for my students

Written language, especially poetry, is inherently a flawed translation of lived life. This sentence included.


Whenever you read a poem, read it out loud. Your ear will pick up more than your head will allow. That said, poetry had better be more than a medium for saying things in a pretty way. Poetry is more than ear candy.


To write what you know is fair advice. To write what you do not know but try to imagine may not be better advice, but it is more fun.


During war or economic downturn, poets will still write poems, and probably better ones than those made during periods of peace and prosperity. In either case, the truth of such a statement is only made in hindsight.


The idea that a poem can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways is patently false. There may be a handful of ways, but that doesn’t mean that examining a poem is a free-for-all.


There is no hidden meaning, only “meanings” you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you because you’re not practiced in reading poems. Poetry is a convention like anything else. And you learn the rules of it like anything else—e.g., driving a car, baking a cake, fondling a lover.


Although many consider figurative language the essence of poetry, for the life of a poet metaphor will sooner or later become an illness.


Students often complain that by studying a poem (“picking it apart”) you take all the fun out of it. They have not yet understood that unless you have written the poem yourself, studying the poem is the only fun to be had.


Literary theory is just another kind of literature.


Poetry depends on pattern and variation. Even nonlinear, non-narrative, anti-poetic poetry. The brain will try to make sense, by looking for patterns and variations, no matter what is presented before it. The words “apple,” “tadpole,” and “justice” have ostensibly nothing to do with each other, and yet the brain soon pieces them together simply because they are there.


Poetry is a form of prayer. Though most poets don’t know to whom or for what they are praying.


The word “honest” in describing a poem is about as useful as a mop is to a dentist.


Fragmented poetry often purports to subvert the “normal” ways of daily discourse, worldview, or societal interaction, but as often it forgets that one’s thoughts from moment to moment are fragmented. Thus, fragmented poetry becomes more mimetic and closer to verisimilitude than so-called conventional poetry.


When reading a poem, try to come to it on its terms, not yours. Don’t try to fit the poem into your life. Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.


Despite those who say that poetry makes nothing happen, humanity continues to be built on the literary device of the simile: Love thy neighbor as thyself.


You will gain a greater understanding of a poem by writing a single parody of it than by reading all the literary criticism of it.


There is no accounting for taste. What one reader admires, another disdains. You will develop your likes and dislikes over time. This is called aesthetics.


The idea of “finding your voice” is more hindrance than aid. As a poet, there is no reason to stick to one voice. And no matter what you do—even in trying the most random of writing exercises—you will not able to escape your voice.


Do not fully discount what you dislike. From time to time, continue to read what you dislike because it will help you remember why you like what you like. And over a long period of time, some of your likes and dislikes will reverse. If they do not, your thoughts will stifle and your writing will be ruined.


Poetry’s irrelevance is becoming and important.


If your main claim to a poem is that you can relate to it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. Poems are not meant to be related to; they are meant to offer you something you didn’t know, experience, or imagine before.


Do not think of revision as correction; think of it as opening up the possibilities of what’s already on the page.


All poetry is political but not any more so than every single sentence in the English language is political. Consider the diction of our grammar: subject and object. Each sentence involves a power relationship, and politics, by definition, is a struggle for or management of power. For example, I am that I am is a battle for self-control.


Writing poems is about trial and error. In this way the writing of poems is like a science. In no other way is the writing of poems like a science.


Whitman and Dickinson. The two mothers of U.S. Poetry. The gay man of the streets and the virgin in the attic. Both barren by their own rights, and yet they are the two myths that bind us.

Mystery is more important than clarity in poetry. Or rather clarity is important but only when one doesn’t at first recognize it as clarity. Dickinson more than Whitman embodies this. Her poems give us a clarity we didn’t know before. Whitman’s simply show us everything and dare us to look.


The more one reads Whitman the more one agrees with him but is less interested in him. In too much agreement there is boredom.


Emily Dickinson is allowed to leave her poems untitled. For every other poet, the lack of a title is either a missed opportunity or an admission that the poet himself doesn’t care enough about the poem for anyone to bother with it.


An elderly painter once said the definition of the avant-garde is simply the people with the most energy. The same is true of poetry.


In lieu of reading the minds of others, there is poetry. If you agree, this is at once a true and false statement.


Your hope to become a great poet should never hang on an epigram.


This poem is part of BR’s special package celebrating National Poetry Month.