Reflections on some advice on poetry writing

It was only yesterday that I realised I had forgotten April is the National Poetry Writing Month.

One can write poetry at any time of the year, but it is a pity to miss the annual NaPoWriMo campaign, where participants are encouraged to write a poem each day for one month.

Although NaPoWriMo started in the United States and Canada, where April is the National Poetry Month, it is now an international campaign inspiring everyone to read and write poetry. Readers are invited to get a taste of rhythms and rhymes, while existing and emerging wordsmiths are tempted to experiment with sounds, structures and styles.

Campaigns like NaPoWriMo help to generate a sense of community. Knowing there are like-minded people out there makes a difference, even and especially when we are scribbling simple, sporadic words under a lonesome lamp at a dark raining night.

I was delighted to find the article “How to write good poetry: 7 tips for aspiring poets” by Little Infinite (@LittleInfinite) via IngramSpark. Its opening sentence is the best: “Even if you don’t consider yourself a poet, writing poetry challenges your diction; ability to be concise, use of imagery, rhythm and storytelling skills.

Below is my response to these tips on how to start writing good (or better) poetry:

1. Read poetry: I find it useful to read the lyrics of songs. A good example is “Jerusalem”, which led me to two poems – one being “And did those feet in ancient time” (1804) by William Blake, and the other being the Victorian ballad “The Holy City” (1892) by Frederic Weatherly. I was further led to “Jerusalema” (2019), the song by Master KG that inspired a worldwide dance challenge in 2020. The zulu lyrics, whose English translation can be found online, are beautifully succinct.

I also find poems used in movies and TV series, and the journeys of finding their creators can be highly adventurous. One famous example is Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), which featured “Funeral Blues” (1936) by W.H. Auden. Another well-known example is Interstellar (2014), where “Do not go gentle into that good night” (1947) by Dylan Thomas is repeatedly quoted . My favourite is the Doctor Who episode “The Impossible Planet” (2006), where “Horatius” from Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) by Thomas Bagington Macaulay is briefly but brilliantly used.

Indeed, poetry is everywhere. If you find it daunting to read a whole book of poetry, or are not sure where to start, there are plenty of ways to familiarise yourself with some popular pieces.

2. Read about writing poetry: I enjoy learning the circumstances and processes in which poets create their work, and the impact of their poetry. A good example is Amanda Gorman. It is interesting to read debates about her appearance at the Super Bowl, as well as analysis of her “Chorus of the Captains” and “The Hill We Climb”.

In Australia, when renowned poet Les Murray died in April 2019, his poem “Shale Country” was discussed on TV, which ends with “spotted-gum trees…in new mayonnaise trunks, stand over a wheelbarrow on its hands and knees”. It might be hard to illustrate why the imaginary here is powerful, but those familiar with the Australian landscape would immediately find a connection. Even if you have never spotted a spotted gum, anyone who has ever seen a wheelbarrow can easily see those “hands and knees”.

Commenting on the poem, Jenna Price of the Australian National University said a good poem is like a dried banana, which has “all its greatness shrunk down and intense”. “A good poem, while small and short, allows you a little room around the edges to have your own ideas.” An excellent point, which also applies to short stories.

3. Use poetry journals and prompts: To me, writing is a spontaneous and intuitive activity. While this may seem the opposite of discipline and drive, I find sharing content online to be very helpful, for the reason of feeling a sense of purpose. Collecting my pieces as a self-published book also encourages me to keep writing. As a translator, I try to make such publications bilingual in order to push the boundaries of structure and sound.

As for prompts, I find it useful to clash one against another to see the sparks. For example, at this moment I see two poetry writing prompts online. One is “the day a child was born”, and the other is “the day your faith was shaken”. While neither of them is inspiring, I like the idea of having one’s faith shaken due to the birth of a child. My instinct is to turn it into a horror story, but the real challenge is to step outside our comfort zone.

4. Just write: I write poetry purely for myself, to express random emotions and thoughts, which may or may not be a response to what happens around me. Sometimes I set out to write something and it morphs into something else in the process. At other times I want to describe something specific, but the work finds its own form and creates a brand new path to another landscape.

I find it hard to elude the notion of “what would people think?” Even more challenging is to resist the “advice” of those around me who constantly worry what other people might think of me – or what those people might think of them because of their association with me. In this sense, to “just write” can be difficult, even when we just want to write for ourselves.

5. Experiment with writing: In recent years I have been experimenting several tricks, mainly in prose writing, but these can also be applied to poetry writing. For example, using alliteration and rhymes helps to expand my vocabulary as a non-native English speaker.

Another exercise is forcing myself to be more succinct. I would do a bit of free writing and then impose a word limit, such as cutting a lengthy article down to exactly 500 words. The process allows me to focus on what needs to be said, rather than what I want to say. It also enables me to closely examine the purpose of the piece and adjust its structure accordingly.

For example, writing for newspapers requires short and effective sentences. While those sentences at the start function as a “hook”, those near the end can be sacrificed to suit editorial formatting needs. In contrast, writing for journals/magazines allows more elaborate work. Not only is there time and space for theoretical illustration, literary reviews, comparative studies and quotations are also expected.

6. Find your writing style: My style derives from my background as a bilingual writer, translator, reader, reviewer, occasional journalist, and independent scholar. Other people’s work definitely impacts on my writing, as I would consciously imitate their style or form. What remains unchanged in that process is definitely mine, so the act of imitation helps to highlight the characteristics of my writing.

My writing is mostly journalistic and/or academic, with a rather formal structure and intention to avoid making overly subjective statements. I also tend to write long and hard, so I would spend a fair bit of time cutting myself back. The creative part comes from being a translator who experiments on words and voices, and as a reader trying to read as widely as possible.

7. Learn to edit: The three questions here from Little Infinite are really, really useful. Op top of that, while it is vital to “take a step away from your work, think on it, and re-visit with fresh eyes”, it helps to set clear editorial guidelines that one can refer to and abide by over a period of time, especially on those occasions where it is impossible to complete the editing process in one sitting. The key is to maintain the same editorial standards throughout the work.

Another important lesson I learned, from a workshop in 2018, is to take note of our initial emotional response, especially to our own writing. “How do you feel when you first finish reading a piece of writing? Ask yourself this, before any intellectual and coherent attempt to find out why you have such a response.” Indeed, I would often feel “something is wrong”, and it takes time and efforts to figure out what it is. This step is crucial, as one’s instinct or “gut feeling” is often the most revealing about oneself.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: