Connecting To Poetry

When I read new poets, I often have a hard time connecting with the poem. Part of that is on me, part of that is on the poet. I think it can be hard to connect with a work if we’re looking at it critically. The more critically we look at something, the more we examine it under a microscope, and microscopic organisms never really give us the big picture. A single piece of a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle can’t tell us what the picture is.

So what can we do to prevent a disconnect with our readership? After all, most people who read poems are poets themselves. It’s just statistics at this point. That means that our main audience is going to be asking themselves “are they worthy” every time they read our literature. So what do we do?

As A Poet

As someone who is writing poetry, I think we can protect ourselves by passing a few tests each time we write a new poem. These all come up in the editing stages of writing, and I’ll go into more detail when I get into editing poems.

  • “You’re not the boss of me!”
    • Instruction: Read your poem like a moody angry person who is talking to their equal or subordinate. If, at any point, you can shout at your poem “You’re not my mom” or “You’re not my boss” then that area needs reworking.
    • Explanation: Whenever a reader feels like they’re being bossed around, readers tune out. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because someone’s saying “You must” or “You should always” or one of those other imperative, commanding phrases. Talking about the right thing to do with a little too much passion can annoy a person.
  • “Well, I don’t … !”
    • Instruction: Read your poem and look for places where you assume a universal truth or fallacy. If you have assumed a universal truth/fallacy such as anything with “always” or “never” then take those words out.
    • Explanation: The only time when a universal truth is a good thing to use is when you’re being contrary on purpose, such as sarcasm or satire. In these situations it works well, but otherwise, you’re likely to turn a reader off, or disconnect with them, by using what you perceive as a universal law.
  • “What?”
    • Instruction: Paraphrase your poem! Take each line or sentence, and write it in plain English. Don’t use fancy language. Don’t use difficult words. Make it as simple and short as you can.
    • Explanation: Sometimes we get so caught up in our flowery language that we forget the meaning of the sentence. It’s good to take a step back and read over your poem in layman’s terms to ensure the poem actually means something and it isn’t just a bunch of pretty pictures.

It is good to leave uniqueness in your poem, but if you overdo it, the poem can be bogged down like an inside joke, so finding that careful balance between writing a poem like you’re sharing with your best friend and a stranger is important. You want the openness of sharing with your best friend, but the explanations like you’re sharing with a stranger.

As A Reader

All of the work does not fall on the poet to create a connected reading experience. To enjoy the act of reading, it helps to step back and give the poet the benefit of the doubt. When a reader enters into a poem with an open mind, expecting the poem to meet their level of entertainment, it can be self-fulfilling. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help ensure we’re not hyper-critical.

  1. How does this relate to my life?
  2. What is the poet doing to make this poem imaginative?
  3. Why did the poet use [that word]?
  4. How would I translate [that] stanza into my own words?
  5. Where do I think this is taking place?
  6. When do I think this is happening in the speaker’s life?
  7. Who is the poet trying to connect with?
  8. What turn of phrase do I like the best?
  9. What is the poet trying to tell me?
  10. What would I tell the poet if I met them?
  11. What part do I really like? Why do I like it?

These questions can help keep us looking at the positive aspects of the poem rather than the negative, but it also leads to some good critiques. The best critiques of poems point out things that the writer did well and things that they can improve upon in your opinion.

If we look at questions 2, 4, 9, 11, and 12 we can see that each of these questions have the potential for being answered negatively. If the poet isn’t working very much on imaginative poetry, than 2 is a place to talk about that, and how to improve upon that. 4 is a chance to look at the clarity of the poem and if it makes sense to you. 9 is also looking at the clarity of the poem, but from a different perspective. Eleven helps the reader consider why the poem elicits a strong reaction. Instead of talking about a stanza or word, some of these questions ask about the big picture.¬†Some others probe into questions about the style of the poem.

puzzle-1487340_1280.jpgPoetry is ultimately about our experiences as people, piecing together our own feelings, and it is best to approach poems with that in mind. How does the poem relate to me? What in the poem relates it to something in my life? If you feel an emotional reaction, something relates.

Once we feel that, we are more likely to read the poem with a kinder eye. If we have a personal experience called up in our minds, we can read the poem looking at that personal experience, and, from there, talk about what we liked and didn’t like and why. That makes us think and it might make us aware of some inner truth or demon we rarely bring out into the light.

