During my study of an MFA in poetry and the editing and perusal of Bacopa Literary Review’s 2016 poetry submissions, I have had the chance to witness repeated opportunities for strengthening a poem. I offer the following observations so poets might take advantage of my insights. Take what you like and leave the rest.
The first hook. Focus on a titillating title. Browse through the poem and find a riveting phrase, word or series of words that will capture the essence of the poem. As poetry editor, I am drawn to unusual, sometimes wordy titles that mimic the voice of the poet and reflect the theme of the poem. The title demonstrates the inventiveness of the poet.
For example: “Sleeping Unsafe at Camp Wilderness,” “Skipping over Rocks in the Dreamtime.” Consider the well-known poet Carolyne Wright’s title “Woman Blooming for the Wind Machine” or my crazy title “The Linear and Circular One Sentence of Tattoo Designs Over his Body”(published in Bacopa Literary Review 2015).
Don’t underestimate the power of a title. The creativity and writing of a title reflect that of the poem to follow. This goes for all genres. Review and examine titles of famous poets and understand how they chose them.
Stay away from the verb “to be” when possible, especially in a short poem. Poems lose power with excess use of “was, were, will, used to be, to be, would, would have, would have been” etc. Of course, exceptions to this rule exist but if the poet must use a “to be” verb, keep it to once and once only. I am amazed at the repetition of these and other unweighted, meaningless words in otherwise tight writing and they often appear in the first line, and repeated in the second and third. In a short piece, which most poem submissions lean towards, keep it tight, and, in a long piece, keep it tight as well! Here's an example:
It was summer,Avoid adverbs where possible. Too many adverbs weaken an otherwise powerful poem. Examine a way to rewrite the phrase or sentence without the adverb. Consider alternatives. Use an adverb only when necessary.
fields were seeded with sunflowers,
now blooming in the heat
of a day that was to be
an end to the beginning
The same can be said for adjectives. Use the thesaurus and write with creativity and limited adjectives. Avoid strings of adjectives. “Women stand naked in storms.” “Strong, sexy, powerful women stand totally naked in wild, windy, witchy storms.” Which offers the stronger sentence? Place this sentence in the context of a meaningful poem that enhances and supports the meaning of the sentence. Use adjectives that offer a fresh image. (See Elizabeth Bishop example below)
Offer implication to the reader instead of telling the reader what you mean."He didn’t want to tell her how he felt.” “His eyes glazed over, shifted away from her stare.”
Avoid those boring clichés and hackneyed phrases. “Ruby red lips” (Oh, please…)
Use weighted words that offer an image, a meaning, impact or power to the poem. Each word counts. Use meaningful words. Take a look at a verse from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
…his eyes…larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
Delight the Editor with a skillfully written fixed form poem that has meaningful substance and theme. Research the classic rules for pantoums, ghazal and sonnets, among others, and insert a theme from a different perspective. Stay away from mundane themes such as a walk in the park or a sailboat at sunset, unless that walk or sail takes on a philosophical bent that approaches from an unusual angle. Examine Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s “Pantoum for Chinese Women”:
They say a child with two mouths is no good.In the slippery wet, a hollow space,Smooth, gumming, echoing wide for food.No wonder my man is not here at his place.In the slippery wet, a hollow space,A slit narrowly sheathed within its hood.No wonder my man is not here at his placeHe is digging for the dragon jar of soot.
Get your attention?
Stay consistent with the point of view and tense. Stay away from “you.” I have seen this repeated throughout a poem. After two or three repeated “you” pronouns I put down the poem and sigh. Choose an interesting point of view and whichever one you choose, stay with it. The same goes for tense consistency.
Happy submissions and remember, master the rules and then you can break them.
Finch, Annie, and Kathrine Varnes. An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversityof Their Art. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2002. Print.
Linden, Kaye. 35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story. N.p.: Create Space, 2015. Print.