Poetry is not a big tent. It is an encampment with lots of little tents in which souls select their own societies. If Emily Dickinson went camping (not likely), she would probably not a share a tent with Anne Sexton. But after a hard day of walking in the woods and making poems, the two of them might sit around the campfire relaxing, talking po-biz, looking for shooting stars. Poets who pitch different kinds of poetry tents can be friends, but one does stand by the tenets of one’s own tent.
Here are some tips about what I love in best in poetry. I present them with examples from some poets I admire, poets who write emotionally clear, witty, accessible poems that convey love and sympathy for the world.
Our world will vanish, therefore imagery, either through straight description or figurative language, is essential. Mark Doty’s poem “A Display of Mackerel” from his book Atlantis (HarperCollins, 1995) never fails to dazzle me with its rapturous descriptions of fish in a market.
They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
The poem scintillates with its subject. When you read the whole poem, be sure to catch the brilliant irony: as much as Doty presences the material and the now, he meditates platonically on the idea that there is a truer form of mackerel in “heaven’s template.” Doty expands on his devotion to imagery in the essay “Souls on Ice,” found on http://www.poets.org, which includes the complete text of “A Display of Mackerel.”
Surprise your reader
As a reader, I yearn for the moment in which a startling turn of thought, a comparison, a profound observation slides into a poem. I want to feel that moment of awe, that shiver before a truth I did not see coming.
Surprises can be fierce or gentle. In her poem “Olives,” from her collection Olives (Northwestern, 2012), A. E. Stallings slips in a gentle surprise. Her poem begins with a gourmet appreciation of olives, but very quickly the poem turns unexpectedly melancholy:
Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
For fruits that you can eat
Only if pickled in a vat of tears—
Stallings chooses the sorrowful “vat of tears” to express the brining. It made me wonder what troubled the speaker’s heart. The diction in the poem also delivers the unexpected. Stallings combines everyday words with seldom-seen terms, always precisely relevant to olives, such as “indehiscent” and “drupes.” The poem surprises line after gorgeous line, and at points it shifts from darkness to light: “The nets spread under silver trees that foil/The blue glass of the heavens in the fall.” And I am struck by poet’s subtle slant rhyming of “foil” with “fall.” From the diction to the sound effects to the constantly changing emotional and sensory perspectives, Stallings gives me something to gasp about in every line. You can find the whole text of the poem in The New Criterion here.
Take a stand without ranting
A poem should be brave enough to take on a political subject, but it should not hector the reader. In her collection Doll (Main Street Rag, 2014), Kim Bridgford uses an inflatable doll as a persona to symbolize women who have been silenced or intimidated by sexist partners and a sexist society. Here are a few lines from her sonnet, “Inflatable Doll as Driving Companion”:
No backseat driver, this one’s in the front:
Her upbeat plastic buckled in to go
Wherever you go. This blow-up doll is silent,
Offers her support. I sit; therefore I know.
Bridgford’s wit, formal grace, and her sympathetic and subtly sharp approach empower this poem. You can read the whole poem here:
I love having fun with dark subjects, and that’s what successful funny poems usually do. They deploy humor to beckon the reader only to slide or pounce into something grave or existentially large. Charles Harper Webb’s poem “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be” from his book What Things Are Made Of (Pittsburgh, 2013), ruminates on an ice cream truck, a fond memory of youth, seen by the speaker hilariously through the lens of social and political critique. The poem begins:
I’m well aware it’s problematic to miss the ice cream trucks
that clinked and tinkled down Candlelight Lane. The name
“Good Humor” privileged bourgeois affability, and valorized
consumption. Songs the trucks played—“Daisy, Daisy”
and “Dixie”—legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,
and the Mariana Trench of slavery.
Eventually, the poem travels to an incident in the speaker’s youth involving class distinctions, and then rockets out to a pessimistic view of the future, thus bringing not-so-delightful past in conjunction with fraught future. But there’s so much fun in between. You can read all of Webb’s poem here.
If you can write a happy poem, do it
Mostly you will be pondering lost love, illness, guilt, failure, violence, hurt, and all the other things that flesh and spirit are heir to. The Polish poet Anna Swir wrote about all those things, but here she takes a moment to sample joy.
Happy as a Dog’s Tail
Happy as something unimportant
and free as a thing unimportant.
As something no one prizes
and which does not prize itself.
As something mocked by all
and which mocks at their mockery.
As laughter without serious reason.
As a yell able to outyell itself.
Happy as no matter what,
as any no matter what.
as a dog’s tail.
Now and then, let your verse celebrate simple pleasant things. Swir’s poem appears in her collection Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan (Copper Canyon Press, 1996). You can also read Swir’s poem on the Poetry Foundation website.
Avoid dense brush, swamp land, and other hazards around the poetry encampment
The five tips above spotlight some of what I value in poetry, but I want to point out what I don’t like as well. I do not care for self-consciously academic poems, abstruse poems that prize difficulty, poems with subjective associations I cannot follow, or syntactical weirdness that seems downright ungrammatical. Boring poems, I can’t tolerate them either.
All that said, I know that other poets and readers might find fascinating a text that I consider a flatliner or might dig the challenge of a hermetic poem. I reserve my right to be opinionated. I stand by the aspects of poetry that I revere because I think they help poetry do its job, which is to enlarge our world and abide with us in the wilderness of time.
Lynn Levin, a poet, writer, and translator, is adjunct associate professor of English at Drexel and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is, with Valerie Fox, co-author of the craft-of-poetry textbook, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a finalist in education/academic books in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Levin’s other recent books include Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales, and the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), a finalist in poetry in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Lynn Levin has received eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems, stories, essays, and translations have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, E-Verse Radio, Verse Daily, and Garrison Keillor has read her work on his radio show The Writer’s Almanac. Her website is http://www.lynnlevinpoet.com.
Credits: “If Emily Dickinson Went Camping” first appeared in Curate This. Artwork by Margaret Kearney. Used with permission.