Poetry Editing 101: Session Five – Q&A

Welcome back everyone to a very different session.

In our last workshop I asked for people to submit their questions about poetry and poetry editing. So lets get right to it.

@idenkcall asks

How would you define poetry?

This is the age old question. Many poets have tried to define what poetry is over the years. Let’s look at some of their attempts:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
~ William Wordsworth

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
~ Emily Dickinson

“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.”
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
~ T.S.Eliot

“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.”
~ Carl Sandburg

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”
~ Dylan Thomas

“Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life.”
~ Matthew Arnold

“Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.”
~ Matthew Arnold

When I read these, I see truth in all of them. Then I read them again and see the arguments against. The most we can say is that, here, even from some of the greatest poets of all time, all they have given us are personal opinions of what poetry is to them.

The simplest definition of poetry I’ve ever heard lies in the distinction between prose and poetry. It is one of form: prose is based on the paragraph whilst poetry is based on the line. This should be no surprise as use of the line is one of the key areas of focus in the writing and editing of poetry.

Back in the third session of Editing 101 I talked a little about avoiding making value statements in poetry or running the risk of coming off like an absolutist. Statements which are clearly opinions or beliefs are fine, but many people find it intolerable when others represent these personal positions as facts.

So above and beyond its form, I’d be wary of anyone who tries to tell you what poetry is. Poetry has evolved throughout history and has always found ways of reinventing itself. Even if you could pin it down, it’s likely a young poet will come along and do something which forces you to redefine your terms.

Anyone who’s trying to strictly define it is playing a losing game, because they’re giving up all the possibilities of what poetry could be but isn’t yet.

Thanks for your question, @idenkcall. I’ll leave you with what I think is the most sensible position on defining poetry:

“I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.”
~ A. E. Housman

@bex-dk Asked

In modern free verse, how much does pattern and structure or lack of it matter?

This is going to be a somewhat contradictory answer because it matters a great deal within the poem but it doesn’t matter at all in terms limitations or restrictions to the poem because we’re not forced into following a predefined structure.

When writing free verse we can essentially make all the choices ourselves about the structure of the poem: whether it has elements of regular rhythm or not, whether it uses any rhymes/pararhymes or not – in any part of it or at particular points, whether there is symmetry in the length of lines, of stanzas. All of these elements and much more are up for grabs.


My reading of this is, these things are important, if not essential. What writing free verse actually gives you is the chance to make everything work for the poem in the most powerful way possible.

If you feel lines should be long at one point and short at another, if that’s going to make the poem stronger then you absolutely should do it. If you want to use a rhyme to amplify a line, then you can do that too.

Robert Frost said, Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. I’m still unsure if that amounts to a positive or a negative, though for Frost it was definitely the latter.

It’s quite a flawed analogy when you consider it, because playing without a net wouldn’t make the game any easier to win – the opponent would have all the same new advantages – it would merely change the game and make more things possible.

Thanks for the question.

@poetrybyjeremy asked

I have seen some people experiment with indentation in pretty unique ways. Do you have a general opinion on indentations – if they are helpful, distracting, or depends on a case-to-case basis?

I guess as a reader and writer of poetry I’m quite old school about this issue. I feel that unless justified by the content of the poem itself, poetry should be justified left, and that’s about it.

Where anything else is going on with the physical structure of the poem it should be to enhance what’s on the page. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Take a look at this poem by Jon Silkin, Death of a Son.

He references houses and birds many times in the poem, birds in flight, and the line placement in the verses themselves take the shape of rotated V’s that children would use to represent birds, in a painting, or perhaps roofs of houses. Except for the last verse where this form comes crashing down, the moment of death. And in the two line coda:

And the breathing silence neither
Moved nor was still.

In the very last verse, each line is left justified – the son is dead. Left justified text – justified – the last verse forming a justification of sorts for the rest of the experience.

The last line:

and he died

is indented.

This could be read in many ways – pain has been lifted from the son and/or from the persona, or perhaps he feels his son’s spirit rising up out of his body.

It’s probably worth pointing out that Silkin was one of the foremost poetry editors of his day. He founded and was the editor of Stand magazine, which is still one of the most important poetry journals out there.

This particular piece shows what is possible with the structural games that can be played in a poem. The question we should ask ourselves is this: do the structural decisions we’re making serve the theme and deep meaning of the words on the page. If not, go back to basic formatting.

