Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Poet Laureate’s Guide to Quickly Fixing Your Poetry

A Poet Laureate’s Guide to Quickly Fixing Your Poetry:

The Top 10 Problems in Amateur Poetry—and Instant Antidotes
By Marilyn L. Taylor
Problem: The poem is all about the inner life of the poet, and nobody cares.
Antidote: Take out every "I" and "me" in the poem, and rewrite the whole thing in the 3rd person (he, she or they).

Problem: The poem's language is full of clichés.
Antidote: Ask a friend to highlight the clichés. Replace every single one of them with fresh language of your own that means much the same thing.

Problem: The poem generalizes too much.
Antidote: Write a brief summary of what the poem is about. Think of one small example of that situation. Write a new poem that focuses on the example ONLY.

Problem: The poem reads like broken-up prose.
Antidote: Try re-writing it as a skinnier poem, 3 or 4 words per line.

Problem: The poem's speaker sounds holier-than-thou.
Antidote: Re-write the poem in the voice of someone directly affected by the subject matter (war? flood?), rather than in the voice of someone viewing-with-alarm.

Problem: The poem is too sentimental.
Antidote: (1) Replace all baby animals with Harley-Davidsons; (2) never write a poem about "Grandma"—give the lady a NAME instead; (3) avoid including any of the following words: Rainbow. Tears. Heart.

Problem: The poem is impossibly opaque and obscure.
Antidote: Write a paraphrase, or summary, of the poem. Then re-write it, using some of the language from the summary, to ensure that the reader will "get it."

Problem: The poem refers to a specific situation that only one other person would ever understand.
Antidote: Put the poem in an envelope and send it to that person. Forget about exposing the rest of us to it.

Problem: The poem looks amateurish on the page.
Antidote: Single-space your poem. Use plain white paper ONLY. Use 12-point Times New Roman, Helvetica or Ariel fonts ONLY.

Problem: The poem sounds like a thousand other poems
Antidote: Stand 4 to 6 feet from a wastebasket. Crumple up your poem. Aim carefully, and toss.

Marilyn L. Taylor, Ph. D., who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and leads poetry workshops at many distinguished venues, is the Poet Laureate for the state of Wisconsin. Her work has been published in a number of notable anthologies and journals, including Poetry Magazine, The American Scholar, Iris, The Formalist, The Cream City Review, and Poet Lore, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She’s a contributing editor for The Writer (authoring the column “Poet to Poet”), and has published eight collections of poetry.

Please visit her Web site at:

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