward, in the sounds and rhythms, in the different levels of language you are choosing, in the visual layout, in the punctuation and wording, in the spelling, in the pacing, in the truthiness of it, and probably in many more levels than I am familiar with.

7. Is it a good poem?

Ah! Now we get to the meat of it. Consider: we got all the way to number seven before questioning whether it was a good poem. Why? What did we need to think about before we went through the following checklist?

Technical checklist:

a. Strong, descriptive verbs. Eliminate all forms of the verb "to be."

As with any set of rules about art, it's a case of needing to know the rules and the reasons for them before you can choose to break them. I would wager good money that June Jordan used a form of the verb "to be" without regret at some point in her reign. But that doesn't mean it's recommended.

b. Singularity and vividness of diction

Even that item is so vividy and singularly phrased.

c. Specificity/resonant and representative details

Details can make a poem transcendent. But are the details you're using going to resonate with your audience, and make the rest of your poem almost tangible to them?

d. Avoidance of abstractions and generalities

This does not just apply to imagery and metaphor. It is also important in your worldview as a whole. Poetry that comes from a juvenile imagining that everyone has had these same experiences and thoughts, or that nobody has the same experiences and thoughts as you, is not good poetry. You can't write good poetry before other people seem real to you: poetry is what knits together our individual realities into a world we share.

Or something like that.

e. Defensible line breaks

Probably my favorite sentence in the entire thing. DEFENSIBLE line breaks. You don't, actually, have to break it anywhere; you could be writing a prose poem. Look up Minnie Bruce Pratt. She has several books of amazing prose poems. (And she probably had to have a defensible lack of line breaks.)

Why did you break the line there, precisely? Why did you not break the line a word later, or after this word over here? There are holistic answers (because the poem as a whole needed to look this way, to have this number of line breaks in these general places, for these reasons), and very specific answers (because breaking it right here meant leaving the reader hanging for a moment between these two ideas, which was necessary to the feeling of the poem).

f. Compelling/appropriate horizontal and/or vertical rhythm and/or vertical line breaks (See June Jordan's essay on vertical rhythm.)

The blog post I linked there considers a poem which uses several verses of long lines and then one of short, clipped lines that look something like this: 

Vertical

Line

Breaks

Like this;

Line breaks

That make

Vertical lines

Of words.

(This

Is not

A poem.)

As opposed, I assume, to horizontal line breaks between paragraphs - or, at least, to the larger world of line breaks in general.

Basically: besides looking at whether we can defend each line break, we need to look at the rhythm that the breaks give to the poem overall, both on the page and when read aloud. (And what effect will it have when the poem is read by a student versus an experienced poemer? I paused at the end of each line for years before hearing people read through a poem as if it were a sentence. Then there are the people who both pause and give the end of the line a little sing-songy emphasis. What are you communicating, or not communicating, to each of these readers in the way you lay out your words? How much of that is a choice, and how much of it is an accident?)

g.  Alliteration/Assonance/Dissonance

I love using alliteration, because I vaguely remember some study that said we tend to believe and remember things more when they are alliterative. Assonance is the same thing, only it is about vowel sounds rather than the sounds at the beginnings of words. This piece explains that "long vowel sounds will slow down the energy and make the mood more somber, while high sounds can increase the energy level of the piece," and gives the example of Poe's "Hear the mellow wedding bells". (Athough several of their other examples, confusingly, feature consonants.) And dissonance is just the opposite - deliberately using jarring sounds and interrupting the flow.

h. Rhyme

You're a poet and you don't know it! -- or you could be, if you don't read the poem aloud and check for accidental rhymes. There are also risks in intentional rhyming. Some words look like they rhyme but do not, and vice versa. Some rhyme perfectly, but come at the end of oddly-paced lines because the rhyming itself was so difficult that the meter went unchecked.

