Garnered from Susan's many years as a creator and workshop leader, excerpts from her writer's notebook on the art. Just click below on the topic of your choice.
History and Literature
Imagery, Write Through
Nouns, Verbs, Pronouns
Poem about A Painting
Poetry and Time
Poetry As Translation
Right Brain Writing
Sound and Sense
Sound As Inspiration
Words As Game Pieces
Words from Inside
A commercial writer researches a market need, then fills it. A poet creates, and afterwards looks for a market.
All poems have closure, if only by virtue of stopping, or seeming to run out of words. Postmodern writers can’t avoid closure. Theirs is just more oblique.
Because words have a cumulative effect, don’t dilute the impact of what’s coming next. For instance, in “Looking out over snow bright with moon sparkles”, “bright” anticipates “sparkles” and renders it anticlimactic. Instead, choose a word that adds substance but doesn’t give away the upcoming image, such as “Looking out over snow alive with moon sparkles”.
The significant detail is “metonymic”. In other words, even if we didn’t already know what the whole was, that detail would reveal it, as in the “greasy jeans” and “picking and pecking at life” of Colleen Thibaudeau’s poem about the Brown family.
Create “value-added” details. Instead of settling for a word that just says what you mean, pick one that adds a sensuous or metaphoric dimension. For example, replacing “shows” with “illuminates” adds the dimension of light.
There are two kinds of particularity: particularity that reverberates with the universal, and particularity that dwindles into the merely private.
Consider the difference between a poem about something and a poem that is something.
Writing a poem can be dirty work. I’m not talking about the gifts, those poems that sing their way into consciousness, every word slipping gracefully into place. I’m not talking either about poems that commute to destinations well marked but colourless.
What I do mean are the poems pulled from musty darkness. Like a tuber buried in earth, on the page a poem hides beneath the words, pushing to emerge. This poem is three-dimensional. It has a definite shape and texture, even a scent. It is uncovered a word at a time, finished only when fully pulled free.
These poems the pen must dig for, dumbly sensing that something (what?) beneath the surface presses to speak. And when first yanked out, what a mess they appear: images muddied, rhythm tangled, lines full of clumps and hairs.
Rhythm guides us from there. Every lump and bump in sound tells that the line isn’t right; the idea needs to be smoothed. Try a different number of stresses (yes, even in “free” verse). Pull like vowels and consonants into intentional harmony, or scatter them in discord. Break lines to gradually widen and build a crescendo, or to chatter in even staccato pace, or to gradually narrow as a diminuendo.
Over and over, arrange, rearrange, listen, and look. Beneath the words such meanings intertwine—what literary critics love to name and probe. As poets, we need to discover these too: the first shoots of what the poem wants to grow into. For instance, “the rain tumbled” can lead to children falling over themselves, or to agile acrobats (“tumblers”), or even to the complete stillness of a glass (“tumbler”) on a table. Each image sends out buried runners that sprout in other parts of the poem, a hidden network of life. The poet is a gardener, drawing each image into the light, and defining the garden by what stays beside what, or is weeded out.
Each noun, verb, and adjective in the poem must add something that no other word contributes.
Editing is civilizing newly mapped territories.
A loosening-up creative exercise is to get comfortable somewhere beyond reach of a cell phone or other interruptions, and write nonstop, never lifting pen from paper for half an hour—a surprisingly tiring length of time. No censoring of thoughts. No rewriting or polishing. Just freely associating all over the page. When the time is up, put the writing away untouched. After a couple of days, reread it. Much will seem aimless and dull. However, wherever parts catch attention, mark them off. Later, recopy these sections and see if they might not be a single poem or a poem sequence in the rough. Edit to remove what is repetitive and too general or abstract, but keeping whatever original detail evokes the texture of experience.
FUTURE POETRY (See also POETRY DEVALUED)
In the new millennium, freed from the confining elitist eye on the page, poetry must open outward, fulfilling the desires of ear and body for rhythm. The best will surpass harangue and become music and ceremony, inviting followers to take part—to celebrate.
