Oh no! Poetry advice.

Have you ever had that awful feeling when a friend says, ‘I’ve written some poems, would you like to read them?’ It’s an experience much like being forced to listen to someone talking about the dream they had last night. At least with dreams you might get some insight into your friend’s psyche, and a few reasons why you might want to avoid them from now on.

Poems are different. They aren’t just a collection of lines of text that rhyme. They don’t have to be a centre aligned rant about why the poet is unloved. So, to help anyone thinking of doing this to a ‘friend’, I’ve put down a few words of advice. Then, in my next post, I’m going to be massively hypocritical.

If you disagree with any of my advice, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

  1. Don’t write a poem until you can write prose. Poetry is harder and you need to put the work in before you tackle it.
  2. Don’t write about yourself. If you were that interesting, someone else would be writing poems about you.
  3. Don’t show anyone your work until you are sure you’re happy with it. Then don’t show it to anyone for at least six months.
  4. If you’re new to poetry, feel free to copy a favourite poet’s style but keep it to yourself until you have your own.
  5. Learn how to read your poems out loud. Go to poetry events where people do this and take notes. Never, under any circumstances, read your poems out while a group of jazz musicians play in the background.
  6. Rhyming is a tool, not the law. Making sentences rhyme does not mean you have written poetry.
  7. Writing everything in lowercase letters doesn’t make it poetry either.
  8. No one has ever come up with a truly satisfying definition of poetry, so don’t worry about it. If you think you’ve written a poem, you probably have. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a rank, turgid piece of self-obsessed shit though.
  9. If you write a piece of doggerel (look it up) about your kids/kittens/work colleagues that’s lovely. But it’s not poetry.
  10. Don’t write like a Victorian just to make a line work. You’re not a fucking Victorian so stop writing things like, “The sun, her shining mantle did display.” Remember what century you live in.
  11. While we’re at it, feel free to write in your own voice. That’s what you know and how you express yourself best.
  12. Poetry is a craft. The way to get good at a craft is to practise, learn from others, work with others, have an open mind, do your own thing, learn to grow a thick skin, welcome inspiration from everything you experience (shit TV, friends’ lives, the colour of the sky, a piece of music, anything!) and more practise. Learn the forms of poetry even if you think you’ll never need them. Write a sestina or a sonnet to show yourself the discipline necessary. Then take that discipline in your own way to your own work. This will minimise the chances of you writing drivel.
  13. An eight year old can write better poetry than you, and vice versa.
  14. Read.
  15. Think about why certain words sound good (or not) next to each other. Poetry is about sound.
  16. Don’t feel that everything has to make sense in a poem. Let the reader make sense of it.
  17. Don’t explain what your poem is about. Let the reader do that too.
  18. Shakespeare was a genius, and so were Phillip Larkin and Anne Sexton. But read the work of people who aren’t dead. They can all teach us something, even if the lesson is, ‘don’t ever write like that.’
  19. Get a notebook and a pen and take it everywhere with you.
  20. If you read something, or hear something and it makes you angry, that’s as valuable as something you love. A good musician doesn’t just label a piece of music as bad, they ask themselves why they think it’s bad. When you do this, avoid simple answers.
  21. If you are going to use rhyme, look at the words you’ve linked through rhyming them and see if they share more than their sound.
  22. Try to stop writing. If you can’t stop, you’re probably on the right track.
  23. Don’t be a hermit or you’ll end up only writing about yourself. Nobody wants that. Even Emily Dickinson left her room from time to time.
  24. There are no rules. Only conventions.
  25. It doesn’t actually matter what anyone else thinks (especially me). If you like the work you’ve created, that’s just fine. However, if you are happy with it, I’d be suspicious, leave it for at least six months and then see if you still like it.
  26. Write.


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