WISH I'D BEEN TOLD
the years, I've heard good advice from others; I wish they had told me
sooner. Probably they did, but I didn't listen. What I'm
to say is what I constantly urge myself to do. I offer these
to save us time, to help us strip off some ankle weights of
The difference between second place and first place in the high jump,
the silver and the gold, is only about an inch. Ah, but "How
that inch / And that split-second longer in the air before the fall"
Abstractions, and They Will Flee from You
abstract statements are easy to say, and usually flat. They don't
show; they tell. Imagine friends stepping out into the hall and seeing
something vivid and specific, then coming back into your room and
all the specific, sensuous details they saw in abstract, general
statements — like any of these: "He was a
"She looked angry." "She treated others with justice." "He
had a strange way of fixing his hair." "He gave her costly
"She reacted in a negative way."
I understand these claims — but I don't see or feel
them as richly as I wish I could. The power of language is in
specifics that make us see — or hear, and feel, through
images. A plot summary is not as vivid or powerful as seeing the
movie. In order to make any of those statements quoted above, the
writers might have seen specific details, but — instead
them with readers — they have "ab-stracted" (drawn conclusions
taken from) their impressions and given us only the abstract notions of
the experience — "distinguished-looking," "justice," "a negative
These are the kind of easy abstractions I'm likely to make in first
drafts — when I'm simply trying to find a few lines for a
go beyond first thoughts. I urge you to reach, to work hard;
sit down like a couch potato, comfortable with the easy abstractions of
your mind's first draft. A poem works best, for me, when the
doesn't tell, but when he or she invents combinations of
words to show us old facts in new ways. Poems with too many
and not enough images tell about something, but don't move me
much as they could.
Abstractions and generalizations are like chunks of lead tossed on a
of water — "the art of sinking in poetry." Abstractions
assassins; they're paid to hold you hostage, to keep you bound to
couch, in house arrest. They don't want you to travel, to see the
vivid images of other regions; they hope you won't discover what you're
missing. Now let's stop and admit some obvious facts about the
1) There are no rules. All I can do is describe
works for me in the best poems I read. All I can do is share the
best advice I can to help you write better poems; all I can promise is
to focus on what I admire.
2) Let's admit it: for some readers "anything goes" — just
as in human behavior. Anything you wouldn't do in a
society (or in wilderness!), someone will do — and not simply
with it, but may even be applauded for it. But why should I urge
you to write like someone whose poems aren't the most exciting poems I
3) In some of today's journals, you'll find anything —
villanelles, and sestinas to blank verse, language poems, free verse,
poems, poems that look like grocery lists, bits of flabby prose, and
We know what a sonnet is. But now and then, someone will chop up
a piece of pedestrian prose and give it a title such as "Sonnet."
It may be the opposite of what we call a sonnet. But
somewhere will publish it — even if in his garage on a
machine with a stapler. And that doesn't mean that good poems
sometimes published in such conditions.
4) Some poems are more powerful than others. Some give us
pleasure packed in a few words than we expected to find. I'm
at how some writers can make simple words implode. The images are
stunning, vivid, and sensuous. I see and believe the lines.
The poem is an intense experience; it doesn't merely tell me
5) There's a difference between language that is utilitarian —
for information — and language that tries to pack the maximum
a) Utilitarian language is explosive, going outward, like
a puff of smoke that evaporates and is gone (e.g. yesterday's
instructions that I'm grateful for when I start assembling a toy.)
b) Emotional language is implosive (e.g., fiction, poetry,
non-fiction prose, scriptures). Emotional language doubles in on
itself, or implodes, for maximum pleasure — sounds, rhythms,
conjure our deepest emotions. I'm compelled by emotional language
that packs a power; at its best, language is striking, implosive.
Writing the emotional equivalent of feelings and ideas is a goal we
can't ever reach; but intentionally to do less is too easy. Louis
Simpson said the goal of poetry "is to make words disappear."
we look through the glass of a window to see through the glass,
not to focus on the spots or streaks. It would be easy to say
awed by the majesty of the universe." But Whitman found an image
to close his poem that says that, powerfully — without saying
that — in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer":
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.