HISTORY AND LITERATURE (1)
To grasp where we’re going, we must know where we’ve been, wrote Czeslaw Milosz. We need a foundation on which to build, be it family, neighbourhood, region, nation, or global connection. Poetry is never a complete break from tradition, but rather moves in response to it—whether in a smooth or jagged line.
Ancient Greece and Rome sang with confident lyric and epic poems. In contrast were the Old English warriors’ laments in alliterative, kenned verse. The Middle Ages were brighter with narrative romances, and in the 15th century, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. While the 16th century’s courtly poets celebrated seductive love in sonnets, the 17th century Metaphysical poets wrestled with social and religious dislocation. By the 18th century, coffee house wits confirmed the rationality of the world and satirized its evils. As the Industrial Revolution dawned, Romantic 19th century poets turned away from rationalism towards Nature’s beauty for soothing and inspiration. In the early 20th century, the resulting sentimentality and decorativeness of much Victorian poetry were rejected by the Imagists, who honed poetic language to the concrete sensuous object. The 1960s to 1980s were a period of youthful revolution—restless dissatisfaction and idealism longing to set the world right, and Black Mountain projective verse moved toward restoring rhythm by allying it with the breath. Through the 1980s, Postmodernism reflected a feeling of disintegration as it picked up and reassembled—purposely out of context—various pieces of the past. Despairing, its deconstruction sought to deny words’ grip on reality and gave nothing but irony in return. Poetry became a slippery and self-reflexive collage.
Given such self-absorbed negativity, it is not surprising that poetry has a small audience. Language is one of the sources and supports of culture. By framing experience in words, we better understand it and feel more in control. Of course, like anything, language is imperfect, but we learn to challenge and work around its limitations to carry on.
“Leading edge” and “avant-garde” are self-isolating traps: poetry does not “advance”, and standing apart is not necessarily standing above. Despite the shifting mirrors of each generation, certain fundamentals remain: the need to love and be loved, to feel our lives have purpose and make sense, to believe that what we do, day to day, matters somehow to someone. Poetry can put us in touch with the human spirit. It can speak to and for others.
HISTORY AND LITERATURE (2)
Literature does not change or improve. There is no “progress”, no “moving forward”, no real “avant-garde” except in the mere details of form or fashionable focus. Yet book reviews abound with metaphors of forward motion: “ahead of its time”, “taking risks”, “pushing back the boundaries”, “travelling unfamiliar territory”. The same human concerns were addressed in ancient Greek drama as today. Ideas of form change, but content and the power of literature remain. As for the pioneer/explorer metaphor, where we need to “break new ground” is not outward but inward—discovering what we really feel and mean to say—to avoid superficiality and fad.
Three kinds of bad imagery:
showy firecrackers exploding in all directions, and not building to one dominant or layered impression disparate comparisons strung together metaphors that are merely decorative and gratuitous, rather than growing out of the situation they attempt to describe.
Word order is important in triggering a reader’s mental picture-making. Consider the simile “I paddle, duck-like”. When read first, “I paddle” begins to suggest dipping a canoe paddle in the water. Then “duck-like” overturns the boat, as we realize the paddling comparison is to swimming instead. A reader should not be forced to readjust the mental picture midstream.
Stunning images leap outside the predictable orbit of connotation, yet are surprisingly apt.
IMAGERY, WRITE THROUGH
Writing not only with an image, but also through its related associations, makes the language of the poem more particular, concrete, and unified.
LINE BREAKS (1)
If too much is put in one line, the mind can’t absorb the images easily. To open dense imagery and let ideas stand out more clearly, separate each by a line break, to emphasize and let each element resonate, as in: Mist / after the ice storm / after snow
LINE BREAKS (2)
Some assume that the poetic process works in a straight line. First, the poet gets an idea, fully formed, in her head. Then she writes it down. Next she adds imagery and symbolism. Finally, she polishes it a bit, adjusting maybe a word or two here and there. How different the process really is.
It’s intriguing how much the words themselves, already on the page, can generate whole new ideas that the poet hadn’t thought of while composing the first draft. The process is not linear, but branching, like the gradual sprouting of twigs into small branches that, in turn, sprout further twigs.
