I know poetry is supposed to be creative. You don’t have to follow the rules if you don’t want to. You just put your pen to the paper and write. Then you dump it all on us and expect us to appreciate your art.
Well, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. I get about one book of poetry a week sent to me for a review. I turn most of them away, and it’s not because I’m an old curmudgeon, or because I’m a stickler for “proper English.” The first reason is that I try to read them out loud following the format they’re written in, and it all sounds like gobbledygook.
Punctuation is even more important in poetry than in prose. I can’t stress this enough. Punctuation is not a set of sticky rules thought up by pedants to stifle your creativity. Well, yes, I suppose it has become that over the centuries, but breaking all those rules because it makes you feel free and artistic doesn’t help your readers know what you meant to say. You need a set of rules in order to communicate.
Punctuation is a set of hints to readers as to how the poem is supposed to be read, whether aloud or in our heads. Commas and periods are short and long pauses. A sentence or a single line is a complete thought. If you break your poem up differently, even people reading it silently will be thrown out of their contact with your feelings and ideas.
Read Your Work Out Loud
Note where you pause and for how long. That’s the artistic part of your head telling you where to put in punctuation. No, you don’t have to use periods and commas. But remember that the old poetic trick of starting a new line when you start a new idea doesn’t work on small screens, where every line is short (more on that below).
Other Points to Note
The “mistakes” that editors find in prose writing stand out just as much in your poetry. For example:
1. Passive voice sucks the immediacy out of poetry, just like it does to prose. “Tom was given a kiss by Jane.” Did either of them care?
2. “Their” used as the singular generic pronoun does the same. It’s too impersonal. “A person should listen to their feelings.” Every step away from immediate, poet-to-reader contact is a step in the wrong direction. “You should listen to your feelings,” is so much better. In fact, if you find yourself using a singular generic form a lot in your poetry, you should ask yourself whether you’re being too general, thus putting too much emotional distance between yourself and your reader.
3. Laying out your poetry in interesting ways usually gets destroyed by phone and tablet formatting. Besides, that cutesy trick of writing a poem about a tree in the shape of a tree has been done to death.
4. Likewise, having lines that vary greatly in length doesn’t work anymore. The phone screen dices your poem up enough as it is.
Nowadays, short, simple lines work best.
Get an Editor
Just like fiction, non-fiction and academic essays, your poetry needs to be looked over by somebody else. There are a lot of people out in the world who have read a lot of poetry; many of them are the reviewers you want good comments from. And believe me, they can tell that you didn’t agonize over whether to write “I was laying on your chest,” or to correct it to “I was lying on your chest.” They know that you just don’t know any better, and don’t care enough to find out.
I mean, when you write, “I should’ve never went,” in your poem, readers will wonder. “This doesn’t sound very poetic. Is it meant to be colloquial, revealing the social-economic status of the character?”
Or maybe it’s just a poet with a bad grasp of grammar. Believe me, a lot of people will suspect the latter.
Choice of Language
The second reason many poems don’t appeal to me is their lack of emotional appeal. The whole point of poetry is that it should access our deeper emotions through evocative images and creative language. This does not mean, “any old word that came to me.” It doesn’t mean, “musing about ideas that appeared in my head.” It means finding ways to express emotions that reach your readers. A good poet might take as long to edit one line of poetry as a short story writer needs for a paragraph. A novelist might get a whole page polished in the same time. And most of that time is spent searching for the perfect word, the perfect way to communicate the feeling.
And write directly to the reader. Don’t distance yourself and write poems about love. Write love poetry. Make us feel love as you experienced it.
So, You Wannabe a Poet.
If you think poetry gives you a free ride on the Grammar Bus, think again. Your job is to communicate thoughts and emotions. Hashing up one of your best methods of contact with your readers is probably not a great idea.
When I read a poem, I want a polished composite jewel, with emotion gleaming in twists and turns deep within. I’m not looking for a kid’s tree house made of awkwardly joined, mismatching planks.
And you might note that I maintained my good manners and professionalism and did not use the term “self-indulgent crap” anywhere above.