It's easy to say that the world's okay because God's in control; but
what power when Father Hopkins ends "God's Grandeur" with this bold
And though the last lights off the black West went,
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
"Go in fear of abstractions," Ezra Pound urged us. Abstractions
lazy boys, addictive and boring, disguised as angels of wisdom.
When Pound wrote, "Go in fear of abstractions," he said nothing new,
down no new law, but spoke only the old advice, the obvious. No
I know says "Don't ever use abstractions," but simply "Go in fear of
Most times, though, general statements and abstractions are your
They are stiff-necked impostors on guard duty in your writing
They are cynics, failures of the imagination; they envy your successes;
they want you to fail. They hope writing won't delight you, that
you won't discover exciting images and details that will delight your
They know Robert Frost was right: "No surprise in the writer, no
in the reader." Abstractions don't want you to move your
Abstractions are your captors, and they work without pay, because they
hate poems. They hope you'll lose faith in yourself; they want
to quit writing, and let them sleep.
Resist abstractions, and they will flee from you. Writers that I
admire believe Pound's warning about abstractions and try to write
The best writers remember this, and they never ease up on
They work always on basics, harder than when they began. They
throttle back and cruise, but constantly push the envelope. Like
Twain, they try to "find the right word, not its second cousin."
Images Are Keys to Freedom
to trust sensuous details to release you from the traps of easy
and vague and flabby writing. Defy the odds. Work hard, and
believe in the powers of the imagination. Vivid specifics are
to freedom. Muscle-up your poems with details that surprise you;
they will surprise us, too. Trust good common-sense advice handed
down by writers for generations. For example: Personal verse
means a lot to two people. Share with us, through
specific images. Don't merely tell us about
Render us through an experience, with images, sounds, and rhythm, in
concise lines. Don't be vague or obscure; don't keep the
hidden in your cupped hands.
Appeal to the senses; give specifics, details, for intensity.
our eyes to the splendors of your imagination; delight us. A poem
is not an ink blot. Therefore, go beyond first drafts; don't send
off poems that read like general statements, whether rhymed or
Try to spot in your own writing the clichés, the easy
Learn well the difference in power between general statements and
details, between weak abstractions that tell us and vivid images that
up the senses. Accept the truism that it's harder — but
more effective — to write lively images than to settle for general
Overcome the temptation to rationalize that readers should simply get
of poems whatever they want. That's too easy. Anyone can be
vague; anyone can write ambiguous lines or stream-of-conscious
It's hard to be both interesting and clear. Writing is a hard
to learn, but learn it you must, if you want to compete for good
time. If you grapple, and if you like this work, what you'll find
will be exciting. The activity itself will reward you, the doing
of it, the muscle tone you develop only by effort. "Ripeness is
Shakespeare wrote. Work for the night is coming. Be active,
ready for whatever you discover. I promise three words, if you
hard: "Delight in discovery."
Your prayer should be, "Lead me not into temptation." As writers,
we are modern Pilgrims, and our Progress will always be tested by
you'll be tempted not to write, knowing that you don't "have to."
that is, obsession to write, neglecting other duties and
Remember Brian Moore's novel An Answer from Limbo.
the perils are obvious.
that is, anger that others sometimes win "the awards, the jobs, the
as Snodgrass said ("April Inventory"). Remember: Solomon said the
race does not always go to the swift, and it's a matter of being in the
right place at the right time. Work hard, so that if you're there
at the right time and you win the Yale, what you publish won't
you when you're old.
compliments and strokes are wonderful. Flattery, though, is two
lips, and the ego is a balloon. Some flattery, of course, is
setting you up for a favor. But flattery also comes from
people who love you. I urge you, though: ignore all flattery;
believe your press clippings. Some people need to give or to
flattery like a fix; and it's true — flattery can be
the history of tyrants and fools. Hug your friends who flatter
but ignore completely what they say.
Another temptation for writers is plain old indulgence: that
lowering your standards, your goals; being easy on yourself —
mediocre lines, thinking That's good enough. Pound urged
"Go in fear of abstractions." My friends, I want you afraid of
writing; I want you bold and hungry for the best you can do. I
you to slam abstractions down, and stomp them; kick, stab them to
Gouge out their eyes.
