Writing poetry is challenging. It’s as simple as that. The very act of setting the right words in the right order in just the right way is sometimes such an insurmountable endeavor that most simply do not attempt it, and the hard-headed ones keep at it. The number of issues, pitfalls, and conundrums writers face are innumerable. However, among the challenges that I’ve seen with many poets at the beginning of their craft both as a tutor of four years and as an editor of this Spring’s edition of The Dazed Starling, one challenge stands out as both glaring and easily fixable: they don’t know what contemporary poetry really looks like or what its tenets are, and as a result, they write in styles that are outdated and destined to flop.
However, as much as this issue has to do with a lack of familiarity, I don’t blame any young poet doing their best to attempt a Wordsworthian lyrical ballad or a Shakespearian sonnet, no more than I blame myself for attempting something so cringeworthy. I blame the fact that the first time I read a lick of contemporary poetry that made sense, (that wasn’t so blatantly avant-garde or simply some photo on Instagram), wasn’t until I took a creative writing class in my second year of my undergraduate study. I blame the fact that as a supposed major in English Literature, the only frames of reference I had to write a poem were Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Dylan Thomas. All beautiful poets in their own rights and in their own times, but not our time, not in 2022.
As much as I’ve written in first person, this issue isn’t unique to me. It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that much of the poetry I’ve read (and much of the poetry I wrote) falls back on some archaism, no matter how contemporary it attempts to be, and some read completely as if they’ve never seen any poetry written after 1850. This is likely because, if my experience serves me right, they simply haven’t read enough, as I certainly did not. Names like Dana Gioia or Mary Oliver rang no bells, felt obscure, and their poetry even more bewildering.
“Are these even poems?” I asked.
Certainly, they are. They just follow different conventions than what we, as readers and aspiring poets, are used to.
Despite the fact that this post is a rant about not hearing Gioia’s “Prayer” early enough, I am no expert in the “tenets” of contemporary poetry. For one, there are no “tenets” per se; there are only trends, broad tendencies, commonalities in poems written today that we can just barely put our fingers on. If any neophyte poet wishes to grasp these trends, I would recommend Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook as a starting point. I return to this book often as a source of inspiration and correction for my own poetry, and as such is indispensable.
Short of buying a book, however, I do want to recommend one idea to every poet that might read this that is having trouble updating their style, besides actually reading contemporary poets, two of which I have already mentioned: Write as simply and plainly as possible. Aspiring poets, myself included, are often guilty of taking off our “normal speaking” hats, and putting on our “Poetry hats,” (there is usually a quill that sticks out of the brim, very stylish), and we write in ways that to any other reader sounds like we are doing our best impression of our favorite romantic poet. Take the hat off, and throw it across the room, even hide it in your attic if you have one, because as long as you try to sound like someone else, particularly if they have been dead for over two hundred years, you will never write like yourself, or anyone else alive for that matter. I will take a cue from Mary Oliver’s book, and ask that you write as if you were speaking intimately to your reader: with intent and intensity, but not overblown, or with false poetic