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Specifics in Poetry: Challenge

Starting out as a young poet, we are told to write about our experiences, but at the time, our experiences are things like “I got in the car today” and “I put my hair up in a pony tail for the first time” or things that are too general to really make a good poem.

I had a poet who came into my third grade class to encourage our poetic ingenuity, and she had us write a structured poem. It was an “I am …” poem. Here is what I learned from the experience.

  1. You are a lot more than you think you are.
  2. You don’t have to keep writing “I am” at the beginning of every line
  3. “I am” can be followed by verbs rather than noun phrases, like “on” or “at”

This became my first experience with the phrase “not specific enough” which I’ve come to use as a mantra for new poets I run into on sites like Young Writers Society and Poetry Soup. So what does it mean?

When something is not specific enough it means that the details the poet chose for their poem don’t explore something personal enough to make a good poem. It could be that the poem is about a romantic experience, but it could be about anyone’s romance, or it could be that the poem has nothing to do with any one person at all. It becomes a spectrum of “unrelatable” and “too easy to write” and your job as a poet is to find the happy medium.

What can you talk about that is relatable because of personal experience, but not too detailed and exclusionary?

Taking the Dive

I can’t say I’m good at “taking the dive” in the figurative or literal sense. If you put me on a diving board, I’ll just stand there and wonder why the stairs aren’t a better way to enter the water. I’m frozen by my fears. My flight or fight response is broken. When faced with something that terrifies me, I do not try to fight it, because I am sure I will lose, and I do not try to run from it, for fear it will chase me.

In this way, I’m always on a diving platform staring down at the water from above, waiting for someone to push me in so I can go without needing the courage to jump.

I would talk at nauseum about what recent jumps I’ve been forced to take, or those I’m still waiting on, but this is, at it’s heart, a blog about getting better at poetry from one person who’s gotten only 3 poems published to millions of people who aren’t listening, and a handful of you who are curious enough to humor me. So instead, I think it would be more interesting for us few in the wings of millions, to talk about language.

That’s what we’re here for after all.

Figurative language is the art of finding something physical or so well known that when you say an example, the example doesn’t need any explanation. Usually these are all very old examples, and we’ve come to know some phrases over time rather than remembering the example, but the results are the same.

“Take the plunge”, “take the dive”, “take the jump”, they’re all the same example, leaping off of something either with or without knowing the results, and doing it with your full body, putting death on the line. People use this expression to say “go for it” or “don’t fear the results, do it anyway” and for me this can be a powerful encouragement, or a reminder of what I was avoiding in the first place. So how can we use figurative language to support our poems?

Simple, make our own. The idea of “take the dive” is the trepidation which stops us from moving forward, it is the human inability to perform when being faced with a challenge greater than they think is worth the risks. The saying is meant to say that “I took a chance” and even though I didn’t like the risks, I did it anyway with all of my effort.

From there, now that we know what it means, we can come up with our own. Think of something that stops you in your tracks every time, and ask yourself what you are least likely to do with that situation. Be careful now, we don’t want people dead, so if you’re thinking “pet the lion” or “step on the tracks in front of a train” back it off a step or two.

For me, my non-deadly thing I don’t do is touch spiders. I am creeped out by them with their long legs and quick movements. Because of that, instead of saying “take the dive” I could say “touch the spider.” I stood petrified until I touched the spider, and now, everything is fine.

There are a few things to be careful with. First, you don’t want to confuse people. If it isn’t clear why it is something which matches with the original saying, then add in context clues. Second, if it doesn’t fit with the poem you’re writing, add in context clues. If you’re not sure what I mean by context clues, restate your intent in another way, or give the reader a chance to understand by what else is being said.

Now, if you want to take me up on it, write a short poem with an idiom or phrase you replaced, and comment, give me a link or how to find it, and I’ll give you a review!

I look forward to reading your work.

Was That Bieber?

Warning: This blog deals with mature content.

I heard a Justin Bieber song on the radio the other day, but I didn’t realize it was him. You see, I have come to know Bieber’s style as a quintessential love song, girl heart-throb thing with shallow lyrics aimed towards repetition and beat rather than actual substance or clear, healthy messages.