In this second round of creativity, simply altering the length and breaking point of a line can lead to a whole new slant on the meaning. Rather than the old phrase “learn to write”, the American author William Zinsser insisted the words should go the other way around: we “write to learn”. Not in advance, but in the process itself of putting words on paper, line by line we explore and slowly find out what we want to say. Trying different line lengths and breaks is just one way whole new avenues of meaning can be discovered.
Contemporary writers resist metre for a number of reasons. A few may have a tin ear, or two left feet, and can neither hear the distinctive beat pattern, nor feel it on the dance floor of the page. Others do hear the beats distinctly, but consider the tum-te-tum of metre childish, like the singsong of nursery rhymes. Others consider metre too jingly-jangly mechanical, making the poem sound artificial—as so often it is in one’s first attempts. However, once metre is mastered and handled skilfully, it serves as a subtle musical undertone that supports the mood of the poem.
Metre suggests the containment of emotion.
Iambic pentameter opens out the line, away from the nursery-rhyme singsong of trimeters and tetrameters, to a subtler musicality underlying speech.
When metre seems hard to scan, it’s often from focusing too much on individual words rather than on the sound of the line as a whole. Let the words run together in the ear, saying the line over and over if necessary, until the natural rise and fall become more audible. Of course, if every word the poet chose has only one syllable, the metrical pattern could be anything. That’s why it’s always a good idea to include two-syllable or longer words to fix where some of the stresses must fall, and keep the listener from misconstruing the beats.
An important point is that each metre has its own emotional overtones, and changing the weight and pace of the lines will alter their mood. However, before the listener can tell that the metre shifts from, say, a stomp to a flutter, first that stomp pattern has to be established and heard. In other words, one line alone won’t do it. A few lines at least are necessary to make any given metre audible. Sometimes sections in metre can be set off dramatically by dropping in a passage of free verse. In other words, the key to manipulating the listener’s response is setting up audible contrasts.
NOUNS, VERBS, PRONOUNS . . .
Nouns and verbs are the meat and potatoes of poetry. Pronouns are macaroni. Adjectives are gravy. Adverbs garnish, like parsley. Articles are salt (indefinite) and pepper (definite). Prepositions are water. Conjunctions are wine.
Personification has two aspects. One is that it breathes life into inanimate objects. The second is that it makes the inanimate feel specifically human. To create personification, requires choosing words that not only animate, but humanize what is going on.
POEM ABOUT A PAINTING
In writing about a painting, the poet needs to help the reader forget that s/he is reading one work of art about a second—in other words, is now not just at one, but two, removes from an emotional reality. The writing should bring the original reality behind the painting to life for the reader to experience with as much immediacy and intensity as the painter first did.
As orchestra (not flute solo) that combines, varies, and recombines tempo, melody line, instrumental tone, and volume into a rounded (not linear) pattern. As egg, not to tiptoe around, but to crack open and savour its yoke. As macramé, multiple strands twined around a continuing meaning. As gateway into deeper experience. As fist, one by one the fingers opening to uncover, extend, and make meaning palpable. As skein of wool, one strand gradually loosening and pulling forth the rest. As ferret, trying to draw out the mole from its buried, winding pathways. As words, not pasted flat like a collage of black and white newspaper cut-outs, but round, full-colour, like a plump bird roosting on the palm.
Sloppy, overflowing poems and breathless skinny poems are two sides of the same distorting mirror.
POETRY AND TIME
Until the 19th century, because of society’s agrarian base, there was still a sense of certain natural rhythms in life. This sense disintegrated with the industrialization of society and World Wars I and II. Was Imagism, with its precise concreteness, an attempt to simplify and get hold of a disintegrating world? Mid-century, the nuclear threat only intensified our skewed relationship to rhythm. The need to master time (“time management”) became more intense and elaborate, as schedules were laid out not by the farmer's seasons but by the Daytimer minute—ironically, accelerating time. Rebelling against the Organization Man, Beat poetry sprawled into harangue.
POETRY AS TRANSLATION
Poetry is an art of translation. It takes the nebulous thoughts and feelings inside us and translates them into sensuous images others can experience for themselves. General turns into specific, and abstract concept becomes physical details to see, smell, hear, taste, and touch.
