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Q:  What is the best way to learn how to write better poems?


A:  First, let’s eliminate the worst possibilities.  In my experience, the worst possible way is to join a class or workshop where the teacher’s or leader’s method is to show everyone what they did wrong, so go home and fix it.  A good workshop , for example, using the Amherst Writers & Artists method ,will put praise for what is strong first in every response, giving the emerging poet a foundation of strength on which to offer suggestions that will help him or her to build increasing craft.

Another worst possibility is doing nothing but continuing to love only what you loved in childhood and youth, being unwilling to explore and learn from what is happening right now in the world of poetry.

And a third not-so-good possibility is working entirely alone, with no good feedback, suggestion, encouragement, or praise.  Family doesn’t count.  Almost always, they care too much, know your material too well, have alternate views of your mutual history, and in short, get in the way of your progress.  Best to wait for a published poem before sharing it with family members.  Or if you must show them, tell them ahead of time you don’t want any opinions except what they love, because your poem is still a “cake in the oven” and with even a breath of cold air (criticism) it may fall.

Now, the good ways to learn. First, learn from other poets. Read both poets from the past and your own contemporaries. Find poems that you love, and don’t worry too much about those you don’t connect with, at least not at first. Reading poetry is like turning the dial on the radio – you don’t have to like everything. Find the poems that move you, that cause you to want to write like those poets do. Go to the library and find your contemporary poets.  Give each poet a chance by reading at least three poems by each author.  Read the poems out loud, maybe walk around your room as you read, so your body as well as your ears and your mind enter the poem.  Read each poem at least three times, listening to it, feeling it.   Find in the anthology the poem you like the best, and let that poet become your teacher.  Get more of his or her books.   Try “copy-cat” poems, following the pattern exactly, but using different words, different images.  If, for example, you are liking and copy-catting Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” you might want to put a little epigraph at the top of your poem, lower-case, italicized, and in a small font,  — after Wallace Stevens, to give credit for the form of the poem  If your form is different, as well as your content, you don’t have to give credit.  You have made a new poem and it is your own, with a little “literary influence.”  Now, do the same with a poem you don’t understand, or don’t like.  What is that poet doing, and why?  Could you use anything from that poet’s style?

Another important thing is not to work entirely alone.  Find a writing partner who will meet with you regularly, or join a group, workshop, or class.  The way to know whether what you have chosen is good for you is this simple “acid test.”  First, give it a try a couple of times.  Examine yourself after each meeting.  Do you feel more like writing, or less like writing?  If more, great.  Do it again.  If less, it is poison to you as a writer.  Quit.

With your partner or group, follow the method described in my book, Writing Alone and With Others, or some other method that you invent or that you find elsewhere that is supportive of natural voice and encouraging to exploration.  You don’t need a lot of authoritative “DO THIS” rules, or “DON’T DO THIS” limitations.  (I know, I know, I gave you a few of both above!)

Last, and most important, I do believe that becoming a better poet  — or any other kind of artist — is a lifetime process. Pablo Casals, perhaps the greatest cellist of the 20th century, began every day by playing all six Bach unaccompanied cello suites. He was asked, “Why do you play all six suites each day?” He said, “Because I think I’m getting better.”   I am eighty now; childcare is far behind me,  work as an administrator of Amherst Writers & Artists is a decade behind me.  At last my artistic challenge is exactly what you state in your question.  “How do I become a better poet?”  By committing myself again every day to practice and to learn, so I can say, “I think I’m getting better.”

ASK PAT . . .

Writers and leaders of writing groups, teachers of writing, and young writers are invited to write questions to Pat. She will choose one question each month for response. The questions may be edited, and will be anonymous, but if location and identity such as “Writer”, “Poet”, “Teacher”, or age of young writer is offered, that will be included. Offer a question: HERE