Poetry, process, progress.

Reviewing “The Rules” for Intro to Poetry Students

I’ve been thinking about the rules. At one point, my creative writing program had a list of rules for the intro class so that beginning poets did not go straight for the techniques or pitfalls  that pretty much guarantee failure for the newbies, no matter how talented. I still have a copy of those rules, and I’d like to not only think about them here, but also have my summer online intro students think about them too in a discussion board thread. I’m probably not going to be this rigid. Over time, I’ve found too many exceptions.  I thought though, that this would be a good  place to bring up the rules, poetry rules, that is.

First off, what? Poetry? Rules? How can that be? Well, when it comes right down to it, poetry is all about rules, usually those mandated by syntax as well as rules imposed by the poet, such as in forms like sonnets or sestinas. For beginning poets, a few limitations can help them avoid projects or techniques that are too challenging for those who haven’t mastered the basics yet. in fact, since this is the teaching-to-the-test generation, most of them have very limited exposure to either historic or current poetry, which means they don’t know what the basics are yet. Here are the general rules and some commentary:

General Rules for Poems Assignments

  • Have a heading with your name, instructor name, course name, date, and assignment name.

This one seems pretty basic for all coursework, but you’d be surprised how many students turn in poems with no name at all. I don’t teach any other course where this happens so much. On the bright side, I think it means this is writing that students are personally invested in and not seen as schoolwork, which is good, but it helps me to know not only who wrote the draft, but which assignment it is and when the draft was done.

  • When writing, start with clean, straightforward language. Let figurative language happen as a natural part of the poem rather than as embellishment.

It is tempting to over-embelish when first writing poetry. Some drafts pile on the florid language or have a multiplicity of metaphors all bouncing against each other. In other words, it is possible to try too hard to sound “arty” when writing poetry. It is far better to concentrate on intensive, accurate observation and let the poetry take care of itself.

  • Along with that, avoid cliches and abstract language. Concentrate on things that you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. The common adage is to show, not tell. That is good advice. Show your readers, and they can then make the more abstract connections themselves if the poem is working right.

Show not tell. This is probably the most central piece of advice given to aspiring poets and fiction writers, but it is also hard to do. A  similar example would be telling a batter in baseball that the key to success is hitting the ball. Yes. True, but how can that be done when every pitch is different? The secret to showing rather than telling is to make it sensual, meaning give details that connect to the senses–sight, hearing, smell, taste. Another way to understand this is to think of it by genre. For example, essay-writing can be all about telling. If your poem reads like it is an essay, then it probably is one, only with line breaks. Don’t do that. Show it and let the reader work it out.

  • Use a consistent left-hand margin.

This is what I’ve said before. I’m thinking this may be too restrictive given continuing trends in contemporary poetry. What I said about Microsoft still applies though.

Yes, I know that the jaggety-edge poem is in the midst of a resurgence, but the ins and outs of that technique are best addressed in a later course when the basics of line breaks and stanzas are already mastered. Along with this, don’t let Microsoft Word boss you around and make your poem anything but single-spaced. I know the default Word style is closer to double-spaced than single-spaced, but more room between lines in a poem means more TIME taken reading– it adds a three-beat minimum pause between each line and it also messes up the stanza breaks. Some poets, notably Jorie Graham, have experimented with proper use of double-spacing and have written poems that need this amount of room to breathe. This technique is still fairly rare. To avoid having it imposed on you, change the Microsoft Word default setting and make your poems single-spaced. Neglecting to do so and saying “I forgot” just tells me that you don’t pay enough attention to the large-scale features of your poem, and that is not a good start for the semester. Show Microsoft Word who’s boss (you are) and change the setting to fit your needs, not Microsoft’s.

  • Write in sentences with meticulous punctuation and normal capitalization (no line caps).

Note: I’m thinking of playing a little looser with this. I’ve seen some poems break syntax purposely for a reason and make it work. The main thing I want to discourage is selective punctuation-dropping, usually only at the end of lines. That just looks like the writer doesn’t know how to use commas.

Two things here about line caps: current practice and tone. Even though line caps were commonly used through the first half of the twentieth century, current poets using line caps are the exception rather than the rule. Line caps can add a nineteenth century quality to your poem, a formal tone that usually works against what the poem is trying to accomplish. Microsoft Word adds line caps automatically, but it eventually learns that you don’t want them. Unfortunately, you have to teach it that with each draft. I’m sorry, but once again, I think you shouldn’t let software bully you. Don’t use line caps, no matter what Word thinks.

As far as punctuation goes, it shouldn’t go. In other words, don’t drop punctuation. Use it. Sometimes beginning poets, especially those who tend to put all line breaks at comma-phrase points, will leave off commas at the line breaks but retain most or all of the punctuation in the interior. This is confusing and not effective. The fact is that punctuation exists even when you leave it out. That comma may not be there, but your reader knows it should be, so the informal effect you are striving for is replaced by the reader’s belief that you are amateurish and simply not that good at punctuating. No one wants that, so punctuate meticulously. Poets who eschew punctuation have a purpose for it and tend to be consistent. Let’s save this technique for more advanced poetry classes.

