Most people misunderstand what poetry is for. If someone you know from church or work shares a poem they wrote, you almost have to start cringing before you read it lest you be overwhelmed by the artlessness of the first stanza and die suddenly. You already know the poetic form is going to be an excuse for them to overshare, get weepy, commit crimes against the English language, or string together clichés as if they were profound.
People use the structure of poetry to hide insecurities about their writing, to build walls around what they want to say. It’s a poem, they think. I spent half an hour making it rhyme. Who would criticize a poem?
Me, that’s who. I took courses on poetry writing for my English degree, but I’ve been into it my whole life. I wrote poems as a kid to make my relatives laugh. I wrote them as a teenager to express the ups and downs of puberty. In high school I wrote the worst poetry imaginable: trite, angsty, maudlin stuff about unrequited love and the pain of being alive. If I know what bad poetry is, it’s because I’ve been there and done way too much of that.
So yeah, I have some notes.
Listen: if you want to write something, just write it. It’s called a Facebook status. It doesn’t gain a modicum of value if you chop each sentence in half and make the endings rhyme. An email doesn’t become art if you put line breaks in it. Your family newsletters, holiday cards, and wedding vows won’t be better if they’re poems. Matter of fact, they’ll probably be worse. Poetry does not exist to launder your boringness.
I know it sounds like I’m gatekeeping. Forgive me. I don’t want people to stop writing amateur poetry. Some of the best poems I’ve ever read were the work of newbies and hobbyists. I just want people to write poetry for the sake of poetry, rather than using it as a cheap upgrade for some other kind of writing.
How do I know when you’re abusing the poetic form? There are several dead giveaways. I’ll share them here, but it’s up to you to do better.
Following are the characteristics of bad poetry I see most often in the wild.
- Cramming, then phoning it in
- “All around”
- Oppressive structure
- Yoda clauses
- One tidy little idea
- Lack of imagery
- Being a list instead of a poem
Cramming, then phoning it in
It’s painfully obvious that some people write poems one line at a time, like so:
“Be nice” is the thing that I wanted to say.
Tra la la, tra la la, Chesapeake Bay.
They start off strong with a line that has content and flows naturally. Then they think oh hell, I have to do another line. And since they don’t have anything to add, or whatever they were going to say next doesn’t rhyme, they shrug and write a line of no value whatsoever. It doesn’t add content, it doesn’t provoke thought, it doesn’t even have a satisfying rhyme. It’s wet garbage, a landfill after a rainstorm.
You don’t have to be like this! You can be a good person!
Don’t waste space in your poems. Go through them after they’re written and rip out anything that doesn’t contribute to the theme. Make friends with the Delete button. If one line is clearly less valuable than the lines around it, erase it before anyone sees. Demand that every word earn its keep. That’s the spirit of poetry: to have spent time on each word, each phrase, each comma and line break so that nothing is wasted.
People read poetry slowly and hunt for meaning in every stroke of the pen. Write it even more slowly, then. Reward them. Sound like a lot of work? Yeah. It’s poetry, not consulting.
There may be a good poem somewhere in the world that uses the phrase “all around,” but I sure haven’t seen it. To clarify, I’m not talking about the adjective “all-around” (as in, the play was an all-around success) or Tears for Fears’s famous preposition (“all around me are familiar faces”). I’m talking about the adverb phrase “all around.” He ran all around. She jumped all around. They moped all around in a daze.
What is the siren song of “all around?” Why does it appear in (by my estimate) nearly 50% of bad poems? Well, for starters, it’s a three-syllable metrical foot where the first syllable can be stressed or unstressed, so it’s an easy way to end a line in almost any meter. And round is one of the most rhymable syllables in the English language, so it seems like you’re setting yourself up for success on the next line. To cap it all off, you can put “all around” after almost any action. It wants you to believe it can turn a simple verb into something whimsical. He danced is historical nonfiction; he danced all around is a folktale. And it’s especially versatile because it does all that without changing the facts of the sentence in any way.
So what’s the problem with “all around?” Frankly, it’s boring. It’s general-purpose. It says, “I wanted to end this line three syllables ago but it was too short so here’s a big pile of nothing.” It says, “I don’t want to think about this anymore.” It’s the opposite of good poetry: it’s a shortcut.
There’s always a better way to end a line. Spend some time with the poem and figure out what that is.
You do not have to keep a steady rhythm in poetry. You don’t have to rhyme. You don’t need line breaks. Poetry is recognizable as poetry even when written in paragraph form. In other words, it’s impossible to tell if something is a poem by squinting at it.
Even so, a lot of people twist themselves into pretzels trying to make their poems fit a specific meter or rhyme scheme. Obviously meter and rhyme are useful tools and many readers enjoy them, but if they make the poem worse you should get rid of them.
(Pro tip: if you take away the meter and rhyme and whatever’s left isn’t poetry, you never had a poem in the first place.)
Writing in a strict form—say, the iambic pentameter Shakespeare favored—isn’t a process of writing what you want to say, then pulling out your thesaurus and changing words until it has ten syllables per line. That’s how you end up with awkward, creepy, unpoetic verse. You might get away with it in a children’s book…only if the illustrations are really good though.
If you want something that flows, something that uses the meter to its advantage, you need to be willing to write and rewrite each line, wearing your eraser down to a nub until you come up with lines that don’t feel like LEGOs in your mouth.
Something I really admire in the work of Robert Frost is that occasionally I’ll read one of his poems start to finish and realize I didn’t notice a rhyme scheme. When I read back through it, sure enough it’s ABAB or something like that. But he pulled it off so smoothly I missed it on the first read. That’s the gold standard: structure so fitting and natural the reader might not ever see it.
