Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rules, No: Guidelines for Poets

I saw this on Mary Biddinger's blog and will take a short break from my vacation to add to it.

Are there certain things that you will never do in a poem, either intentionally or unintentionally? Are there things that you won't write about? Techniques you refuse to use? Sometimes it's fun to look at your work and see what rules you follow, even if you never set them in the first place.

*****Note from me: I realize immediately as I begin these, these are guidelines written in stone rules that should be obeyed on every poem. Each poem is its own unique thing. Just as one pair of glasses doesn't fit every person's face, these rules will sometimes work for one poem and not for another. Sometimes I follow them, sometimes I don't. I see them more as advice from other poems that worked, but not anything I'd tell someone to do in every poem. Except for #8. I believe in that greatly.

1) Like Richard Hugo, I like my end words to pack a punch. I think nouns, esp. nouns with more than one meaning, offer satisfaction. Esp. nouns that continue to move the poem to another level.

2) I work with the line of the poem and try to see each of them as individual gems I can pull out. If a line is clunky, then the line will be fixed or dropped.

3) I like being able to create linebreaks that add new or a surprising meaning to the poem. For example something like:

In the hospital room, he was dying
for ice cream...

appeals to me greatly.

4) I love to use wordplay in a poem if it's allowing me to take the poem to another level and not just being clever.

5) If someone tells me there something one shouldn't write a poem about, I immediately want to write that poem.

6) I don't believe there is anything off limits in poetry or any writing, but I believe in integrity. And I dislike "shock-poetry," anything anyone has written to be edgy. Everything has been done, I just try to do what I am doing well.

7) I don't like habits. If I find I'm always doing something in my poetry (see the above list), I try to stop and do something else.

8) I always have a reason for everything in a poem--where I break the line, why I used a certain word, why it's in X number of stanzas--it's very important to me that I can tell you why I did something in a poem instead of answering, "I don't know."

9) I dislike poetry rules. And of all my rules I wrote, probably 8 is the only one that I stick too 99% of the time, the others are all guidelines, not rules. Rules tend to make artists limit themselves. If you've made a hard-and-fast rule for yourself, try to break it in your next poem. See what happens.


  1. Hi Kelli,

    Thanks for sharing your poetry rules. They are all wise ones, including being aware that you occasionally do need to examine the rules you've made for yourself--challenge yourself to step beyond them--though, I agree, too, that #8 is one to cherish (unless you are Andre Breton).

  2. I saw Mary's rules on her blog and have been dying to write this post all week.

    Your rule #2 is probably the rule I follow most consistently. But generally, it varies from poem to poem for me.

  3. I usually wait until a poem feels like it has some kind of definite shape -- almost a geometric shape, sometimes -- before I start writing it down on paper. If I start writing it too soon, it's easy to lose the thread of it, and nothing comes of it. (Over the years, I've gradually gotten better at feeling when a poem is "ready," when it's formed enough to start writing it down.

    I rarely (almost never) use semicolons in a poem.

    I rarely use the possessive form of a noun in a poem.

    I tend to shy away from symmetry, in structure or shape or rhythm or repetition. In general I feel that symmetry is overrated. I prefer (in poems) irregular structures, rough edges and surfaces, a loose end or two.

    I don't often attempt to write a poem in the persona of someone else, though I haven't held to this strictly, now and then I've made an exception.

    I've rarely attempted to write poems in standard or regular meter or with rhyme. Maybe eight or ten exceptions in 40 years.

    When I write a poem, I want to know what every word in it is doing. I want to know what every line and phrase and sentence means, what it's saying in the basic sense. If I write a line (or lines) and I'm not clear what it means or what it's saying, why it belongs in the poem, I'll change it or take it out.

    Everything in a poem counts, every word, every pause, line break, punctuation mark. Nothing should be random or haphazard, everything in a poem should be a conscious choice.

  4. Thanks for sharing your rules - they inspired a post where I explored mine, which you may be interested to have a look at.


Always love to hear from you...and the anonymous option is open for those feeling shy.

Related Posts with Thumbnails