Write It Like A Poem

by Strange72 min read16th Feb 201140 comments


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Related to: simile, snobbery, adequate axioms


Writing poetry is harder than it sounds, but easy to practice. Once mastered, the emotional impact it can add to even casual conversation makes it more than worthwhile.


There are two sides to writing an effective poem: the top-down logic of metaphor and imagery, and the bottom-up mechanics of rhyme and meter. Manage both, or they won't meet in the middle.


Let's say you're trying to lift someone as high up into the air as possible. You could kneel and cup your hands, but that depends on them playing along and stepping in the right spot. You could sneak up behind and kick them squarely between the legs, but that won't get them very far, or for very long, and they won't put up with such treatment more than once. Or you could build a framework, hang a swing, and give them a series of properly-timed pushes in the right direction.

A pure technical explanation (the cupped hands) depends on the willingness of the reader to slog through the whole thing, do some independent research to fill any newly-discovered gaps in their knowledge base, and generally cooperate. Without that minimal enthusiasm, the most brilliant insights can and will be dismissed as "too long, didn't read."

Aggressive proselytizing, at the other extreme, sacrifices content to put as few demands on the reader as possible. It is, accordingly, viewed as even worse than useless. An active offense, spam, something to be isolated and destroyed.

Taking the time to lay out a pattern, a rhythm, means that people will have some reason to keep reading even if they don't know exactly what you mean. It's a comfortable set of boxes in which half-eaten ideas can be stored for later, or a resonant frequency to carry information until the full message can be compiled.

Resonant frequencies can't create something from nothing. The Tacoma Narrows bridge wobbled for hours before finally collapsing; cumulative energy transfer from the wind over the course of those hours was orders of magnitude more than would have been necessary for, say, a controlled demolition with shaped-charge explosives. The advantage is that slow, steady sources are easier to find and easier to regulate. An appeal to people's tendency toward pattern-completion can be spread out over pages, instead of requiring a single perfect paragraph, and will not be consciously resisted by anyone who does not realize they are being persuaded.

So, setting up the rhythm.

Look away from what your words actually mean. Consider what they sound like, which syllables are emphasized, the flavor of your favorite phonemes. Then look back, and shuffle things around until they match.

Reinforce parallel points with parallel structure.

Tempting though it may be to advertise your sophisticated vocabulary, or even invent or co-opt exotic terms and phrases for the precise elucidation of some nuanced concept, simple english works good because we all polish it.

Long lines of big words slow down the flow.

There's more to effective writing than I could cover in one essay, of course. People spend years studying this kind of thing, and the few who really master it are paid accordingly. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.


Metaphor and imagery are harder to explain.

Most of the time, your objective in communicating is to reduce ambiguity. You lay out your thoughts in order, package them securely, and hope that they survive however many translations it takes until they can be reassembled in the same order inside someone else's mind. A word that means more than one thing is, in that context, a navigational hazard; it has too many degrees of freedom, so more information must be included to constrain it, lock in the single intended meaning. Unintended  potential interpretations are dangerous noise.

In compiling myth, you must cultivate multiple consistent interpretations. Ambiguity is, to a certain extent, your friend; whenever a word could mean more than one thing, that's a chance to save precious syllables, each meaning simultaneously developing a different level of interpretation. The catch is that, rather than using words as scalpels to meticulously dissect the issue one step at a time, you are juggling jagged axes and chainsaws. Every edge, every possible definition, must be sufficiently familiar to you that no disastrously unintended layer will emerge.

Different layers of the same message have different, but related, meanings. Each layer will be picked up by a different audience, or a different aspect of the reader's mind, and should be tailored for effectiveness accordingly. In my wisdom:foolishness :: tree:stones comparison, the feeling of validity comes from an appeal to the reader's intuitive understanding of botany and other basic physical sciences, typically developed since childhood.


In a sense, poetry is a perversion of public-key encryption. You take your message, in it's most concentrated form, and connect it to some nugget of knowledge or archetype. Without that cultural context, there's no signal, just patterned noise. The recipient applies their own private version of that archetype or meme, and treasures whatever insights can then be unpacked, thinking that it was a secret message intended just for them.

