“Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat.” Osbert Sitwell
A surprising number of people like to write poetry, try to write poetry, or want to write poetry. I’m not quite sure why that is, but a growing number of people find poetry attractive. Here are five mistakes that are quite commonly made when approaching poetry for the first time. The reason I feel qualified to even talk about them is because I have fallen into these howlers plenty of times myself.
1. Thinking strong emotion produces good poetry
The first one is thinking that poetry is all about expressing emotion. In fact, many people seem to believe that the strength of the poetry lies in how intense the emotion is. Here’s an example of a heartfelt poem such as you might stumble across on any of the popular poetry websites:
I brought you apples, pears and oranges
And you threw them back at me.
So I wandered among the bluebells on the cliff.
My heart was bursting inside of me and I wondered if
I could ever regain your love,
Which came to me once like a lightning bolt from above.
Oh where can I go with my passion and pain?
I stand out here in the pouring rain.
You are my love, my heart and my soul.
You are what makes me feel whole.
A gallant effort, and the poem does use metaphor and simile to express… something, but we’re not quite sure what. It appears to be reporting an incident in which the poet, after being pelted with fruit, has a heart attack while wandering about on a cliff in the rain and is hit by a lightning bolt – a kind of primitive defibrillator, if you will. There is obviously some deep emotion at play here, related to unrequited love, but that doesn’t make it a good poem.
2. Defective scansion
One of the most common mistakes that is made in rhyming poetry is not adhering to credible scansion or meter. Scansion can be described as “the dividing of lines of poetry into feet by indicating accents and counting syllables to determine the meter of a poem. It is a means of studying the mechanical elements by which the poet has established his rhythmical effects.” In other words – at least for rhymed poetry – the usual method is to have a set number of syllables in each line. Iambic pentameter for example has ten syllables in each line, alternating short and long, thus: de da de da de da de da de da.
The poem above doesn’t follow any of these rules. Line one has eleven syllables, line two has fourteen, line three has seven, and so on. It is a common practice to produce poems that rhyme, but don’t scan.
3. Leaving yourself difficult rhymes
The tricky thing about rhymed poetry is that you have to make sure you don’t catch yourself out by giving yourself some impossible rhyme to match. In the above poem the poet falls into this gaping hole right at the start, by giving himself the impossible task of finding a word to rhyme with “oranges.” It is a well-known fact that nothing does rhyme with that word in English, so the poet simply ignores it. The key to successful rhyming is reading ahead and working out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, to make sure you never paint yourself into a poetical corner.
4. Having no purpose
Another pitfall is starting to write a poem in the grip of some powerful emotion when you don’t really know what you want to say. I’ve done that a number of times and what I generally end up with is a poem that is vague, confusing and rambles on and on with no destination in view. It’s amazing the amount of time you can waste on this kind of drivel!
The best way to keep your poetry fresh and convincing, I’ve found, is to come up with a theme. Can you summarize in a few words what your poem is supposed to be about? If not, you’re probably destined to be sucked irretrievably down into the quagmire of mind-numbing mumbo jumbo (which is just as difficult to say aloud as it is to read in a poem).
5. Using plain language
This may sound weird, because in most other settings plain language is what people should be striving for, but poetry is different. As mentioned, the above poem does use metaphor and simile to get across what the poet wants to say – albeit somewhat clumsily. If you don’t make use of these and other poetical techniques you can end up, not with a poem, but with an advertising slogan, a news bulletin or a simply paragraph of prose.
Here are a few lines from “Dulce et Decorum Est” written by the First-World-War poet Wilfred Owen:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
That sounds much more effective that simply saying “we were plodding wearily back to the barracks when were attacked with poison gas shells,” now doesn’t it?