If they still crawl up your legs and bless you like the air you
then maybe let them stay. Do the same violent rewriting to
line breaks, easy adverbs and neutral nouns; roll up your sleeves and
a five-pound axe down into hardwood. Make it blaze. Hold
poem to the fire; burn away all chaff, all that isn't your poem.
I know: that sounds too easy; but to do less seems easier. Those
who attempt again and again what I'm urging you toward can come to
discoveries. Accept yourself, for you will often fail. If
love the thrill of it all, you'll try again.
Someone will ask you, "Do poems in forms have to pay as much
to line breaks and powerful word choice as 'free-verse' poems
In other words, "What standards do you hold formal poems to — in
of imagery, line breaks, compression, and intensity of language?"
If you're kind and reading for what I'm trying to offer, forgiving my
you can guess my answer: I hold formal poems to the same high
the same impossible goals, in terms of rhythm; sounds; the compact
power of language; vivid and appropriate imagery; clarity; and
In other words, poetry. Again, to aim for less is too
A villanelle already presumes that what it repeats, in its narrow,
range, is worthwhile. When it works — say, for Dylan
Thomas or Theodore
Roethke — what a massive power.
Every new sonnet promises it will daringly be worth our time, new wine
in old wineskins. A long poem (whether meditative, narrative, or
experimental, like "The Waste Land," "Howl," or "Middle Passage") —
already presumes a great deal on a reader's time, attention span, and
When any poem works, the soul claps hands and sings — whether
is five or five hundred lines. If anything, a formal poem, or a
poem, should be more intense, better crafted, than a
of ten irregular lines that don't rhyme.
you say to someone who justifies an awkward line break by protesting,
this is a sonnet!" I think of Ezra Pound insisting that
poem should be at least as well written as good prose." A sonnet
should be at least as well written as good free verse. Likewise,
meditation is no excuse for bad verse; a meditative poem should
be at least as well written as a lyric.
How would you respond to someone who refuses to pay his taxes because
a Rolex — or robs a convenience store or mugs a little old lady,
"But I need the money for a parking meter" or to enter "the
contest"? There comes a time when the end doesn't justify the
Beer in a mug or a thermos tastes flat if you cut it with water. Accountability:
that's the key. Recall what Keats told Shelley: "Load every rift'
. . . with ore."
"Spend it all," Annie Dillard advises writers. When you write,
yourself totally to a poem. Immerse yourself in the imaginative
Don't sell cheap; don't hoard your energy. Spend it all.
Creative writing is hard work; but it's fun enough, or you wouldn't do
it. You sacrifice time, and you get back a handful of poems.
Be of good cheer; believe in the possibilities of the
You'll be amazed by what you can make up or discover.
Poetry is not autobiography, but art; not merely facts of your actual
but invention; not confession, but creation — discovery
you wouldn't have found if you hadn't begun to write.
The dictionary defines a poem as "a made thing" (think of that: a made-up
If you rely only on facts that "really happened," you're limiting
writing only with "the left brain." You might come up
a poem, but it's like trying to drill for oil with a cork screw, like
to dig for gold with a plastic spoon, like searching for Noah's lost
or the wreckage of Amelia Ehrhart's plane by reading essays about them.
Dare; take risks; let vivid and unexpected details flow. Be open,
receptive to whatever comes to you in first drafts. Writing poems
is invention, making up something as you go along, discoveries
you probably wouldn't have thought of, if you carefully outlined or
a poem. (But if that method works for you, bravo!) Usually,
there's a surprising difference between writing accurately about facts
and events that "really happened" vs. imaginative or creative
Believe in the possibilities of discovery, the rich and undiscovered
fields and gold mines of the imagination — that reservoir of all
ever experienced, heard about, or read, seen in movies, or glimpsed,
of it jumbled together and waiting to be found.
Down there — buried inside you — are regions you haven't
touched for years
or decades, or ever, except in hopes or dreams or nightmares.
are the bits and remnants of all you've taken in — the lost
cities of Atlantis,
the elephants' graveyard, the forgotten playgrounds and bone yards of
life. Down there under the pressure and heat of living are the
you need for making poems — some of them already diamonds, most
coal waiting to stoke your furnace — and gushers of oil that
your imagination's engine longer than you could write.