Regardless of the poet’s intuition and talent, no first draft copes with every possible consideration. That’s where a course is helpful: the lessons are cumulative, each making the web of poetic craft larger, finer, and more intricate. The writer develops a master set of principles to refer to in the complex process of gradually setting a poem aright.
Why does poetry lack wide popular appeal? Did decades of encountering it mainly on the page make readers feel isolated? Did the subtleties embedded in hard copy demand too much concentration for a tactile TV generation to unravel?
How can poetry again be valued by society? It needs to inspire, guide, and soothe, but through more public forms of address. It needs to take back its music, to again grow closer to song.
Live poetry readings are important, not only for the pleasure of hearing good writing, but also for learning more about the art of instant communication. Some poems that work brilliantly on the page do not read well aloud, and vice versa. Some are effective in both print and audio. Reading aloud sensitizes us to poetry’s power, not only as sense, but also as sound.
To separate ideas or indicate a pause, much of the time a simple comma is enough. The dash and the three dots of ellipsis are like strong spice in cooking. If not used sparingly, they can overwhelm the poem and lose their impact as accents.
Words need not stay linked in the same way as laid down in a first draft, but can serve as springboards to a whole new image or idea. Words are like little Scrabble pieces to move wherever you please, in an infinite variety of combinations.
Our reality is the point of intersection between micro and macro, black hole and expanded universe. Reality can pull itself inside out. Poetry is the embodiment in words of this enigma.
Why say things twice, leading into an idea with a general word or phrase, then a line or two later adding a more specific image? The trick is to cut the general and reword to use the specific instead.
Resonance occurs when simple, concrete words or images vibrate with wider dimensions of meaning; for example, “moondrops”.
Coming up with less facile descriptions requires digging beneath the surface and thinking more metaphorically. However, revising can also strip too much physical energy that may be missed later. Don’t throw away early drafts, still messy with the immediacy of detail. Words act on each other. Pile many together, and often wonderful new connections sprout among them. How much further a poem might have gone, if the original words were still on hand to fire imagination from other sensuous angles. Worksheets often hold excellent material for expanding and enriching the poems, which only later one realizes how to incorporate.
Because the poet knows what is behind her lines, it’s easy to forget that a total stranger doesn’t. Where is the action happening? Who (gender, age, etc.) is doing it? When is everything going on (at a single moment in time or over several decades)? Sometimes, the information is too vague: abstractions and generalities create no pictures; they simply tell about an idea. Sometimes, vibrant details are present in the poem, but appear only after a reader has already filled in the gaps with wrong guesses. Although the first draft wells up from within, revising requires a poet to project outside her skull and determine what cues readers need to focus their mental picture.
RIGHT BRAIN WRITING
Clustering, leaping, and cross-sensory exercises can reveal a whole new way to approach creativity and generate poems—for some. For others, such highly challenging exercises feel alien and discomforting, because they demand letting go of conscious control and allowing seemingly random forces to direct a poem’s evolution. There is no one “right” or “wrong” way to find inspiration. There are merely different avenues, some leading to exciting vistas, the others to dead ends. Each must write in her unique way.
Besides flipping through a rhyming dictionary, another way to find a rhyme is by singsonging the lines and letting the mind float freely, until a rhyme sounds in the ear. Sometimes the word will seem crazy. Don’t reject it, but rhyme it through the alphabet. Oddly enough, one of its own near rhymes may be the actual word sought. It’s as though the subconscious is giving the answer through a backdoor.
Set up expectations and follow through. For instance, in describing a place, use progressively more focused nesting frames of reference; for example, moving from the distance, to the middle ground, to nearby, to detail.
When writing in a set form, there is always the tension between what the poet initially wants to say and the opportunities (and limitations) the form affords. Indeed, to a surprising degree, form can determine how meaning unfolds (just as a poem can often grow into its next line out of simply the sound of a preceding phrase). Exemplifying this potential is the Shakespearean sonnet, where the ideas in the octave are countered by those in the sestet—a “yes, but” development.
