Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Writing Poetry combines an accessible introduction to the essential elements of the craft, with a critical awareness of its underpinnings. The authors argue that separating the making of poems from critical thinking about them is a false divide and encourage students to become accomplished critics and active readers of poetic texts.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
In ‘Happy Endings’, celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood writes, ‘So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with’.1 Atwood approaches the act of writing as a stimulating challenge — one that you have embraced by opening this book and wanting to learn, despite the difficulties of ‘the stretch in between’. Like all‘true connoisseurs’, you will come to realize that the challenge never ends, because on some level, composing poetry always feels like an act performed for the first time. As American poet Richard Hugo notes in his writing manual The Triggering Town, ‘you will always be chasing a way to write’.2
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

Foundations

Frontmatter

1. Establishing Practice

Abstract
In our opening chapter, we introduced you to a couple of published poems by former students. We begin this section with another student example. The following poem, by Nick McRae, appeared in the journal DIAGRAM:
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

2. Form and Structure

Abstract
Some poetry-writing exercises frontload form, asking students to compose, for example, a sonnet about a pre-chosen subject, or a sestina using a prescribed set of end-words. In this book, we will not guide you through the structure of a sonnet or list the compositional rules for sestinas and villanelles, ballads and ghazals, and so on. Countless texts devoted to such classificatory impulses already exist. Rather, we contend that the deferral of form actually proves more fruitful than deference to it, since the traditions of formal verse can sometimes breed a premature drive to completion and final polish. ‘Form and Structure’, the title of this chapter, is thus somewhat ironic, since we have already encouraged you to remain committedly detached, to trust your messy junkyard of phrases and imagery, and to ‘ride your drafts’, instead of rushing to formalize or structure your writing.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

3. Voice

Abstract
We begin this chapter with work by American poet Gary Gildner:
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

4. Style

Abstract
At the start of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway offers the following assessment of the mythic central figure, Jay Gatsby: ‘If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him’.1 In much the same way that Nick groups a complex array of specific moves and manners under the general heading ‘personality’, we often organize vast amounts of diverse information under the umbrella word ‘style’. With such a composite term, for instance, we might refer all at once to a person’s clothing, haircut, mode of speech, body language, and outlook on life. The statement ‘I like her style’ suggests a quality that ineffably transcends local particulars. It indicates an overarching Gestalt of various and often competing elements, a seemingly ‘unbroken series’ of acts, attitudes, and assumptions that attract our attention and appear — to use Nick’s phrasing — ‘gorgeous’.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

5. Subject

Abstract
Some writers compose poems in order to expose injustice or shatter enemies — an overbearing boss, an insensitive lover, an institution abusive of power, and so on. Such impulses remain natural and in large part crucial to the making of poems, simply because art is never purely an aesthetic enterprise stripped of real-world struggles or personal crises. Scholar Morse Peckham, in fact, interpreted the entire Romantic movement in terms of what he called ‘cultural transcendence’, the drive of German, British, and American artists to critique culture in order to overcome its stultifying claims on the imagination.1 Still, in increasingly ‘tell all’ Anglo-American cultures — as well as in the aftermath of confessional and Beat poetry, with their forceful representations of personal trauma and social ills — the compulsion of many poets to ‘rage against the machine’, to reveal corruption, or to bear witness to personal or public sufferings, may have reached unprecedented heights. These kinds of urges toward subject matter often leadwriters away from poetics and into polemics, and this shift can seriously compromise one’s ability to create complex verse.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

6. Cultures of Poetry Writing

Abstract
As an introduction to the available cultures of poetry writing, we might begin with the creative-writing classroom, since it offers a complex culture in itself. Certainly, the poetry workshop is a place where creativity is embraced and encouraged, but it may also welcome so-called ‘critical elements’ such as the composition of formal prefaces, memorizations, explications of poems, poetry-book reviews, and so forth. The poetry workshop may, in other words, become a site of intense formal training akin to the medical laboratory or music conservatory. With that in mind, we encourage peer reviewers to embrace the complex exercise of reasoning and critical judgement as these apply to creative development. To function effectively, the poetry workshop must become an arena of what Thomas Carlyle called ‘lynx-eyed acuteness’1 of observation. It must become an environment — a culture — in which commentary remains both respectful and penetrating.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