Some of his early work that I ran into listening to the radio were things like his song about not understanding women, which is laughable to me because it tries to classify an emotional, complex behavior of courtship into finite “yes or no” and while there are other songs I grew up with that had similar messages like “Hot ‘n Cold” by Katy Perry, “What Do You Mean” seemed to simplify it even further just demanding them to be one thing.

I suppose I should spoiler here and say that I’m going to explain what I mean by simplifying and I’m going to be talking about child inappropriate things.

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non-capitalization in Poetry

Non-capitalization is good for helping progress the emotional drama of a poem. For many poems, this is a capitalization strategy that you can try to see if it will help improve what you want to say. This style can surprise you.

Writing any poem without capitalization to begin with can be a challenge, so mostly this style is good after finishing a poem while exploring all of the different tones and options. The time I find non-capitalization helpful in a poem is when the poem is informal, and quiet, or morose. Non-capitalization tends to change the tone towards something more personal and sincere. Poems which are navel gazers or preaching poems can turn into something that sounds honest when getting rid of the formality of grammar.

There are two different ways that you can play with non-capitalization; leave everything uncapitalized, and leave sentences uncapitalized.

The difference is a method of thought. In most cases, uncapitalized poetry won’t mean uncapitalized words, just not capitalizing the first word in your sentences, but that isn’t the only grammar rule which deals with capitalization. Some poets also add on that they want to capitalize nothing. It’s all about a degree of choice. There are even some poets who will choose to capitalize nothing but the most important part of the poem to draw attention to it.

Everything Uncapitalized

This tone is usually more private, almost like whispering and sharing a secret. It comes off soft, and sometimes disrespectful to the speaker or the individuals and places involved. This is because most of the time capitalization of proper nouns and pronouns is regarded as honoring that individual.

With this style, you would not capitalize things like “I” and “United States” which can leave the tone of the poem somewhat morose. Most poems that choose to go with this style also feel less restricted to proper sentence structure and grammatical rules.

There is a new trend in poetry for younger generations which creates poems that do not follow these grammatical rules such as just using lists of noun phrases as a poem rather than adding verbs and sentences. These poems can be very bold and shocking, but most of them will look better without capitalization because it plays at the idea that these are not sentences, but fragments which were meant to be fragments.

The more you want to break traditional rules, the less grammar and punctuation you may want to try in the poem. Not all poems will abide by these rules. It takes understanding the subject, the motivation, and the response people will have to find a balance between clarity, and presentation. Some grammar rules will help with the flow of the poem.

Sentences Uncapitalized

This tone presents with more belief in self if the poem is first person, and more respect for the character if it is in third person. In this case, you still capitalize things like “I” and “Tim” but you wouldn’t capitalize the beginning of sentences. Oftentimes this is the stop-gap for poems which feel too formal with capitalization, but not informal enough for a lack of capitalization.

Another fun thing to do with this style of non-capitalization is to allow for a lack of punctuation, or minimal punctuation which can create interesting sentences, and develop new ways to read lines. You can use enjambment to plan sentences as they read, versus sentences that are on a line. This can be tricky if you stick with all grammar rules, but given the trends of poems, it’s oftentimes easier to create unique images on a line with enjambment than you may imagine.

Applications of non-capitalization

In many ways non-capitalization in poetry can be a challenge to see how well your poem stands up to grammatical criticism as we read. Sometimes the capitalization in a sentence or paragraph can hide grammatical flaws like missing clauses.

As we read, we jump from sentence to sentence with capitalization guiding us along, and getting rid of that capitalization can create a new perspective of how the sentences flow together, and where they don’t. A problem for some young writers is to write in complete sentences, and getting rid of capitalization can show them where the complete sentences are so they stop putting periods where a comma should go.

More than a learning tool, taking away capitalization can give people a feeling of missing something which may be exactly what your poem is about. Sometimes the best metaphors for emotions are visual rather than the symbolic meanings of the words. If the poem is about a lack of beginnings, or a lack of respect, or just written by someone who would be texting it rather than typing, try taking out capitalization, give it a little bit of time, then read it fresh and see if you like it better.

The worst thing that could happen is having to add the capitalization back in, so it’s worth the extra effort!

