How to Write (Better): Even Bad Poetry Can Make You a Better Writer

7 years ago

Person holding pen, close-up of hand and object, (B&W)

I have had a love/hate relationship with poetry, made up of three parts hate and one part love, for the last thirty years when I first discovered it at the age of seven. I was rebelling against the rote memorization of multiplication tables that year, and I grabbed onto the perceived freedom of freeform poetry as my life preserver in a world that was soon to include a structured summer full of remedial math lessons.

It didn't take me long to realize that poetry comes in many shades of awful. A simple search for it on the Internet will dig up an abundance of truly painful schlock that involves some variation or other of tears, roses, the moon, and broken hearts – drippy entreaties borne out of some reaching desire to write a Poem rather than to express a coherent feeling or idea – but that same search will also occasionally tease out a piece of writing that grips your heart and brain with all of the volcanic force it has smashed into its pill-sized form. That one good bit is worth all the loathsome dreck, the three parts hate you had to wade through to find that delicious one part love.

For me, the writing of poetry goes the same way. I write it in fits and starts, often putting aside both the reading and the writing of it for months at a time before I find myself falling back into a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass or a volume of Anne Carson's poetry. And once again, I start scribbling lines onto the backs of receipts and the edges of envelopes. Most of those lines that occur to me in check out lines and on city streets are terrible, more terrible than I would like to admit, but it is worth the personal shame of bad writing for those moments when the right words find the page, or, in my case, the screen.

Why I choose to blog my poetry at Schmoetry -- a secondary weblog attached to my main website, -- rather than publish it elsewhere or enter it into contests is because it just feels natural for me to do so. My original reason for doing this a few years ago was to force my own hand. I had been hiding my poetry in notebooks under the bed for twenty-five years, and I knew that if I were to continue to write it, I had to become braver about sharing it and give it more substantial legs in order to continue to believe in it. Schmoetry was the answer.

My reason now for blogging my poetry is that I do not yet feel ready to hand it over into another's care. I know that this is not logical. The words remain mine no matter where they go, but I feel like their legs aren't yet strong enough. I will become a better poet, and I do not want to look back on the babies I sent out into the world and see that they are still babies. I want to send out whole animals.

My process for blogging poetry is completely based out of my intuition and, aside from the part where I publish it on the internet, it is identical to how I have always written poetry. It goes something like this:

  • I get a feeling in my gut. Images form in my head. Phrases start to thrum through my mind. If the feeling, the pictures and the rhythm slip into pace together, I am ready to tap out a poem. This part of the process can take anywhere from five minutes to several months.
  • I have to type up the poem rather quickly, because I can't think about it for too long. If I do, I am apt to drag out a thesaurus and belabor the point. This speedy word dump can be nerve-wracking, because I have to work out the simplest end to a meaning before either the feeling, pictures or rhythm fall out of line from each other. It is common for me to chew all the skin off my lower lip while I do this.
  • Then, I walk away and do my best to pretend that I didn't just write the rough draft of a poem. I read blogs or write about my cats or cook up some arribbiatta. In my case, direct thinking is the death of the thing, so denial is where it's at.
  • After about an hour, I come back to take a look at it. It is, invariably, not so good. I cut the last stanza and paste it into the beginning. I cut out the middle two lines and paste them onto the end. I delete every third line if I don't like them, and then fill in the blanks with stuff that is less embarrassing.
  • I walk away for a bit again, come back and throw out half the words. Too many words irritate me.
  • Then, I chew on my lower lip some more and dab away the blood with some tissue.
  • Lastly, I glue that sucker into a blog entry on Schmoetry, hit publish and try to forget that I just wrote a poem.

What is interesting about this process is that, despite its haphazard approach, structure still happens where none was consciously intended. For instance, check out my latest piece, "Outlaws":

We will die. We will die!
It has occurred to me again that, you and I,
we will die.
What a thought to have.
We are racing toward the ridge, holding hands.
We are outlaws outrunning the law:
you and me and everyone else.
We're all outlaws.
We'll die.
I breathe and breathe and breathe,
and, yet, we'll die,
undeniably and impossibly.

That you would ever be gone from me must only be an idea.
There is just no possibility in it.
My heart aches roundly and full
with the pain that you will leave me,
and I will move on without you for a time.
There will be a place you once were
and are no more.
And then there will be a place I once was
and am no more.

It is a cruelty we bear again and again,
and I think it is only this hand in this hand,
your hand in my hand,
racing toward that ridge still in the distance,
that keeps me coming back, waking up, pacing the distance,
day after day after day after day after day.

Death breaks my heart hour after hour after hour, and you mend it.

Death breaks my heart hour after hour after hour, and you mend it.

Death breaks my heart hour after hour after hour, and you mend it.

The first stanza has twelve lines, and each proceeding stanza has three less lines than the one before it. I was not counting lines when I wrote this piece, but the math often creeps in with the rhythm.

The act of writing poetry is a training ground for better writing elsewhere, even if that poetry ends up in the trash. A good poem demands a clarity of thought and language that a rambling, 2000-word essay can sometimes allow you to forget. Writing poetry has taught me to be thoughtful about the language I use and to restrain myself where I might tend to run roughshod over ideas out of laziness rather than give them a finer tuning. Striving for clarity makes a habit of itself.

It is a practice I urge you to try. Even if the poetry is no good, its ability to hone your thought and writing skills is worth the work. Write a poem a day for a couple of weeks, and you'll see what I mean. While writing prose, you'll find yourself editing sentences for structure and cadence in a way that you did not before.

This business of writing poetry can be such a harsh experience with all of its vulnerability and ease of failure, and I often wonder why I bother to blog it when the feeling of exposure sends me reeling every time, but I always come back to the same thought: I have to do it. There are ideas for which I am sure no story, no essay, no painting in the world could be the answer. There is an algebraic formula that works out the amortization of your mortgage, and there is a creative form that works out the subterranean movements of the heart and mind. Poetry is that algebraic formula for me, a distillation of the mind, a clarification of the heart of reality. It is a tighter understanding of the meat of living than I can muster in any other form, and it is one which I am no longer content to allow to hide under the bed.

Schmutzie can be found at, the Canadian Weblog Awards, and Grace in Small Things.

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