i. Consistency of voice/distance from the reader/diction

Are you switching tenses, or perspectives, halfway through? Are you throwing in colloquialisms, slang, or accents inconsistently? Or hammering away to telegraph to us that somebody is from a particular country or linguistic subculture, at the expense of making them clear and relatable?

j. Dramatic inconsistencies

I love that one. I can only imagine what it means. Plot holes and gaffes? Characters that tell us one story, but seem to be living another? (Google says yes.)

k. Punctuation (Punctuation is not word choice. Poems fly or falter according to the words composing them. Therefore, omit punctuation and concentrate on every single word. E.g., if you think you need a question mark then you need to rewrite so your syntax makes clear the interrogative state of your thoughts. And as for commas and dashes and dots? Leave them out!)

I love this one even more. I love the impression that she just snapped at this point and showered her students with hosefuls of emotion about punctuation in poetry.  

I particularly love that it's riddled with punctuation, where the other lines had none. But then, this is not a poem!

8. Is it complete? Is it a dramatic event? Does it have a beginning that builds to a compelling middle development and then an ending that "lands" the whole poem somewhere satisfying to the reader?

Poems aren't just feelings on a page that other people can feel so everyone feels vaidated by our collective feelings. They're telling a story, even when that story is (as it often is) about the way it feels to be in a particular position, place, or time. "Is it complete?" is a particularly good question here. A poem needs to not only be finished, but also emotionally, developmentally, complete. 

9. How does it fit into or change a tradition of poems?

And in order to answer this, it is necessary to be familiar with at least one tradition of poetry, one style, and where it came from, and what it challenged to begin with - and, preferably, many others. Why? Because it gives you many tools that you would not otherwise have. For example, if you knew that a landscape painting you had made was similar to work Bob Ross did, and you looked into that, you would have literal tools to draw from (different paintbrushes and paint colors he used, different techniques and instruments he used to make things look a certain way, videos of his painting techniques) and figurative tools (the awareness of the cultural context you were evoking when you painted that way, the nostalgia you could bring up, the cheesiness you could incorporate or reject, the visual language he used and the older styles it came from and newer ones that had developed).

So it goes with poems, too. You need to know whether you are working within a specific style or working against it. You could be using a formal style and turning it political - and if so, are you really shocking people and making them think, or have hundreds of poets trod this ground before you? You could be using an innovative style ironically - is it overdone, or interesting? You have so much more you can draw on than simply the words and spacing and sounds and content you have already chosen for your poem. The world is your ballpoint.

10. Read the poem aloud!

Repeat your critical passage through these guidelines.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Even a second reading, once you've started examining these aspects of your poem, will give you amazing new insights. If you tweak it and then go through this checklist again, and continue tweaking and rewriting, you will come up with polished work and sharp-edged poetry that far surpasses anything you have ever written before.

June Jordan's Poetry for the People continues on to show a poem and the author's own critique, and information about what she changed after using these tools. It incudes poems from Jordan's students that illustrate many of the points on this list, like a pair of poems written in very different voices (diction) which would (as their author points out) make you wonder about dramatic inconsistencies, and make the poem incoherent, if a single poem incorporated both styles for one speaker.

I've given you a lot to think about; it's given me a lot to think about, too. To let your brain rest - or get more excited and engaged - here's a poem by June Jordan. It's one of her less political pieces. I think it gives a good sense of how she used these guideines in her own work.

 

April 9, 1999 (for Ethelbert)

In Brooklyn when the flowering
forsythia escaped the concrete patterns
of tight winter days
I didn’t think about long
distances
or F-117s in contrast
to a lover or an army
on the ground
up close
and personal as washing out a shirt
by hand
the soapsuds and the fingers and the cloth
an ordinary ritual
to interdict the devils of 2,000 lb. bombs
dropped from more than 25,000 feet above
the children
scrambling from the schoolyard
suddenly aflame

until you called from Washington
D.C.
to say
'Oh, let me be
that shirt!'

June Jordan

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