The Keats-Shelley Blog

23 November 2018

Will Kemp’s 16 Rules for Poetry

I don’t want to get too prescriptive here, since part of writing is working things out for yourself and making your own rules, so that you become the writer only you can be, with your own unique voice and take on life. And as with all Art, taste is subjective…  

But few would disagree that good poems engage, sustain interest and (perhaps above all) resonate. And no poem is going to get published or win a prize if it doesn’t engage and enrich readers. As such, here are some pointers about writing I have found to be true, and hope they help.

1. Find your own writing method. Some feel poems are best written over time, as thoughts occur; others feel they are best done in a short burst under pressure (e.g. in writing workshops), as this focuses the mind and can engender a stream of consciousness with real energy. Try both, and find what works for you. You may develop a hybrid that is better than either. 

2. Find your subject. The set theme of the Prize does this in part for you, but you still need an angle. Is your take on the theme happy, sad, funny, wry, dark, subversive, imagined or other?  The route chosen will largely determine the tone and form of your poem, and influence its structure too. 

3. Read, read, read. How have other poems addressed the subject you want to write about?  Look for ideas, and keep your radar on: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it” (Jack London).

4. Don’t get it right, get it written. When you feel you’ve got a concept, sketch out some notes and draft a poem. See where it takes you. Don’t worry about getting it right first time, or the ending; you can hone it later, and the ending may only come out of the poem itself in due course.

5. Make it real. Convey the tangible, physical world by using the senses, but sparingly – a poem with all five in can look formulaic and false. Write what you’d say, using phrases and colloquialisms from everyday speech: don’t write “the mat was sat upon by the cat” if you wouldn’t say it. 

6. Show, don’t tell. Don’t recount events and describe places in their entirety, but focus on creating specific scenes and moments in the reader’s mind: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” (Chekhov).  

7. Make language work hard. Poems are often not demanding enough in terms of syntax, rhythm, imagery, form, diction etc. And can be let down by just one word. So strive to find the mot juste. But don’t over-write, or over-do devices (e.g. alliteration), which can look formulaic. 

8. Keep it short. Good poems often take place in one place and within a short timescale; bad poems often flit about, confusing and losing the reader. So set a poem in one place and arrive late/finish early. And don’t outstay your welcome: a poem is a snap-shot, not a full-length film. Less is more. 

9. Make it yours. Respect the greats, but don’t be enslaved by them. Avoid clichés and jaded poetry words and phrases which may alienate your (modern) reader. Ensure your language is fresh and your own so that it nails what you are trying to say: “Seek paths untrodden till now, to discover fresh and pure springs and pluck new flowers” (Kallimarkos). 

10. End as you began. You want an impact ending to ensure the poem goes out singing. But what isn’t said is often more powerful than what is. And sometimes the quiet, incidental ending is the most effective as it lets readers work things out for themselves.

11. Read it aloud. It may feel daft talking to a potted plant, but you may also stumble over a word that doesn’t seem right phonetically, or instinctively come up with a better alternative. 

12. Edit, edit, edit. Be ruthless here. Shake out as many definite and indefinite articles (the, an) as you can. Be hard on tautological errors (e.g. “they arrived in succession one after the other”). Get rid of your pearls (i.e. precious passages that don’t fit with the tone and meaning of the whole). Trust the reader to get the meaning. Cut abstract nouns she/he can’t see or hear. Avoid sentimentality. Delete anything non-essential: if you take a word out, and the poem doesn’t fall apart, then it shouldn’t be there. But never throw away earlier drafts: you often need to return to your original mind-set when editing. 

13. Look at structure. Since every word and line should be necessary (i.e. “justified”), the same is true of every stanza, which may be best thought of as a unit of sense serving a function as a specific stage in the plot or “structure” of a poem. 

14. Get feedback. Share your draft poem with others you trust and respect (especially fellow poets) to see what they think. Don’t get defensive or explain your poem, just listen to them and take it like a troubadour. Remember it’s yours, not theirs, but if something isn’t working you need to amend it. Let the dust settle, then act on whatever criticism still feels right. 

15. Leave the title until last. Titles are a pig. They are the reader’s first contact with a poem, but often the poet’s last. The best ones are slightly vague, ironic and open-ended, but always intriguing, and often come from within the final poem – which may be very different to the original concept... 

16. Delay, delay, delay. When you think you’ve finished, think again. Put the poem away for a month then return to it afresh. A good poem will usually develop incrementally, and have an incubation period like anything else that is truly alive. Above all, make sure it works as a whole. 

Will Kemp, 7.10.18