Rap and Poetry

Today, English teachers try to engage their students with poetry by saying “it’s like rap” even though there are a lot of differences in the way that rap and poetry function. Poetry and rap are different because while rap has a beat or rhythm that it’s set to, poetry often creates a beat through word choice and meter. Also, rap is more prone to rhyming, or requiring rhyming than poetry. Lastly, rap and poetry differ widely when it comes to stylistic developments. The first one, and most obvious, is that rap has a beat pounded with it, and while that’s not always the case out loud, it usually is with motion.

Rap has developed over the time almost like a cousin to beat poetry, or the movement in poetry when it was more important to hit the spoken word aspect of sounds rather than presenting a story, or a clean reading. There’s a lot of interaction with both of them. With rap, there is dancing, singing along, and even rap battles. With beat poetry, they also have battles and audience jeering. This is the primary similarity between poetry and rap.

However, not all poetry is beat or spoken word, and while you could debate that all rap is poetry, you could also debate all songs are poetry, or all music in general, even instrumental, is poetry. To start kids off in poetry, this is great, but once you want to get into the more complex explorations of poetry, once you start developing an understanding of different forms, different eras, rap and poetry stop being similar.

Not all poetry relies heavily on the spoken word’s beat, or tonality. A lot of it has been morphed into something that can be read silently to yourself, although it always sounds more visceral out loud. Also rap tends to be a lot longer than most poems today. With the waning attention spans due to the wide variety of entertainment, it’s hard to keep someone around for a 5 minute read, so poems tend to be one page.

If you look at the length of a typical rap song, such as Eminem’s “Rap God” you can easily see it’s much longer than one page. [Warning: explicit language in Rap God]

If you look at a recent poem published by The Poetry Foundation, like “A French Piano Tuner & a One-Eyed Glassblower Walk into a Bar” you will see that not only are the lines much shorter, but the poem in general is small.¬†[Warning: explicit language in A French Piano Tuner & a One-Eyed Glassblower Walk into a Bar]

In many ways that’s because rap is made to almost be a verbal plethora of language, to speak quick and combine tricky sounds. Poetry in general, is a slower sport. This helps build the next difference between the two.

Rap is more prone to rhyming than poetry. That is because rap tends to ride through the rhythm and rhyme of the words to speak faster and keep your tongue from twisting, while poetry is relying more heavily on meaning and inferred messages. It becomes necessary to remain slower so people can catch all of the words clearly.

This isn’t to say that rappers don’t speak clearly, they do. It’s just that their goal is sometimes to best the others in their field by pure eloquence of phrase and speed, whereas Poetry aims to obtain the most visceral, or emotional response. Both of them also have classes within their groupings. Some are more popular than others, some are easier to follow than others.

While I talk about Eminem, there are some audiences who are widely familiar with the more popular rappers of today’s generation which have different styles of rapping, just as I know of many styles unlike the poem I used as an example. For instance, this particular song “XO Tour Llif3” produced by JW Lucas and TM88 on the most popular songs on SoundCloud, a music listening website, is different from “Rap God” but still considered rap.

Lastly, or at least the last one I want to talk about, is that rap is stylistically different. As you can see from the examples, rap and poetry can have the same subject matter, or similarly explicit language, but be very different in how they approach a situation.

For poetry, conservation is the name of the game. Fit as much as you can in the tightest space possible, and then cut half of it. In rap, it’s more about the flow of the style. Fit whatever you need to in the song, but make sure you’re entertaining and giving people they can use to follow along.

All in all, the primary difference falls down to the audience’s expectations. Poems used to be more like songs or rap, but the more we expect from either class, the less similar they become. As we expect people to avoid repeating themselves, the styles change to conform, and as we expect them to read less, again, the style changes. It becomes a game of knowing your audience and writing for them.

The last thing I’d like to leave you with is a question. What differences or similarities do you see between different songs? Can you pick out a writer from the lyrics alone, or does it take the voice?

National Poetry Month

It’s that time of year again.

National Poetry Month is based on the premise that the more you write, the better you’ll get, but there’s a flipside to that. The more you write, the less time you spend reading, and that can really hinder your ability to improve.

For me, it becomes a balance between reading and writing. Read a poem, write a poem, be aware of poetic language throughout the day, all of it is what National Poetry is good for.

The most surprising place I find beautiful poetry is on the radio. There are a lot of song writers today that develop language through poetry and write stories with their songs. Some of the big names in the business do just that, like Taylor Swift, and Eminem.