SOUND AND SENSE
If ever there was occasion for a thesaurus, a poet working on sound is it. Our culture is so visually oriented, we are less attuned than previous centuries to the meaning that sound itself conveys. To double check a poem’s sound, go through each line, looking at the individual letters in the words. Every time there is a cluster that has soft sounds (such as l, m, n, ng), ask if such sounds are a good match for the mood of the scene being described. When soft sounds predominate, the poem has a harmonious, soothing tone—fine if that suits the subject. However, a beautiful ring unmatched to the sense (as in badly written traditional verse) was what turned many 20th-century readers against forms using metre and rhyme. Similarly, when groups of letters have harsh sounds (such as d, t, k, z), check if they support or conflict with the mood being aimed for. If harsh and soft sounds occur in equal proportion, they cancel each other, and the overall effect is neutral on the ear—why many have complained that free verse seems “just like prose chopped up”. To use an analogy to painting, it’s not just the colours on the canvas, but also the quality of each line (curved, jagged, thick, thin) that affects appreciation of the composition.
SOUND AS INSPIRATION
Reading poems aloud and listening to how they work on our imagination and feelings is an important tool in extending our own art. Often, listening (whether to actual sounds in the world around us, or to those dancing in our head) makes startling ideas and images take shape—more readily than staring at a blank page for inspiration. Sometimes, too, when I am groping for the right word, one will pop into my head that I know is completely wrong in terms of meaning. However, if I rhyme it through the alphabet, I discover the very word I want is one with a similar sound.
The reader should never be fully able to predict what will happen next. Otherwise, why bother to read the whole poem? The shiver down the spine that a good poem evokes comes from the constant freshness of the language, the apt undercurrents of rhythm, and the little unexpected variations in sentence pattern. The fun comes of never being certain what will pop up next—even in something as normally predictable as a refrain. One way or another, it’s good to keep your reader on the edge of her chair, alert and interested.
In extended metaphor, both aspects of a single comparison are developed side by side on the same surface. In symbolism, it’s as if the two pictures are individually complete but separate, one (translucent) layered on top of the other. The top layer makes sense when read literally, yet at the same time it glints of the deeper layer of meaning beneath.
A tight poem isn’t “thin” at all, but rather feels “solid”. Each word resonates—with action, with appeals to the senses, or with symbolic overtones. The poems have substance, density, a feeling of three dimensions. (The opposite are poems so abstract, general, and vague that they seem flat and “transparent”; they tell us ideas, but we feel and sense nothing.)
Let time help, not add pressure, by allowing the subconscious mind to take over some of the work. Getting away from a poem for a few days usually lets you see more and take it further when you return. Like growing, the process can’t be rushed.
VERBAL METAPHOR (1)
A useful exercise is to mechanically manipulate simile, simple metaphor, and verbal metaphor by recasting one kind of image in the form of another. Consciously altering various comparisons makes some more open and obvious, and others more dense and buried in the text. It’s good to know how to both concentrate and dilute effects.
VERBAL METAPHOR (2)
Trust a metaphor to do its work. If it’s well chosen, it won’t need to be explained with an abstract statement (for example, reiterating “amulet” as “protection”).
Words should not be clunked together like wooden building blocks. Rather, write through them, sieving their residues—connotations, tones, and rhythm—to create the immediacy of “being there”.
WORDS AS GAME PIECES
Ideally, every word must justify its place in the poem, by contributing something unique. If any other word overlaps in meaning, one of the two must go. Words are game pieces to be moved around, in varying combinations and as different forms (noun, adjective, or verb), until each carries its full load.
WORDS FROM INSIDE
Find the words from inside that push and pull truth hidden beneath the poem—not the words from outside, slapped on like parcel labels, that numb.
Links to More Commentary
A Magical Clockwork: The Art of Writing the Poem
A study of technique, to take your writing to the professional level
Holding True: Essays on Being a Writer
The artistic and practical challenges of a dedication to creating fiction and poetry—presented with Ioannou’s characteristic warmth and light touch
Susan Ioannou Profile
Interviews, Articles, Talks, and Replies about Her Work, 1992–2011
Updated August 2011
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