How To Improve Your Writing (Learning To Read pt 2)

Poetry, like all writing, is the message. Every poem has one. From the author to the reader. From reader to listener. And often that message is simple, though sometimes it is obscured in difficult layers of representation. *(from part 1)


Part 2 - The Message is Lost


I'm not one to tell people what is or isn't poetry. I think that is a pointless conversation. I'm also hesitant to say things are right or wrong, or good or bad. I tend to think of poems as being in-progress or finished.

It's also worth a note that Whitman's Leaves of Grass was in-progress from 1855-1892 as a published work. So it's OK to improve and change. Things don't have to be so final. 

Another note: my observations aren't meant as a law, but more of a guide for something that I see all the time with poetry, 
especially on Instagram.


I read a lot of poems on my feed. Some really move me, some make me laugh. A lot fall into this beautifully-confusing category. So many poems have great stories and ideas, but collapse in on themselves. 

They start about subject A then move to B then so on and so on until we are at F and  never have come back to any of the earlier points. Then its over.


It becomes hard to keep them all straight, but the lines feel good and there is something of a story there. Something the author wanted to say. I can read the author's excitement. Their passion. They're right on the cusp of having a polished idea in their poem, but somewhere between the feeling and the page, the message was lost. 

The poem doesn't hold the burn. 

And when I'm done reading the piece, I don't feel like I understood anything clearly. Maybe I could chalk it up to poetry being abstract or vague... poetry can be. But there is a big difference between an abstract concept, and the complete lack of one. 

This is something we develop as readers.

As a reader it is easy to make a judgement and say I liked that, this made sense, this was weird, or good, or sexy, or terrible... but as Writers, I see that judgement disappear.


I think because it is easy to understand ourselves, and it is hard to know how others will read our words. But we need that readers mind in order to write our messages clearer.


So lets start again small.


Instead of worrying about a big idea. Start with a simple one. Some people say start with a title, but I have trouble with that honestly. I think the point is to start with a concept. Something that you can return to. Something that can ground a poem into a setting, or character, or action. This is where my Zen style thinking takes over for me. Good or bad. 

Recently I wrote a poem called Coffee. 





the taste was bitter - she looked at me as if to say
t'know more things are different
t'know more things have changed
t'know of the many things we lost


like the slow drip
in the cold morning


unaccounted, unrecorded, unappreciated
unable to recall just one


the taste was bitter -
and she didn't have to say



Whether or not you think it is great, I don't care, but it demonstrates one of my favorite things about writing poetry. Evolving a simple idea into an emotion, and then into an experience. 

I wrote it with the idea of coffee in the morning. Home brewed. It was a simple setting. Once I arrived on the line, the taste was bitter. I felt I had an emotional hook. The flavor for the coffee became the symbol for the relationship between the narrator and this second person.

It was tempting for me to want to evolve that idea more. To let it run away, but I try to control myself to some degree. To talk about the relationship. Why it has become bitter. Where it started. What could happen next, but there has to be a point to what is being said, or else the message will be lost. 


This is the part I think is subjective
and where real writing craftsmanship takes over.


To me it was enough to know that the bitterness had overwhelmed the relationship. To know that the characters were not on talking terms, notice the lack of dialogue, combined with the repeating lines - she didn't have to say. It was enough of a story to focus on the drink. The slow, drip of the machine, the cold, wordless interaction fusing with the taste of bad coffee. The story became self-contained but not dull; there was a story between the lines.

And I built that taste for enough/not enough through reading. Relating my poem to all the things I liked as a reader. That is my barometer. Not what you think. Not what magazines think. Not what teachers or lovers or friends think. But my taste from reading.


For example, I am a big fan of returning to the opening line to close off a poem. It's a simple technique, not to be over-done, but it can help close off the loop of a narrative; reinforce the main concept of the bitter taste, and the establish the importance of the relationship to the reader. That is, after all, the one thing I want a reader to take away from this piece.


If I had ended with the line, unable to recall just one, the last image of the poem would be the slow drip of the machine. Which is cool and poetic in its own way, but betrays the conceit of the poem. 

Coffee is not about the machine or even the coffee being made. It is about the people drinking it, and their inability to connect during a very communal activity.

Having a cup of coffee and talking about the day is a near Universal staple of the human experience. We could simplify it even more to say, talking over a drink be it alcohol, tea, water, soda, or coffee is so human it is easy to forget that it is a thing we choose to do in order to help us connect with each other.

The utter failure in this relationship to move in to normal conversation means they are so infused with the bitterness, that there is nothing left. Nothing to talk about. Nothing to exchange but the bitter looks. 

And they both know.


So maybe you didn't get all that from my poem the first time. Maybe you think it is not a poem, cause it doesn't rhyme or have an identifiable structure that can easily be categorized as a poem. Or maybe you think it sucks. Honestly I don't care.

The words I wrote have a deliberate message I am creating through

Word Choice
Social Constructs

and even though I have used a lot of poetic tools, those individual terms would mean nothing if the poem meant nothing. 

If it didn't add up to the communication experience between writing and the reader. If it didn't have a story behind the poem.

So think about this: What do you want the reader to understand and take away from your poem? What is the essential idea? Make it small. Make it focused. And see if that makes a difference in your writing.


Third Note: This completely applies to most types of writing in general. Either Song. Novel. Essay. There should be some clear idea in any writing that needs to be said. With out that essence, why should anyone read it?


Much love



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