Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To Obey. Or Not To Obey.

Mary Biddinger recently posted some of her personal rules for writing poetry and challenged others to post their rules. Greg Rappleye accepted the challenge. Now here’s my list of do’s and don’ts.

1. No poem may be called a “poem” in the title. Likewise, no references in the poem to the act of writing a poem.

2. No using the f-word in a poem. Not because it’s obscene, but because it’s too easy, too overused, and too boring.

3. Try new forms. Learn from them, but don’t be a slave to them.

4. Scatter rhymes throughout the lines rather than positioning them at line ends.

5. Draft quickly; revise slowly; submit more slowly. Let several weeks pass before sending out. No poem before its time.

6. Find the format / shape of the poem only after multiple drafts, when thinking is just about over, when I’ve unearthed my material. Latching onto the format too early inhibits creative thinking.

7. Research my subject for useful facts and cool words. Import some of that into the poem.

8. Don’t be a cornball. Get rid of the bluebird and substitute a hunk of granite.

9. End with an image rather than a piece of information. Violations permitted.

10. Go over each line, interrogating each word. Improve the diction.

11. Let no one dictate what I may write about. Defy their impositions.

12. Decline to tell the story behind the poem. Withholding the truth shall set me free.

I prefer to think of the above as guidelines rather than rules. But I think it's good to have some; then you can work with them or against them.

So what are your personal rules? Or do you not have any?

Bookmark and Share


  1. Thanks for posting your rules, Diane. I have to say we agree on many points, though I may have a poem w the word poem in the title. I generally get squeamish, very squeamish, when I come across a poem about writing a poem. Ech!

    Thanks for freeing me from the obligation of ever again telling the story behind a poem. Amen!

    A few of my rules:

    1. Trust your own voice; dig down deep to get it onto the page.

    2. Be clear (unless you have a really, really good reason not to be).

    3. Let the poem go where it wants to go--and get out of the way of it.

    4. Don't feel obligated to "tell the truth," "the way it happened," etc., though sometimes you might have to be exact about every detail (and you should know how to do that, too).

    5. Each poem we write creates its own set of rules, its own logic, its own problems to overcome. Adhere to those.

  2. Great post!

    I'll have to think about my list (and I'm kind of nervous that it might be long--in an uptight, embarrassing way), but I'll start with these two technical details.

    1. Never repeat a word unless you intend to.

    (see what I mean?)

    2. Don't throw in just a couple of random end rhymes (even slant end rhymes). If you're going to rhyme, follow some kind of rhyme scheme--even if it's your own. Otherwise, find new words.

    3. Don't call a poem "Untitled." (For me, this applies to other art forms, too.)

    4. This one I learned recently during a class taught by Nance Van Winkle: When first writing out a poem, try not to know what it's about for as long as possible. More of a tip than a rule, but I try to keep it in mind and use it.

  3. I particularly like your rule number 11. That's the one I would agree with most!

    Please - what is a cornball? Sounds like a breakfast cereal...

    I was writing about this issue of rules with a couple of other bloggers (back in my 5th July post if you're interested). It brought up some interesting issues! Most of all I think it is important that we are all allowed to have our own rules...for me a poet's freedom is worth fighting for!

  4. I have secret rules for myself, yes, but they change so often I'm not ever sure what they are today. . . .

    A most interesting post, and good conversation to engage in as I prepare once again to lead a poetry workshop.

    At any rate, I would like to speak up for poems about poetry, poems with the word "poem" in the title, and so forth. If nothing else, following such rules would deprive us retroactively of a lot of cool stuff by Whitman, Stevens, WC Williams, et al.

    And I would love to see some conversation about *why* so many poets are so adamant about the no-poems-about-poetry "rule.'

    David Graham

  5. Martha--re #1--dig down deep and maybe find a voice you/I didn't know was down there. Re #3 and #4--yes, the poet must put herself in the service of the poem.

    Joannie--with you absolutely in regards to #3. Not titling always seems lazy to me. Also kind of arrogant--my poem is so great it doesn't require a title. I feel the same way about people who go by one name.

    Rachel--a cornball is someone given to sentimentality, eg, bluebirds, birthday cakes, hearts and flowers. Greeting card stuff. I have a tendency to be a cornball, so it's something I consciously work against.

    David--I don't think that avoiding poems about poems or not using the word "poem" in the title would deprive us of earlier poets who've used the word and written ars poetica. I for one would never surrender the Renaissance sonneteers whose poems were often about poems. But that's part of why I think we /I should avoid that, ie, it's been done and redone so much that it's become a cliche. I think that's why the bias exists. And yet I have to also say that my best known poem is titled "My Husband Discovers Poetry," and I do consider that poem my ars poetica. So you see why I prefer the term "guidelines" to "rules." And why I say it's good for us to know our own quirks so we can occasionally work against them.

  6. If I have a rule it is to try not to let the energy of the poem flag - to avoid verbal redundancy.

    If it doesn't excite me it sure isn't going to excite anybody else. I would like to think a good poem takes the reader by surprise: ideally, it makes it possible for him/her to imagine things that were not possible prior to it being written.

    I like your rule 12, even though I've broken it twice, recently. It's a humbling experience, thinking about rules...

    Another one: often what you think is the "best bit" is the bit that has to go.

  7. Awa! This is like ruining my whole mis-interpreted concept on poetry :D thank you very much for this bump of helpful stuff! i'll have to re-start and re-think peotry now because now i actually see how many wrong things i do over and over again :)
    surely to add this blog to my reading list!! thanx again


Let Me Know What You Think

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...