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40 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:20 PM
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I don't want to be excessively rude, but I can't think of a delicate way to say this. For a piece extolling the virtues of poetic prose, this is poorly written. Your metaphors feel out of place, and forced. The breaks in spacing throughout the piece don't seem to serve to emphasise anything important, and are distracting.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

I disagree. There is a certain 'tempo' to the piece. I feel that's one of the more important components to the likeability of a thing to me. I don't mean in the sense of how snappy it is, but rather how much I feel it aligns with what I understand at the time and the rate of my mental processing.

Anyway I'm going to try write a rap poem:

I've got abuse on my mind// I can't let it get me down// if I forget to look after myself// this smile will turn into a frown// don't wanna wear psychiatric hospital gowns// don't wanna be the loud and violent clown// down wanna compulsively get down// or get turned down cause i'm brown// labelled with all kinds of nouns// let these flows astound// plant the seeds of happiness in the ground// ya see these mounds?// i'll be out in top soon enough// you won't be seeing me around you negative hounds//

You're completely right.

I know it's possible for me to write well, based on various past examples, I just haven't figured out how to do so reliably.

[-][anonymous]10y 5

People spend years studying this kind of thing, and the few who really master it are paid accordingly.

The few who really master poetry are still paid peanuts. There is no Stephen King or J.K. Rowling of poetry.

My impression is that the rewards to poetry vary from one culture to another, and the US takes poetry less seriously than any other culture I've heard of.

Khalil Gibran would have become rich if he had lived another 40 years. Rod McKuen has also done very well. Both did so primarily in the American market.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Is there a poet overseas who has gotten really rich from their work?

Wait, is getting really rich the standard? Because not all languages are equal in their ability to ring this bell at any given time. Right now, English is king -- its the lingua franca of half the world or more, and has a disproportionate number of populous rich countries using it as their first language -- America is conspicuously important in this regard.

Writers in other languages are at a severe disadvantage in terms of ability to cash in on their local popularity and influence. I understand that Russia, for instance, takes poetry very, very seriously; but its legal and economic system is not capable of giving its poets their honors in the form of money. For example, Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a big deal, and he's not starving as far as I can tell. But neither does he make anything like a tenth of what cheesy American hack (not hacker -- the bad, journalistic kind of hack) Dan Brown makes.

Speaking of Dan Brown -- he's a huge financial success, but he's the non-thinking man's version of Umberto Eco, who, from a financial point of view, made the extremely unwise decisions to be Italian and not to pander to the lowest common denominator among his potential readers.

Historically poets sometimes made large sums of money:

"One of the first authors to successfully take advantage of the statute was Alexander Pope, who became the equivalent of a millionaire by writing his own verse translation of The Iliad (between 1715 and 1720) and The Odyssey (in 1726). By 1727 Pope made more than £8000, the equivalent of about $12 million today and the largest sum an English author had ever received for their work. But stories of wealthy 18th century authors are rare. Since few people were literate, and fewer still were at leisure to read literature, there was little monetary incentive for professional authors to write it."


And less scientifically, some cultures had traditions of court poets being paid large sums - I seem to recall some Arabic poems speaking of the poet's "mouth being stuffed with gold" by the caliph for their ghazals, and Scandinavian skalds could be rewarded with substantial amounts of gold for a good drapa.

Who's wealthy in the present? Well, that's a little harder. In the Anglosphere, I'd wonder what the net wealth of Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost are/were, since they seem to be some of the rare crossover successes. (I'd exclude Wallace Stevens since being an insurance executive probably paid pretty well.)

It's worth noting that patronage is still a viable strategy in some areas; here's one living painter you've never heard of who is estimated to be worth $114 million (and was not born or married into wealth). (Damien Hirst, who you have heard of, is somewhere around $350 million.)

In the novel Catch 22, Ex-PFC Wintergreen responds to this assertion with a cryptic anonymous phone call. "T.S. Elliot" says Wintergreen.

I just had a look at the Wikipedia page for Elliot. It seems he won the Nobel prize in Literature about the time Heller was writing the novel. A Nobel brings with it a nice hunk of change.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

My favorite poet! Or at least, author of my single favorite poem ("Little Gidding" -- W.B. Yeats is my all-round favorite).

