On Craft

Advice For Beginning Poets

by Wesley McNair

Ultimately, every poem is a love poem. Write out of humor, sorrow or rage, but write out of love.

If you want your poem to matter to the reader, make sure it is involved--by subject, application of subject, or both--with people other than yourself, even if your poem speaks with an "I."

How should your poem begin? Where possible, "in medias res," as Horace recommended.

Free verse makes its appeal not only to the ear, but to the eye. Break lines and arrange stanzas to show the mind at work on the page shaping the thought of your poem. The space around the poem in free verse often has its own visual meaning. Make that wordlessness articulate.

Mary Oliver speaks of the poem as an "enactment." Frank Bidart says that the poem imitates an action and is itself an action. In developing your poem, find the action and a climactic order for it, considering at the same time how the action may be shaped to suggest the larger meanings you have in mind. As you write, make action and your syntax unfold as one.

But don't start writing a poem too early. Scribble ideas, lists of images, random lines to invite your right brain -- the dreaming and conceiving self -- into the process of finding your subject and approach. Resist the left brain, in love with tidiness and completion, until the preliminary writing you have done will not be easy to organize.

The poet does not speak in generalities, but in a code of images; thus Muriel Rukeyser links poetry to painting and other "arts of sight." Your reader should, in the fullest sense of the expression, see what you mean.

Though will not be possible in your poem unless you give the feet a place to stand, the hands something to touch, the eyes a world to see.

Poetry is written to be spoken. Avoid writing anything you would not actually say in a reasonably articulate conversation.

The true poetic sentence unfolds, as Robert Frost once suggested, and to unfold will normally require a climactic order. Make your sentence climactic, and break to stress its unfolding.

A more appropriate term than line breaking for free verse composition might be sentence-breaking, since our purpose through end-stopping and enjambment is finally to reconstruct the sentence. Enjambed more than once, a statement in free verse may come to resemble a question.

Strive for tension in your free verse poem between the restless and inquisitive sentence and the line that pulls back on it. In conversation, Charles Simic once described the tension this way: "The line is Buddha; the sentence is Socrates."

Allow your sentence as it moves line to line the freedom to surprise you and help you make up your mind--to discover what you didn't know you knew.

Think of your free verse poem as a musical score, in the way Denise Levertov recommended, using lines to emphasize vocal rhythm and the pitch of intonation, and line-breaks as short intervals of silence, or rests.

Mainly, break the lines of your free verse on nouns, verbs, or the words that describe them.

As the poem begins to take shape, there is always a moment when it becomes smarter than you are, and you must be just smart enough to ask it what it wants to do.

The main difficulty once a poem is in motion is to make it as particular and as universal as you can, both at the same time.

To carry the reader to a new place in thought, the turn -- that moment in the lower half of a poem when the action opens to its larger meanings -- is an important device. Study the sonnet, the first poem in English with a turn (Shakespeare and Keats are a good starting point), to see how the device works. Then study the more associative poems of free verse, in which turns often multiply.

The old advice: understate. Describing a suicide, the culmination of his poem about Richard Cory, E. A. Robinson simply tells us that Cory "went home and put a bullet through his head." Telling about another gruesome event, the killing of a character with a large rock, William Golding says only, "His skull opened."

The poem being a riddle, its title shouldn't give the answer to the riddle. It must stand outside the poem telling what it is about, but at the same time be part of the poem, contributing to its mystery, as though it were the poem's first line. (Often the best titles for poems come from their turns or endings, where the deeper meanings are.) Beware of other answers to the riddle, which, in the unrevised poem, often appear at the beginning or the end.


A poem must mean at least two things at once. Better poems have more than two meanings. The best ones have many, which change according to the reader's mood and period of life and can never be fully fathomed.

Because our most demanding poems ask us to think in ways that are entirely new to us, they are often hard to conclude. Allow your poem the time it needs for the right conclusion--which means, allow yourself time to complete the new thought.

If you have doubts about the poem you have written, the kind of doubts that make you want to ask a friend what he or she thinks, don't bother. Trust the doubts.

The capacity to revise determines the true writer. Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished.

A poet needs to know what the rules are to understand, when inspiration requires it, how to break them. Don't be afraid to get yourself into trouble with your subject matter or your form...In new struggles, beware of strategies learned in the last battle...Beware, above all, the artful dodge.

In one of the most remarkable passages of "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman warns us that a facility with language may interfere with the truth we have to tell. Addressing his own poetic speech, he declares, "you conceive too much of articulation."

Write your way down into the poem and let it well up in you, revision by revision, until it is all yours. Showing your poem to someone else before it belongs to you in this way is a little like what showing his face to the camera was for the Indian, since if you do so, part of your poem will belong to another, and will be difficult to get back.

Be careful not to title either your poem or your collection of poems too early, lest the title become a thesis ordering you to do things that obstruct the work's true impulse.

