Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Poem about a Poem Might Be a Poem for the Birds

Kwame Dawes, the editor of Prairie Schooner, has penned a blog piece entitled Memos to Poets: A Twitter Journey. This is a fantastic list of 110 tips for poets, all of them full of wisdom. I jumped on #4:

Only one poem about writing poems a year. They are all the same poem written when we have nothing to say.

I could not agree more with this. I am so sick of poems about poems. So many of them have been written that each new one feels like a cliché. Each time I come across yet one more, I groan, Oh no, not this again. I often just move right to the next poem.

Two offenses that particularly bug me:

Violation #1: The poem that titles itself with the word "poem." For example, we might find "Poem about Birds." What a lazy title! Such a title is evidence of a poet with a disengaged imagination. And am I such a stupid reader that I won't know this is a poem unless I'm told? Can't I tell just by looking at the poem that it's a poem? Isn't the appearance, the shape of a poem one of its distinguishing characteristics?

So what's this poet supposed to do with his or her dull title? Brainstorm a list of better titles.

Alternatives to "Poem": Meditation, Song, A Theory of, Musings, Contemplation, Daydream, Reflections, A Study of, Pondering, Ode to, In Praise of, A Curse Against.

Just constructing such a list might suggest new ideas for the poem as well as for the title. Perhaps the poet will decide, for example, that "Birds" is rather vague and focus the poem instead on Robins, Goldfinches, or Mourning Doves.

A few examples from the past: "The Lark Ascending" (George Meredith), "To a Skylark" (Shelley), "Ode to a Nightingale" (Keats).

John Frederick Nims got away with titling a poem "Love Poem." And what a great poem it is. But he did it, so you shouldn't.

Violation #2: The poem that appears to be about one topic, then towards the end announces itself as a poem. For example, the poet is writing a lovely poem of description. He's evoking the setting so well I almost feel transported. And then comes something like this: And that's why I decided today to sit here and write this poem about blah, blah, blah.

What a cheap way to end a poem. What an evasion. What a disappointment. What laziness. It's like one of those short stories that instead of offering a real resolution ends with the main character waking up from a dream.

This poet needs to continue to write that poem. Get into the spot where the flop begins and write some more. Spend days, weeks on it. No stopping until something is zinging and singing.

I should perhaps confess that my best traveled poem has the word "Poetry" in the title. Having done that once, I will never do it again. Why not? Because I've done it. Dawes allows you one poem about writing poems a year. I allow you one in a lifetime.


  1. Heh! Somebody had to say it Diane. I feel the same way! Also about when people write poems about how their day is going. I skip it after the first few lines.

  2. While I too often groan at yet another poem about writing poetry, there is always the exception in poetry, which is what I love about it. Making hard-and-fast rules about what a poem is or should be, or how it should or shouldn't be titled, veers into the kind of academic exercise that Robin Williams' character eschewed in "Dead Poets Society," a great film about the freedom that poetry can offer. It's tempting to lay down laws about poetry but poetry itself, and poets, will always find the crack in the nut's shell that offers up the true seed.

    1. Thus the "Might" in my post title and the reference to my own poem at the end.


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