I don't know Eliot's net worth, and he wasn't starving, certainly, but I don't believe that he was vying for any of the "wealthiest people in the world" lists, like Rowling and some other writers can.

My point is that the original assertion is basically untrue: success in poetry is not a reliable way to amass wealth. Very good poets--those who publish in prestigious journals like, well, Poetry, or who can get books of poetry published and read--usually still need day jobs. They are often supported by university positions.

I love poetry, but a would-be poet needs a back-up plan, and "making it big" in poetry means ekeing out a middle-class living, as opposed to other fields where making it big can mean multimillions.

Worth quoting:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

P. Diddy, Lady Gaga ...

I know, they don't count as "poets", but then, what good is a category drawn to include abstruse verse that no one cares about, but excludes verse set to music that people go herdlike over?

It's a real world category with real world consequences... seems silly to try and scrap it.

Take away the music (retroactively), and those artists would also be payed peanuts. Also, take away what little "poetry" you might find in Gaga, and you'll get Kesha or Fergie. And still get paid mountains.

So long as the category isn't defined by the lack of pay, and it really does point to a very distinct cluster of personspace (poet vs. pop star), it seems ridiculous to erase the border.

It's a real world category with real world consequences... seems silly to try and scrap it.

Like with any category, it depends on the purpose you're using it for. And I don't know what purpose this category boundary would be for other than, "I don't like my work being associated with Lady Gaga, so I'll deem pop music 'not poetry'."

And that's not a good enough reason.

Song lyrics aren't just by pop stars, and (as with any art form) there's a huge range of quality.

There's a poet who's no longer speaking to me, and one of the many reasons is that I said song lyrics counted as poetry. I wish I could be sure of what she said on the subject, but I think is was that people are willing to repeatedly listen to the same song in a way that they aren't willing to listen to spoken poetry or read poetry. I don't know whether this is a reasonable distinction.

Nor whether a culture losing the centrality of spoken and read poetry is important, or whether rap (which has a distinctive presentation that's neither singing nor speech) should be reasonably counted as poetry, song (rap music occupies the same cultural niche as melodicly based music), or something else.

For that matter, I don't know whether ancient poetry (Homer, the sagas) was typically declaimed or chanted.

Reality may have joints in this area that it can be cut at, but I don't know how to identify them.

And that's not a good enough reason.

Why not? Is there some sort of duty to accept the association of one's work with Lady Gaga against one's wishes?

We're talking about having a superset term in common, not implied endorsement. Yes, you have the duty to accept that your work and Lady Gaga fall under the category "human culture", and if you want to cleave that category just so you don't have to share it with her, you need a much better reason than politics.

We're talking about having a superset term in common, not implied endorsement

I don't buy it. This issue isn't about semantics, it's about status. You evidently disapprove of the status being granted by the academic/critical elite to certain poets relative to Lady Gaga. But as far as I can tell you haven't confronted their reasons for preferring "high poetry" to Gaga, instead simply taking it for granted that their reasons are inadequate.

The way to argue your case is to give an example of a poem that the establishment thinks is good and that you think is bad, explain why you think it's bad, and explain why their argument that it's good is wrong.

Yes, I hold those beliefs. I wasn't advancing them in this thread, and they aren't necessary for me to make the point I'm making in this thread.

Anyone who talks about poetry having lack of market success without considering rap to be poetry is defining their terms to get their result. Failing that, they need to set out precisely how it fails to be poetry.

How does rap fail to be poetry? Please show your working.

The usual style of complaint is that their favoured style of poetry is not sufficiently popular. Compare any fan of an out-of-favour style of anything complaining that no-one is interested in real X any more, therefore society has descended into philistinism. This is only slightly a caricature.

I don't even like rap and this one's glaring.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

How does rap fail to be poetry? Please show your working.

For me, the deciding factor for finding a rap song enjoyable is almost always the music and is very rarely the words. I've also noticed that the semantic content of the words is fairly unimportant, but what is important is how the words sound (I think this is sometimes referred to as the rapper's "flow"). I'm not a poetry buff, but I take it that what the words mean is fairly important for a poem.

Here's an example (music video, lyrics NSFW). If you look up the lyrics to this song they're completely inane, but the beat is incredible and the words flow together well. The point of the work seems to be different from that of a poem.