Each day life will whisper into your ear some little or large thing that must be done before turning to the poem. Yet next week, when your poem is still unwritten, you will not remember why these things were so important, or even what they were. Write your poem.

In this period of the public reading, your poem may have its most successful publication from the lectern; yet good readers are few. The best engage their audience expressively, yet without histrionics, speaking the poem's lines in such a way as to let the poem speak for itself.

Most effective poems in free verse break lines to emphasize the pauses the voice might make as the speaker "thinks" the poem's sentences; therefore, the effective public reading will be slow enough to give these pauses the appropriate vocal emphasis, and fast enough to make the audience aware that there is a sentence underway. The audience must be able to hear the tension between the sentence pressing ahead, and the line tugging back on it.

I have just spent a day with three participants in a nearby summer workshop, who have participated in past summer workshops. They are full of talk about who said what about which story in their shared class. They drop the names of writing teachers and ponder their reputations. And of course they carry their manuscripts--some stories, the first draft of a novel, a sheaf of poems--in the hope that someone important will read them and make them famous. What I don't have the courage to tell them--what they need to be told--is that writing is not a social activity, but a solitary one. They need to go home and practice being by themselves for long periods of time with pencil and paper.

The Americanization of writing over the past forty years has involved first the invention of the term "creative writing" for all imaginative work; second, the formulation of a how-to process for creative writing; and third, the socialization of the creative writing process through the workshop. Those who take part in the resulting system should be aware it offers only one way to become a writer, and that way is relatively untried.

Yet teachers can give memorable guidance. At the English School at Bread Loaf, John Nims, who taught creative writing in the old style, would sometimes read a student's poem aloud in class, then look up over his glasses and remark: "There's less here than meets the eye." Once he defined the poem as "a real voice in a real body in a real world."

Just finishing his stint as a teacher at a writers' conference, Bill Roorbach explains to me how difficult it is to convince students to do the deep-down, extensive revision that manuscripts in progress need. The 21-year-old, who is in love with his work and has not yet known revision in his own life, can't see the use of it. The 65-year-old, who has revised his life often, can see the use of it, but questions whether he has the energy and time the job requires. "I tried to tell an older woman she did have the energy and time, in spite of her misgivings," Roorbach says. "After my long pep talk, I discovered I was talking to myself about my own novel."

Visiting the University of New Hampshire one day in the early sixties, I was drawn to the doorway of a lecture hall by a passionate voice speaking about poetry. It turned out the voice belonged to a young man in a suit, whose subject was the damage T. S. Eliot had done to American verse; I learned only later the man was W. D. Snodgrass, invited because he had won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. After he had derided Eliot's obscurantism and that of his models, the French symbolists, he put forth a new model, Geoffrey Chaucer, pointing out Chaucer's accessibility and his sympathy for everyday life. For me, feeling the tyranny of Eliot's influence, the lecture was inspirational. Months later, I would find it echoed in Karl Shapiro's In Defense of Ignorance. Years later, I would find a way to put the ideas I heard to use. But listening to a beardless Snodgrass in that doorway, I saw for the first time the possibility of my own poetry.

Right in the middle of my excitement after publishing my first book of poems, an aging Richard Eberhart made me consider the difficulty of acquiring readers for what I had written. Had I ever thought of how hard it was to make my mark in a period when there were so many poets? he wanted to know. "When I began, it was easy," he said. "There were only a few of us."

Nothing is harder for writers young or old than to keep faith with their work despite rejection. For assistance, memorize this by Robert Francis on the subject of editorial judgment: "In the eyes of eternity, it may be the editor and not the little poem that was weighed in the balance and found wanting."

It is difficult to know and accept the materials your life experience has given you for your poetry -- easier to avoid them as threatening, or question them as inadequate. Yet you will have no others. Embrace them; they are the source of your truth and power as a poet.

No one teaches us more about the value of the heart in the creation of our spiritual and creative life than John Keats in his letters. In order to develop the soul, he once wrote, it is necessary for the heart to "feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways."

The poet's difficult contract: To have heartbreaking powers, the world must first break your heart. No poet ever said, "You may enter my heart, but first wipe your feet and agree to behave."

Your highest calling is not to publish your poems or become famous for them, but to shape your experience into a vision of life. This will take as long as you have on earth. Be patient. Don't lacerate yourself. And keep in mind battle cries of poets who have come before you. Walt Whitman: "stand up for the stupid and the crazy." Adrienne Rich: "break open the locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire." Muriel Rukeyser: "we are ready for the poems of our true life."

How can we understand the world that has been given to us? From the beginning, spiritual advisers have told us the only way is to settle down and be still. The stillness that the act of writing itself requires is only the beginning of this process. Be still not only in the room where you write, but in the place where you live, coming to know it by your unknowing relationship with it. In this way, you will come to know the world.