The words of a poem should do the talking. When I see poems structured with indents, or spaces within a line to form curves or shapes on the page, it starts alarm bells ringing. In the right poem it can be magnificent; if its not justified within the content of the poem, it’s a clear signal that the writer knows their words can’t stand on their own and has felt the need to pretty them up in entirely the wrong way.

@darrencray asks:

I know this person who wants to improve on their poetry but refuses to change any cliches and old English in her work. What advice should I give her?

For a start you could direct them to last Editing 101 post in the series. Though I’m guessing this is more about advice falling upon deaf ears more than anything else.

When you read the work of a writer and it’s ridden with cliches, abstractions and antique language, there’s no clearer sign that they’re not reading contemporary poetry. Such writing feels stuck in the past because that’s clearly where the writer is.

So encourage them to read some. Make them a present of a modern poetry collection or get them an anthology – something like Staying Alive would be perfect for this.

The other possibility, especially when it comes to cliches and abstractions (if that’s a problem too), is that they’re just novice writers who believe that their first drafts are good enough. If you feel this might be the case, try and get them to join a writing circle or perhaps go to a workshop with some experienced writers.

@rahlee asks:

I hate writing and I rarely read long poems. I like writing 3 to 5 lines of words with great depth. Any advice on that?

I think short poems can be as powerful as long ones. I don’t see very much different in the disciples between writing them. In a short poem the features and concerns are very must the same as with a longer one.

Another key element of writing and editing poetry is conservation of language and short poems emphasise the need for this aspect of the craft. This will be the subject of an entire session coming up soon, so I’ll not say more than that at this point.

As for not engaging with longer works, if you’re looking to expand into them, my advice would be to go back and look at the very first session and try following the process I’ve laid out there for the writing of a poem. Write five drafts of a poem and see how far you can explore within a theme. Push yourself to uncover new ideas and images and then synthesise all these drafts into a coherent whole.

Either way, I wouldn’t feel any negativity about it. The quality of a poem is much more important than its length.

@diebitch asks:

How do I format poetry on Steemit?

What a great question. I guess everyone has found their own way but this is the method I use to make it look as close to professional publication as I can. This is from a poem I posted earlier this week.

So it’s just a 3# header for the title, a line break and then the text of the poem.

This is how it looks on the page:

So it’s as simple as that.

Don’t use the quoted text marker > It’s great for quotes but looks terrible for original poetry.

This may sound like a ridiculous statement but it’s something else I’ve seen people do – don’t post your poetry in bullet points. It might actually be a nice texture for a poem if it were justified by the theme, but to do it as standard makes the poetry look terrible.

Finally, do not center justify your poetry. Well, unless you want your poems looking like they’re being delivered on a greetings card.

@nikisteem asks

Is poetry that sounds like it’s prose chopped up actually poetry?

So this one takes us to the beginning again and brings us back to talking about what is and isn’t poetry.

One could see this on a sliding scale, of sorts, that poems, in some way, find themselves between the lyrical and the prosaic. In terms of modern poetry, there certainly has been a movement towards the latter in the last seventy years or so.

Poems written in this way tend to have a more hard-boiled feeling. To give you an example of what I mean, take a look at this poem by Matthew Sweeney (one of my favourite modern poets): Gold.

So then we can ask ourselves, would that poem be quite the same if it were couched in lyrical verse? No, it surely wouldn’t be. It’s raw and uncomfortable on the page and it needs to be so.

Now let’s look at a more lyrical work: Molly Peacock’s, A Hot Day In Agrigento.

The lyrical nature of the poem clearly forms a substantial part of what this work delivers. A colder style would change this entirely.

This divide between beautified and matter-of-fact, elevated and earthbound, lyrical and prosaic are not really a divide at all. They’re a choice that should be made to serve the work and make it the best it can be. It’s another option, another texture, another possibility.

It’s sad to have to admit, but there does remain a certain amount of prejudice about poetry from people who have a very fixed idea of it, often 100 years out of date. They will tell you that poetry has to be lyrical or it isn’t poetry. Please don’t listen to them. It’s only bias and ignorance talking.

There’s absolutely room for both the lyrical and the prosaic.

So there we are. Thanks for your question and thanks again to everyone who submitted one.

In the next session, we’re going to be talking about the central, structural feature that makes poetry the form it is – the line.

Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this session, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

For now, go write!


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