Some Hints on Composition

1) Have something to say. It doesn’t have to be a new idea – there aren’t very many of those left – your take on the subject, your perspective, is probably enough to reveal something new about it, but you have to believe it. It doesn’t have to be obvious, either. In ‘My Last Duchess’ the narrator says one thing, the poet says another. Irony can be a good tool, just don’t overdo it.
2) Listen to the poem. If it cries out for a form, chances are it will tell you. If you hear your poem asking for one, you’d better provide it, otherwise you’ll wind up with a broken poem. I read a poem yesterday that was begging, just on-its-knees, barefacedly begging to be a sestina and it would have been a lot better if the poet had just gone with it. I’m not just saying that because I’ve got sestinas on the brain right now. It was a pretty good poem anyway, but it could have been a much better one. If the poem asks to be written in free-verse (also a form, but you take my point) for the love of God don’t force it into a sonnet. That will break it, too.
3) Try to read like someone else. Pretend the poem is not your work. Pretend the poem was written by someone you dislike, or at least don’t care about, and edit in that spirit. The poem is the important thing. Not you. Reading poetry like this generally, detached from the personality of the author, is helpful in other ways. It helps you read and enjoy work done by people whose politics or general character you strongly disagree with. Hello, Mr Hughes…
4) Try very hard to avoid cliche. Trust your mind to find another image. Cliches are short-hand. Poetry might be brief, but it should say as much as possible.
5) Do not be afraid to take risks. If you fail, fail in a big way. Be a glorious failure. And hey, if you risk much, you just might gain a great treasure. Be audacious enough to climb that beanstalk. You might be eaten by a giant, but you might also come back with a golden, singing harp. In poetry, ‘easier’ and ‘better’ are rarely the same thing.

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