Backmatter

Speculations

Frontmatter

7. Exploring Possibilities

Abstract
In the first half of this book, we primarily encourage you to follow ‘text-based’ approaches to producing the language, forms, voices, styles, and subjects for poems. Our discussion of writing as an ‘autotelic’ activity — one that remains an end in itself — reinforces the pre-eminence of text-based methods of composition, where poets need to look no further than the language they accumulate through journaling, junkyarding, ‘improv’-ing, and other generative strategies. In the second half of the text, we offer more speculative notions of those same categories (form, voice, style, and subject) by focusing on influences beyond the words on the page. Where the first half dealt primarily with text, the second tends toward discussions of context — those forces that fuel poetic work from ‘outside’ the craft. We invite you, then, to explore the possibilities of situating your creative ‘texts’ in various political, social, and historical ‘contexts’, to start looking past the page and speculating about poetry writing in broader cultural terms.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

8. Form and Structure

Abstract
Of the many different kinds of writers, poets seem most interested in the ‘material’ realities of language. They relish the shapes of words themselves, not to mention the ways in which language can be sculpted into lines and stanzas. They also cherish the musicality of language — its physical properties as sound waves in oral performance and aural reception. As products of visual culture, poems are ‘formed’ and ‘structured’ pieces of language, whereas prose is fundamentally ‘shapeless’ (it simply takes the standard block shape of the page on which it is printed, with necessary margins for readability). As artefacts of oral and aural culture, poems place enormous emphasis on ‘bodying forth’ sound — metre, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and so on. In short, poetry forms language into visibly distinctive shapes and carefully structures words into orchestrated sounds.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

9. Voice

Abstract
When you were a child, did your mother ever ask you to tidy up your room, wash the dishes, or take out the trash? Perhaps you heard, ‘Could you mow the lawn?’ or ‘Help me fold the laundry — please’. No doubt, you were a model child, always obliging and respectful, forever eager to lend a hand. Surely, you never back-talked or muttered a complaint. Well … maybe you did slip up once or twice, momentarily dropping your cherubic goodness and replying with a hint of sarcasm: ‘Whatever you say, Mother’, or ‘I’ll get right on it’, or, simply, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’. If such sarcasm produced a less-than-desirable response (a grounding, perhaps, or a withdrawal of certain privileges), then in true adolescent fashion, you probably disputed the punishment: ‘Why am I being grounded? What did I say?’ To which mom — queen of rhetoricians, master of admonishments — retorted, ‘It’s not what you said but how you said it’.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

10. Style

Abstract
In 1967, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno remarked that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’.1 One might counter this arresting claim by stating that poetry is not simply an extraneous cultural ornament but a critical tool no less sophisticated and potentially useful than the social philosophy practised by Adorno and his colleagues. One might, in fact, imagine the barbarity of not writing poetry in the wake of Nazi totalitarianism and genocidal terror. Certainly, though, poetry must lend an ear to Adorno’s bold assertion and become critically aware: otherwise, the art form opens itself to charges of superfluity and lack of social import. Poetry threatens to become mere window dressing, rather than a viable participant in the creative-critical making and remaking — or ‘styling’ — of culture.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

11. Subject

Abstract
Ron Carlson’s story ‘Bigfoot Stole My Wife’ presents a deadbeat narrator who views his wife’s unannounced disappearance through a sensationalist lens. Turning to ‘strange phenomena’ and ‘unexplained mysteries’ as a way to account for his wife’s sudden absence, he deludes himself into believing that Bigfoot — the hairy proto-human of tabloid journalism — has entered the house and kidnapped her.1 Readers understand that she has left because the speaker is a wholesale loser (lacking discernible work, rising from bed in the early afternoon, living at the race track), and the story cleverly unfolds in the space between what the narrator tells us and what we infer from the details he unwittingly leaks. For the story’s narrator, Bigfoot becomes a device of evasion and exoneration. For Carlson, on the other hand, this ‘otherworldly’ creature provides a fantastical way of addressing the ‘real-world’ psychological complexities of loss, regret, and denial.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

12. Cultures of Poetry Writing

Abstract
We begin this chapter on the cultures of poetry writing with John Milton speaking in 1667 about his choice not to rhyme in Paradise Lost:
The measure is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek and Virgil in Latin, rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter …1
Milton simultaneously applauds the ancients and lambastes his contemporaries. His comments register a push-pull dynamic, where one aesthetic camp receives praise, another scorn. We might be inclined to believe — if somewhat idealistically — that poets ought always to encourage one another and embrace all serious efforts in the craft; that writers of all stripes should form one big creative family. In fact, we have reinforced this perception of goodwill among poets with our discussions of the creative-writing workshop as a culture of collaboration and mutual encouragement. A workshop, we have argued, privileges community and becomes an environment where ‘serious play’ may proceed unencumbered by petty criticisms and mean-spirited judgements. These do none of us any good — especially early in our writing lives.
Chad Davidson, Gregory Fraser

Backmatter

Additional information