The Challenge of Poetry

Today–the last day of National Poetry Month–is the final day you’ll be able to get my poetry collection Bite Your Lip & other poems free at Amazon for Kindle–whether that Kindle is your Paperwhite or your iPad or your Android phone or whatever you’re using these days to read. Bite Your Lip & other poems contains 16 different pieces, some of which I wrote way the hell back in my undergrad days but more that I wrote far more recently, and even includes poems about both Doctor Who and Barack Obama. You can get it here.

I find poetry is one of the most difficult types of writing to do well because it’s so concise and requires such restraint. The poems I find most effective are the ones that make you feel a beating, thrumming heart below a tightly controlled surface of beautiful words and rhythmic phrases–and that’s very nearly impossible to get right. Unlike so many other art forms, poetry doesn’t really come with formal rules–indeed, many will tell you that poetry has no rules, that it’s all about the feeling, you know, all about the phrases and the images and the way it feels in your mouth and your body and your heart and your spirit and . . .

They’re not wrong. There are some forms of poetry–sonnets, for example, or villanelles–that do come with requirements of their form. Some demand a specific placement of words or a certain number of lines.

Many more, however, do not, and I think that’s where the difficulty comes in. There are no formal requirements for free verse, and perhaps my experience of contemporary poetry is limited but pretty much all I see is free verse. Poetry slams. Readings that verge on performance art.

Some of it is great. Some of those performances are spectacular.

A lot more of it, and them, however, are not.

It’s a danger that comes when there are no rules and requirements. I think a lot of writers seek out rules because restrictions make it easier–they tell you what to do (or not) and provide a sort of checklist with easy tick boxes. “Don’t open your novel with the weather.” Check. “Make sure your query letter is personalized.” Check.

Etc.

When there are no rules, things become more difficult. I think that’s why poetry is so difficult for me; I’m one of those writers for whom being able to check something makes the process easier. It’s one of the reasons writing in three-act structure is so easy for me; plot point one? Check. Plot point two? Check. Inciting incident? Got it.

I think there’s only one poem in Bite Your Lip & other poems that has a form–a sonnet about Doctor Who. There’s another called “Soliloquies” that plays with several of Shakespeare’s plays, including “The Tragedie of Macbeth,” but it plays with them loosely, and while Shakespeare wrote–mainly–in iambic pentameter, my additions are more loose with that requirement.

I find most contemporary poetry is more loose with such formality. I know several people who devote their exploration of the form almost exclusively to sonnets, but they’re an exception to a general rule of people who are just digging it and writing it, you know? I see many more poets who wouldn’t know a double dactyl if it bit them on the ass and likely confuse it with a pterodactyl anyway.

Which is actually fine. Because really, not only is that knowledge not necessary to write a good poem, but the challenge of poetry is writing a good poem without form, without rules, and without guides. It’s more simple and straightforward to write with some competence when you can tick checkboxes; it’s far more difficult to do so when there aren’t any boxes to check, and I think it’s because those boxes introduce some restriction. They limit what you can and cannot do. Without those limits–however arbitrary they may be–the capacity to make bigger mistakes looms larger, but then, so too does the capacity to write something extraordinary.

I’ve written a lot of terrible poems. I’ve given terrible poetry to girls, and submitted terrible poetry to literary magazines. I’ve encountered “found poetry,” which is allegedly when a poet takes some amount of prose and introduces arbitrary line breaks for no real reason other than that poetry requires the breaking of lines.

I’ve seen a lot of great poetry, too. I’ve seen writers perform poetry that has made my jaw drop.

I like to think that none of the poems in “Bite Your Lip” fall into the ‘terrible’ category, while I simultaneously hope that they achieve the latter. Mostly, I’m sure, they tend to fall somewhere in between.

Which I think is the challenge of poetry. Without rules, without formality, both failure and success become more difficult, and honestly, quite a lot of what one is left with is mediocrity–not bad but neither great work that might not necessarily be flawed but neither quite achieves what it might.