Again, this is hard work. If your poem is full of vapid interjections, “oh!“s and “truly"s and “What did I see?“s, if you’re using “do” and “some” as empty words to fill gaps in the rhythm, then I know you’re not doing the work.
If you have to make a sentence weird so it’ll fit in your poem, don’t.
A common way people do this is with “Yoda clauses,” moving the natural end of a clause to the beginning:
While in the store I was,
A barrel I did buy.
These lines practically beg to be recited in a sing-song voice. You have to know that’s bad poetry. It’s the 21st century, for crying out loud. Nobody has spoken like that for a hundred years (nobody except for Yoda). Do the right thing and talk like a normal human being. Talk like yourself. Don’t make it weird.
Side note: I went to the store to buy a barrel is a great first line for a poem. Real farm-and-country vibe. Feel free to use that.
One tidy little idea
If you can sum up a poem in one line then it should have been one line long in the first place. Good poetry resists summarization.
What do I mean by that? Remember that poetry’s most important ingredient is time. A poem is a promise: the poet is telling you that they’ve put genuine effort into each particle of the poem’s composition, and if you reciprocate you’ll find there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. A poem rewards a second, third, and fourth reading. You can turn it over in your mind for a day or two and still feel like you haven’t fully grokked it.
Bad poetry, by contrast, is shallow. It’s used up in a single reading. You could fit the main idea on a sticky note and you wish the author had done so. Bad poetry has a single clear-cut goal and achieves it with all the finesse of a bull moose in mating season. If you wake up tomorrow and say “I really think people should be nicer to each other” you don’t have an idea for a poem, you have the starting point for an idea for a poem. And once you’ve traced it to its roots, found an apt metaphor, played with it from multiple perspectives, pondered it for a few hours, maybe you’ll have enough ideas to write something satisfying.
A poem is not a sneaky way to get a point across. (If you’re feeling preachy today, for the love of all that is good and holy stay away from your poetry notebook.) It’s not about making a slogan more memorable or telling a quaint story. A poem is not simply an outpouring of strong emotion, though it may begin that way. Rather, it’s a complex and detailed thing, a thing that asks questions by making statements, a jumping-off point for a hundred different trains of thought.
The next time you’re standing in a prairie in springtime and a sense of natural awe comes over you, please do write a poem. But don’t just describe what you’re seeing and feeling and call it a day. Put in some work! Look at things more closely. Find the hidden details. Make connections. Ask yourself deep questions. We’ve all been in a prairie in springtime before—nobody’s impressed by that. What will make your poem worth reading is the way you explore that moment, the way you make it human, the way you take it to new and unfamiliar places.
Lack of imagery
A poem invokes not just thought but also vicarious experience. Sensory words—sights, sounds, textures and so on—are an essential way to bring the reader along with you.
We walk through the forest can be a good line in the right poem. You don’t want to waste space on something that doesn’t deserve it. But if you’re really trying to bring the reader into the moment, you can do more:
There is mud beneath our feet, pine needles coated in it, flecks across the bottoms of our jeans.
I could workshop that one for a while but you get the point.
Bad poems don’t give imagery its due. They may fail to use it entirely, or they may embarrass it with too many adjectives:
There is brown, wet, dirty mud beneath our feet, yellow pine needles partway coated in it, drying flecks across the bottoms of our Walmart-brand blue jeans.
What an awful line. I had to come up for air, like, twice. Everybody knows the ingredients for mud, right? And mud is pretty much brown. So before you even got to the first noun your time was being wasted. Don’t do this. Use imagery to set the stage, not to make sure we all live on the same planet as you.
“What if there’s no imagery to tell?” you might ask. “What if I’m writing a love poem or tossing around abstract ideas?”
I’m not familiar with a single published poem that lacks imagery. Shakespeare wrote over 150 love poems, every single one dripping with the stuff. Frost’s “Fire and Ice” is entirely abstract but still leans on fire and ice as condensed imagery to illustrate his ideas. Even Carrie Fountain’s “Poem Without an Image” eventually comes around.
If a poem has no imagery, it’s probably an essay in disguise. So write an essay.
Being a list instead of a poem
A list of feelings is not a poem. A list of feelings! Is not! A poem!
It’s wild that I have to say so, but you wouldn’t believe how often I’ve seen it happen. Lists are a valid grammatical structure—Walt Whitman was fond of them, for example—but as with anything else they should be contextualized and interesting. You don’t get to tear a page out of your “feelings journal” and call it a poem.
Poems are not just tall, thin Tupperware for words. You can’t chuck your thoughts onto a page like so many dirty potato peels and expect them to be worth reading. Poems are more like spiderwebs: carefully crafted, interconnected threads that catch words along their edges.
If you’re in your feelings lately, great. Write that poem. But use your feelings as a starting point, not a destination. Bring in some poetic devices. Weave ideas together. Tell a story that’s deeper than it seems. Do something original.
When someone finishes reading your poem they should be left with something to think about, a mental or emotional puzzle to solve. If all you’ve done is tell them how sad you are, you haven’t given them that.
To sum up, there are only two things that can make a poem good: time and attention to detail. Your poem is not done when it all rhymes or fits the form. It’s done when every inch of it has something new to offer.
Most poems are relatively short. That doesn’t mean you’re getting off easy, it means you’re working under a microscope. How much meaning, how much depth can you fit into that space? How much can you say while leaving it unsaid? That’s the whole game. Say less, mean more.
Sometimes you may start with the intention of writing a love poem, a devotion poem, a memorial poem perhaps, but by the end discover you’ve complicated things well beyond the simplicity of your intentions. Good! Love and worship and loss are never as simple as we wish them to be. Poetry isn’t afraid to observe and explore the complications of a thought or feeling—in fact, those complications are what make it human. Don’t be disappointed that the end result is a little too messy to deliver with a bouquet of roses. Be grateful that it’s helped you discover something real.