Sunday, August 03, 2008

Unwritten Poetry Rules

Mary Biddinger asks whether we have any "unwritten" poetry rules we either always adhere to or think very carefully about before transgressing. Here are a few thoughts about my own work:

1. I find overt rhyme annoying, and think that it seldom works in contemporary poetry. Too often, linguistic nuances are lost and rhymes are strained; reliant from inapt similes to which a complete response is "No, it's not like that at all" (e.g., the work of Joshua Mehigan and Adam Kirsch). But the more I work on a poem, the more I am likely to find slant rhymes, near rhymes and the like in my own poems. This is never intentional.

2. I rarely write in strict forms, but admire many of the conventions of forms, and use them in my work. For example, if I write a twelve-line poem or an eighteen-line poem, I will almost always attempt to expand or contract that poem into a fourteen-line proto-sonnet. I will also attempt to "turn" the poem at line 8. The poem is almost always better when I push it against these (and similar) formal constraints.

3. I am a poet of place, and can write knowledgeably about very few places--the upper Midwest, certain rivers, parts of Florida, the kitchen, my wood lot, abandoned factories, marginal fields, the landscape of weather, the interiors of a few big-city museums.

4. I am wary of portraying myself as the "hero" or the "victim" in my poetry. I am neither. I am most often a fool. A poet who chooses to disclose the self has an obligation (at least when writing about an adult life) to implicate the self.

5. I am more naturally a narrative-lyric poet than a true lyric poet. My reader will almost always get a story from me--sometimes more than one.

6. I like nouns and details--the names of animals, birds, trees, flowers, rock formations, soil types, etc. I spend a lot of time researching my work. Many of the details I work out do not make it into the final draft, but the poem is (or to me, seems) far more satisfying, confident and informed by my research. With that said, I often change--or make up--facts if doing so is in service to the poem.

7. I believe in the flush-left margin. I love the look of those slab-like poems that Philip Levine writes. I revise away from that structure in my own work (if at all) only toward the end of the drafting process, and with reluctance.

8. I revise from complexity into mono-syllables. My poetic vocabulary is more anglo-saxon than latinate.

9. My poems are too often linear and I work hard to make them elliptical.

10. I would rather revise than write a first draft, and I can always tell whether a first draft can be revised into a real poem. I rarely write a good poem without already knowing the end of the poem. I do not think this is necessarily a good thing.

And you?


Blogger Talia said...

I think # 10 is a good one, mainly because it is the opposite of me. I never know the end of my poem once I start writing it. And I'd much rather start a whole new poem than spend too much time on an old one. I'm so impatient and non-perfectionist.

Also, I've been hung up on 10 syllables per line for the last several months. Perhaps because it's easier to have such a rule than to think too much about line breaks.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Very interesting list, Greg! I think I share a lot of them, including love of nouns and details and also love of the left margin (for better or worse). It's interesting to me that the archetypal avant-garde writer, Gertrude Stein, talked about poets loving nouns and prose writers loving verbs.

I wish I were more a poet of place. You'd think I would be--I've lived in the same place (Northern California) all my life!

I seem to get slightly more narrative as I get older. My theory is that as we get older and start to realize that our life is going to end someday, writing that goes from beginning to middle to end (i.e. narrative) starts to make more sense--much as we might prefer to go on living in an eternal lyrical moment!

5:15 PM  
Blogger Nin Andrews said...

I can never stick to rules, but I love to read them. I love your list.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

I have a rule of three that's more of a habit than a rule. I have three examples or three metaphors or three similar images that usually come out in longer poems that have parallel structure. I can't get away from it.

I don't rhyme because I can't rhyme so as a rule, I avoid rhyme.

Stealing is okay. That's a rule everyone should have.

6:38 PM  
Blogger mariya said...

Sometimes accidentally within lines. But not on purpose. I feel slightly embarrassed that I never write in form, for some reason. It's just not my thing.

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7:07 AM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Whenever anyone asks me what kind of poet you are, I always emphasize your use of geography (the south and the midwest) and your use of narrative. I think those are your strengths.

love, h

11:04 AM  
Blogger Busstogate said...

Mind if I steal this post to use with the poetry club I advise at the high school level?

I'd like to post it here:

You'd have to register to see what I mean, but it is just the online forums I use with my classes and a place for my students to post and critique poems

11:49 AM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...


Hey, be my guest!

And thanks!

11:54 AM  
Blogger Macy Swain said...

Enjoyable list and set of responses. I've been thinking about it. Recently I was trying to decide on my definition of rhythm, and it occurred to me that my drafts have a strong, dominant iambic pentameter leaning. This, to my ear, sounds "good." It embarrasses me to realize that my first poetry, before I had any capability to judge, when as a baby and child all I did was hear and absorb, was the Shakespearean rhythms of the King James Version and the meters of old Protestant hymns. So I'm in a two-pronged project: to accept this deepseated history, and to challenge it in the flow of my lines.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Susan Och said...

Oh dear. I thought it was rules for brain-to-mouth poetry, the kind that never gets written down, like when I'm running the stick on a dice game and calling the numbers as the dice fall, rhyming stream of consciousness style, except I've been calling dice for years and committing poetry for much longer than that so it's all old as well as new.

The classic call, with its double entendre, goes:

Ten, hard ten,
the ladies' friend...

except you can't get away with saying that anymore (sexual harassment, and besides I AM a lady) so I'll say:

Ten, hard ten
Everybody's got a friend
In Pennsylvania,
at least that's what the license plate says...

and then, if the base dealers are still busy paying, I might go back to rhyming the ten:

You'll get paid, sir
we don't know when.

and in all that, I'm pretty much following rules one through six, while allowing the old timers to remember the classic call, even if I didn't say it.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Very interesting list, Greg. I can strongly relate to many of them, especially 1, 2, 4, and 6. Come and see my list! I played a bit fast and loose with the parameters of the discussion: it became a bit of a manifesto. Chalk that up to late night tiredness and sloppy internet skimming.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Dominic Rivron said...

I like your third rule. One can only write from experience, however "processed" the end result is. I try to assume that there are more good ideas out there in the world around me waiting to be discovered than there are in my head. As I live in a rural community, and so much poetry has been written about the countryside, making something new of that world sometimes feels to be quite a challenge.

9:27 PM  

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