How to be a poet

Creativity starts long before you sit down with the tools to make a piece. For the sake of coherence, I’m going to focus in this post specifically on what needs to happen before a poem is written.

A poet needs a love for and skill with language – I would say more so than any other kind of writer. A poet needs to be alert to the sounds, shapes, and rhymes of words. They also need to be conscious of the implications and possibilities each word they use may hold. Sensitivity to language and to the way it can be used is something to be involved with every day.

Poems tend to be smaller than other forms of writing. They call for precision. To be precise, you have to know what you want to get across. To do that well, you need to understand what the most important features are, or what will most readily evoke it. That in turn requires paying attention.

I think I can tell the difference between a poet who had an idea and sat down to flesh it out, and a poet who starts from keen observation and then whittles it down into a piece. The second instance produces poems that are richer and more surprising, because there’s an alertness to detail that you can’t have unless you’ve been working on it all along.

Any experience has the potential for poetry in it. The person who lives in a state of awareness, noticing the details, the nuances, the processes, is well placed to draw on that wealth of experience.

The person who only looks at their own experience, and does so in a fairly superficial way, tends to write poetry charged only by the feeling of the moment. What they won’t necessarily know how to do is make that accessible to other people. If you work only at the surface, you get the hot anger and the cold resentment, soft feelings of love and hollow feelings of loss… but there are many, many poems out there that talk in superficial metaphors about common human experiences. To have something new to say, you need to know more than this.

Poets also need to be people who read poetry. Other reading certainly helps, but encountering – as text or performance – really good poetry makes a lot of difference. Poetry can take many forms, and exists in many cultures. The shape of the piece is often part of where it comes from and what it needs to say. What you’d try to express in a Japanese haiku is not what you’d be trying to express in Icelandic rap, which is not what you’d find in the rap styles of urban America. Slam poetry has its own rhythms and purposes, but has a different flavour to poetry inspired directly by beat poets. And so on, and so forth. Know the form you mean to write in, and get to know as many other forms as you can, because it all helps.

You should be able to read back your finished and edited poem and justify every word and comma in it. You should know why each is there and why it couldn’t possibly be replaced by some other word, or a colon. You should be confident that no word could be taken away without harming the whole and that equally, no word could be added, without it causing more harm than help. You should reach this point confident that your poem does what you intended it to do, and that a reader or listener will be affected in the right way by it.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “How to be a poet

  • Andy Jaeger

    I love this poem by Wendell Berry, which has almost exactly the same title as your post. Enjoy!

    HOW TO BE A POET (to remind myself)
    by Wendell Berry

    Make a place to sit down.
    Sit down. Be quiet.
    You must depend upon
    affection, reading, knowledge,
    skill – more of each
    than you have – inspiration,
    work, growing older, patience,
    for patience joins time
    to eternity. Any readers
    who like your work,
    doubt their judgment.

    Breathe with unconditional breath
    the unconditioned air.
    Shun electric wire.
    Communicate slowly. Live
    a three-dimensional life;
    stay away from screens.
    Stay away from anything
    that obscures the place it is in.
    There are so unsacred places;
    there are only sacred places
    and desecrated places.

    Accept what comes from silence.
    Make the best you can of it.
    Of the little words that come
    out of the silence, like prayers
    prayed back to the one who prays,
    make a poem that does not disturb
    the silence from which it came.

  • Kevan Manwaring

    Useful stuff … I’ll keep working at it and get back to you (puts gobliny thinking cap on :0)

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