Sometimes the message isn’t always the right one, but listening to how the music flows with the words can help improve craft. You can concentrate on stresses, learn to write in meter, and how to rhyme better while listening to music.

So in that way, it can be really easy to get your “reading” time in if you have to drive, but you can also hide a chapbook in the bathroom, or have one on your phone through the Kindle app. They have a lot of poetry books for free in the store.

Most of them are the old books too, so you can learn some of the more famous names like Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Longfellow, and so forth.

 

A Poem: Inaugurations

I get sick of hearing
that we’re making history
with this or that, because we’re not making history.
History is what people of the future record.
People won’t look back in the book of records
and remember two hundred years from now
that these things happened.

They will look back, decide what they wish to say
and then morph it into the important side notes of life.
Current history isn’t history,
it’s a life changing event.

I went to see this amazing event,
but the event was more important to me than
making history.

Being in that crowed of all those people,
the president spoke and hearing the words
echo over the Jumbo-trons
made me shiver like a ghost touched me.

All these people,
all these individuals from everywhere, and everything,
came in curiosity, hope, and faith in this man.
Every crowed and every section on that day
had different reactions,
different moments of sadness,
of happiness, and cheers.

Those people in those crowds made up different lives
showed to represent different places
and all of us stood together,
crouched together
huddled together in the cold,
and listened together.

We may have been making history,
but it was about the moment,
that feeling of comradery and friendship
the ability to lean on your neighbor for warmth
a neighbor whom you would never meet again
and to see everyone at once react,
being enthralled in the speech.

The Inauguration of President Obama
wasn’t about making history
it was about the United States
coming together to support and witness this man
and it wasn’t about the first black President,
it was about a leader who could take us forward,
give us the support and hard work we need
to prove our vote still matters.

A Poem: Garden

Garden It was ripped to shreds turned over, and dumped atop a chipped hole in the earth. The garden had been pretty. Weedy, but pretty nevertheless. Like anything it took time to grow a bleeding heart, a couple bushes the occasional tulip planting a horrifying dog toy and bones but in the end, all of […]

Alternative Capitalization

This style of capitalization is new on the scene, but not as new as you might think! If you read Victorian era writing, you’ve actually seen this capitalization style. Remember when words like Death were capitalized because they were being used as a proper noun? That is an alternative capitalization strategy!

This style is more complex than sentence or line capitalization, but it is incredibly useful. Basically, line and sentence capitalization didn’t work for everyone, and after people stopped capitalizing metaphorical symbols, these people found they had to break out of the box, and do something different. They decided to take all the grammatical rules we know and memorized, and toss them out the window.

The main ones I’ll be talking about are going to be Breath Capitalization and Victorian Capitalization. These are used in spoken word and victorian era poetry. We can still see their uses today, however, as we combine and fiddle with things like emotional capitalization, which wraps up under Breath.

Breath Capitalization

This is when something is capitalized based on how you breathe and speak. For spoken poets, it’s their cheat sheet for when to raise their volume, breathe, speak softer, or change intonation. It goes hand in hand with an alternative punctuation style.

Instead, they use capitalization based on where they Want it to be to create EMPHASIS like we do while we TexT our friends late at night because “OH MY GOD I CANT BELIEVE HE JUST SAID THAT” is a lot easier to type than “Oh my god, I cannot believe he just said that!” on a phone. Both of them emphasize that whatever he just said, was crazy, but the first one matches breath capitalization+punctuation, and the other one matches sentence capitalization+punctuation.

Victorian Capitalization

While this style isn’t nearly as used, it is very useful for explaining how Alternative can be such a fun way to write. Back when Emily Dickinson was crafting her Great American Paperweight, she chose to capitalize words that were important somehow, but not always obviously important. They were words that deserved emphasis, but also words that required further investigation.

Today poets use this idea when they want to change inflection and tone in a poem. It also can indicate things like worth!

Working Together

Breath and Victorian capitalization styles can work together beautifully because when you want something to look a certain way, you can capitalize it to fit the weight of a page, and throw all of those nasty grammar rules out the window to create your own.

The beauty of poetry here is that as long as we are consistant with ourselves, people will be able to follow along and understand what we’re saying. People are programmed to recognize patterns, and we can use that to our advantage by creating a pattern and then using it consistently, and poetry readers will forgive us for not using a pattern they’re familiar with. In fact, a lot of poetry readers will be thrilled to see something unique.