  • Have a title.

Yes, titles can be hard. That is all the more reason to practice using titles– so you can get good at using them. A good title can focus the poem and let the reader get an inside view of what the poet is getting at. Sometimes poets start with a fabulous title and no idea where it will lead. The trick then is to let the poem grow around it. Beginning poets that don’t try this technique are definitely missing out on a huge invention device, one that can lead to their very best poems.

  • No end rhymes. (The Form Poem assignment may be the exception—some forms use end rhyme)

This is the rule that ENG 203 students protest about the most. They sometimes see rhyme as the defining feature of poetry and can’t envision writing poetry without it. Not that surprising, these students may also be the ones with the least contemporary/ millennial poetry reading experience. In other words, they may love poetry, but their reading experience with poetry is limited to Edgar Allen Poe and Shel Silverstein. Both are worth reading of course, but Poe is a nineteenth century poet with the sensibilities of his time and poets writing now need to be mindful of current trends and conventions. Shel Silverstein is one of the most popular children’s poets today, but yes, writes poetry targeted at children, which is not the audience for the poetry written for this course. My university has a separate course for creative writing targeted to children/young adults.

  • No recycled work from past classes or workshops. Your draft must be written this semester for this class.

This is an academic integrity issue. My university requires this for all courses, but creative writing can tempt even the most ethical student to break this rule, usually for a piece that the student has been working on “for years.” Let’s unpack that statement. If a student has a poem (this is especially true for short stories or novel manuscripts) that he/she has been working on for seven years, if the student is 22, that means the poem was originally drafted when the student was 15 (or for 19 year olds, when they were 12). Chances are, that student has grown immensely as a writer since then and has experienced much more of life. Another example is submitting the poem successfully produced for a creative writing class in the student’s senior year of high school. More often than not, that poem does not fare so well in my class because the course goals are different and the expectations for creative writing on the university level are so much higher. This second instance usually happens when a student is stressed and runs out of time to draft something new. Aside from the academic integrity issue, recycling subverts the goals for the class and keeps the student from growing as a writer. Short version: don’t do it.

  • Don’t slide for the summary ending. Try something less expected.

A summary ending wraps the subject of the poem up in a tidy package and saves the reader from having to discern what the poem was about. Unfortunately, good poems are rarely tidy, and if your draft lends itself to this essay-like sort of conclusion, chances are it may be more essay than poem and needs a “show not tell” revision. Closure is not always the goal in a poem. It is all right for endings to be unsettling or leave the reader off balance.

  • Have line breaks—no prose poems.

I will have a prose poem assignment this time. It is such a big part of the poetry landscape that it would be wrong not to. It will be near the end of the semester, though.

This is one of the “learn the basics first” rules. The line break is the most powerful tool in the poet tool box. A form that completely takes that tool away means that all the other techniques must be heightened in order for a chunk of prose to work as a poem. This is the first semester for learning the craft, so save this form for later.

  • Be thoughtful in choosing stanza breaks.

Often ENG 203 students are concentrating so hard on laying down the lines in a poem that they completely forget to use stanzas, which are almost as powerful a tool as line breaks. Look for the natural spaces in your poem and place stanza breaks. After you do that, sit back and consider what you have. For example, the draft may have mostly six-line stanzas (sextets) with a few five-line stanzas (quatrains). In that case, shift line breaks and make small cuts/additions that strengthen the poem so that all the stanzas are sextets. Another option is to shift the whole draft to tercets. This regularizing and shifting of stanza lengths is a very common revision move and one that is highly successful.

  • Minimum poem length is 14 lines. Remember, short poems are harder to write well because each word carries more weight.

I am still agonizing over this one. After all, what gets turned in pre-portfolio are drafts and an eight-week summer course means some fairly quick drafting. I do point out below that the shorter the poem is, the more weight each word has.

Drafting is hard sometimes, and there is a temptation to slide to the finish long before a draft is really done just because the poet is tired of drafting right now. Once students get used to the idea that drafting happens in more than one sitting, coming up with a suitably complex draft becomes easier. Fourteen lines is not a lot; it is sonnet length. Narrative poets write far longer poems, and I hope that those students who lean towards narrative (as opposed to imagistic) poems let themselves layer the narratives by drafting over several sessions and letting digressions happen. Another thing to consider is that a poem shorter than 14 lines must be word-perfect, even more so than poems with more room. This is not the class to attempt jewel-like miniature poems. Try that later.

So…that’s the rules. On review, they are not as draconic as I remember, but some of them do chip away at ideas about poetry formed from TV or movies rather than  well, poetry books or literary journals where the best poetry gets published these days. I’m thinking that I can be convinced. Maybe these need to be guidelines or caution signs on an unfamiliar road in the dark. Risk-taking is a part of writing poems, and it may work out. I’m also hoping that students give me fair warning and some reasoning behind choices like end rhyme outside of a known rhyming form or cliche use in general. If it purposeful and serves a purpose, then I will be fine with it.