I’m not going to say it – to the people who write really bad poetry – “yur pome really sux.” I’m not going to say “Hey, dude, a poem is more than a paragraph with a bunch of weird line breaks.” I don’t want to hurt anyone. Anyone who is putting their stuff out there for the world to devour is a hero. They deserve some slack just for putting it out there. I’m never going to tell someone who maybe took the time to follow me that their writing just isn’t getting it. I don’t like to hurt people. I’ve done enough of that in my time. And still, my mind screams. I get crazy about some things: the wooden stiff stuff that’s as dry as soda crackers, the emotionally extravagant that reminds me of how desolate everything can be and the undisciplined “look at my finger-painting, Mommy” kind of stuff.
The wooden are the mind-numbingly predictable pieces that have no surprises, little mystery, pedestrian use of vocabulary and an overall sense of flatness about them. The writers of these poems are trying too hard. Maybe they’re “over-thinking it.” They have lost, or maybe never had, an ear for the music. There is a sense of play about poetry – a jazz jam session is not a bad analogy. Music is important to poetry. I don’t write in strict meter or rhyme, but I am reminded that the most successful poems in history are actual songs. Reading the poem out loud can be helpful for folks who aren’t hearing the music. Surprise revelations and a dash of mystery can be good if a poem goes flat. Show; don’t tell.
The emotionally extravagant are the really gushy tributes to a love affair. They are those skin-crawling, “How wonderful the world and life (and me) are this morning” things. Then there are poems like “just have a hopeful attitude and all your dreams will come true.” (Spoiler alert: they don’t always.) When you have to deal with the effects of your writing on real people, you learn respect for “unintended consequences.” Most of your audience is not young, healthy and beautiful. Many are older, lonely or disadvantaged in some way. Maybe they don’t feel good at all. Maybe they couldn’t get a date if their life depended on it. Maybe it’s not such a great morning. I like to ask, “How will my audience hear this? Does this need to be published or should it stay private?”
The undisciplined are just that – undisciplined, in their work and thought. The poem may start on one subject and end on another. There may be random changes of voice. There is no form or repetitive pattern to the work. Lines are short or long on impulse rather than intention. Use of language is sloppy with unnecessary typos. To me, a poem lacking discipline shows a lack of respect for the reader. For me “discipline” in this context means an attention to craft, interesting use of language, interesting use of images and layers of meaning, a critical eye and a willingness to ask of every line, “Does this one earn its place in the poem? Can I live without it?”
I hope I haven’t hurt anyone. I don’t want to. YOU CAN WRITE YOUR POEM ANY DAMNED WAY YOU WANT TO. It doesn’t matter to me. There is this tsunami of digital data and all the horse shit gets swept away pretty quickly. I offer these thoughts merely as a way to make your work more accessible to the reader. I’ve made all of these mistakes. I wouldn’t know them if I hadn’t, so I’m not getting all righteous.
Finally, write your experiences. Write them down. They don’t take a lot of room on the hard drive. You can always come back later and edit for the literary concerns. Save everything. Be sloppy and undisciplined on the first draft. Get it all. I have often come back to a piece I wrote years ago just to suddenly see four lines that are magic. You never know.