One fascinating question about modern culture and society is the reason for its lack of interest in epic poetry, to the point where it has become impossible to compose new works in it that will be taken seriously. This especially considering that in other ages and cultures epic poetry has often been the primary form of literature, both oral and written, and almost never an insignificant one.

Nowadays it seems strange that in past ages people would often eschew prose, expecting to express their ideas better and elicit more interest through poetry. Lucretius's De rerum natura is probably the best known example. The last major examples in Western philosophical literature I can think of are the poetic parts of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, and perhaps also some poets from three or so generations ago like T.S. Eliot.

Poetry can be memorized a lot more easily than prose, so it carries obvious advantages when you're a storyteller in a largely illiterate society (or trying to learn a major part in a three-hour play on short notice). That's at least one selection pressure in favor of the epic poetry format that wouldn't apply in the modern world.

I don't think it's sufficient to fully explain the shift towards prose, though. Epic poetry was a big deal as late as the Romantic generation, when literacy was already fairly widespread. Perhaps it has to do with the shift away from teaching the classics, many of which are epic poems?

There is, of course, Tolkien. Though he gained fame for his prose rather than for, say, 'The lay of Earendil'

Musing about this, I have the impression that the rise of plays is simultaneous with the dying out of epic poetry. Shakespeare did both, and playwrights were respected less than poets at the time (and plays heavily censored and restricted by law), but as time passes, more playwrights and fewer epic poems, until by the 1900s, I'm hard-pressed to think of any long-form poets besides Eliot and Pound - though playwrights are still going like gangbusters with the likes of Tennessee Williams both commercially & critically popular.

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate, a novel in verse-- but it's a very rare sort of thing.

When you say "write it like a poem" in the title, what is "it"? What is this advice supposed to apply to?

Strange7 is teaching us how to write persuasively, like Eliezer.

This was my guess, but I wanted to make sure. Because I'm inclined to disregard the advice on the basis of all Strange7's previous posts having been downvoted.

There are grounds for being suspicious of quality of advice given in this post. But it's bad epistemic hygiene to signal disapproval with incomprehension.

You're right, I'm probably not the best person to be teaching this particular lesson. Anyone else is, of course, welcome to give it a try.

Eric S. Raymond has a good explanation in this post: "Mystical poetry and mental postures".[1] In short, poetry should be thought of as creating a mental stance in the audience, rather than conveying analytical explanations. Your post neglects this large inferential gap, hence it fails quite flat here.

One problem is that contemporary poetry has spent nearly a century losing itself in clouds of increasingly meaningless abstraction, or pandering to the political cause du jour. Nowadays, the place of poetry in folk culture has mostly been taken by song lyrics, although even here the quality is very hit-and-miss.

[1] ESR also has a nice tutorial on writing riddle-poems.

The first four sentences were intriguing, the second half was good, and the first half was painfully overextended, metaphor-wise.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

With Valentines day around the corner, I thought this one up:

Roses are red

Violets are blue

On valentine's eve

Here’s something for you kiss

or it the logistics aren’t right, I could just add at some point:

So, are we going to kiss tonight?

Google Books hosts a large number of free 100-year-old books on how to write well (as on a great many other topics). I wonder if it would be worth a collective effort to find out which of them are particularly helpful.

Great post, I look forward to more of these if you have time.

I agree that writing good poetry is hard -- I gave up at the "gain high social status among elite arbiters of poetry" stage.

But what does your article have to do with writing poetry? Did you mean pre-1900 poetry?

[-][anonymous]10y 13

I agree that writing good poetry is hard

A very witty friend of mine once compared writing poetry to masturbation. It's true, she said, that everybody does it, and it's nothing to be ashamed of: but for most people it's nothing to be particularly proud of either. A few virtuosos may do it so well that they can actually build an audience for themselves, and make a bit of money, but it will never be a stable career path. And while, in the context of an intimate relationship, a loved one may ask to see it, for the most part you should keep it to yourself and not try to show it to friends or strangers.

It is much easier to improve your writing if you let others point out potential mistakes in your poems or inspire different approaches. Which isn't unlike with masturbation, I guess.