teaching poetry

18 posts

How To Critique a Poem


Critiquing a poem isn’t rocket science. For starters, don’t use clichés, like “rocket science,” but know what a cliché is, because spotting them will come in handy.

Before we get started on how to critique a poem, though, let’s start with how NOT to critique one. This assumes, of course, that the poet (or fellow student) is offering up a first draft and genuinely seeks ways to improve it.

First, the “Not-ty” List:

  • Do not read the poem and respond with generalizations, positive or negative. Avoid, “Boy, does this need work,” or the equally unhelpful “I love this. Great job!” Negative generalizations without reasons or suggestions are worthless. Complete affirmation of early drafts is equally bad. Serious poets who market work may well wonder, after collecting multiple hosannas from critical readers, why dozens upon dozens of poetry editors reject their work during the submission process. Similarly, student poets may wonder why, if all her readers loved it, the poem turned in received less than an “A” from the instructor (setting aside, for now, the advisability of grading poems in the first place). Wonder no more!
  • Do not confuse revision critiques with editing critiques. Revision deals with diction, semantics, ideas, techniques, word choice. Editing digs into the nitty-gritty of spelling, grammar, and mechanics. Sure, these are important, but they have a place and that place comes after revision. That said, it is OK to mention quickly if editing problems lead to confusion issues (which ties into content). From there, move onto the marketplace of ideas for revision.
  • Do not be lazy. Give others’ work the same amount of attention and effort you’d like to see extended to yours. Annotate. Look up words. Jot down ideas. (See list below.)
  • Do not subscribe to the “all interpretations are equal” theory. They aren’t. Ideas are arguments that need backing with textual evidence. Therefore, if you want to push an interpretation you’re seeing, be sure it fits the whole poem, from title to final line. Going off on tangents or seeing symbolism in every word is not only unhelpful, it’s insensitive and, in some cases, just silly (only no one’s laughing).
  • Don’t rewrite the poem for the writer. There’s a fine line between suggestion and hijacking. Your criticisms should be tools to work with, not a project taken over and finished by a contractor.
  • Don’t feel insulted if the writer chooses not to act on your ideas. Often some of your ideas will be used, but seldom will they all be adopted. And if none are and you did your job, know that you have provided what was asked of you. Ultimate agency lies with the writer. That is as it should be.


Now, the “Do It Right” List:

  • Have a pencil and dictionary (or dictionary site) on hand.
  • Have a quiet atmosphere. Just as mushrooms prefer a dark, moist area, so do poems prefer a setting where everyone can focus and give their undivided. If there is a talking phase for feedback and the room is divided in groups, speak under your breath such that nearby groups would have to work hard to make out what you’re saying.
  • Be honest but empathetic. They make a great pair. It might help to remember that writers, no matter how thick their skin, are vulnerable in unique ways. A person wrote this piece and is taking down the walls in sharing it, so be kind (it will feel good, trust me).
  • If you can, ask the poet what type of advice she is looking for. Everything? Mostly the opening or closing? Word choice? Some poets will tell you it’s about what they want already. They simply want “fine tuning” tips. Others will say, in so many words, “Help!” Any advice welcome. There’s a difference! If you offer wholesale changes advice to a poet who needs only fine-tuning, you’ll be wasting a lot of time (and, perhaps, insulting the writer). On the other hand, if you offer a few tidbits to someone who needs big-time help, they’ll feel shortchanged. Welcome to the world of critiquing!
  • Ready to go? Read the poem a few times. Place a check mark near any words, lines, or stanzas you might want to comment on.
  • Look up words you don’t know. This is basic respect. It will also inform your response, especially if no definitions of the word seem to match up with the poet’s intent. Either say so or ask a question for clarification. (Depending on agreed upon ground rules, this could be in the form of writing or speaking or, as I like it, first writing in silence and then, once everyone has written something, speaking in turn.)
  • Start with what you like. Maybe you don’t like anything, but something in this poem has possibility. It is not a violation of your oath of honesty to show the writer where the greatest possibilities exist.
  • Be specific. This cannot be stressed enough. Direct the writer’s (and other critiquers’, if this is a group setting) attention to specific stanzas, lines, and words. You can annotate this with “S” for stanza and “L” for line. Thus, you might write, “In S2, L5, I like how you used the word…,” etc., which, in speaking terms, would be, “In Stanza two, Line five, I like how….”
  • Pretend the writer is a little kid who will always asks why after you speak. That is, anticipate this by offering your reasons. Every constructive criticism, positive or negative, is rooted in reason. To not explain yours is to leave a job half done. It’s sloppy.
  • Speak in the language of poetry. Embed your critique in terms new to you or well-known to you, e.g. “In S3, L1, I really like the metaphor (read it) because (explain why).” If this is a classroom, all the repetition of terms will be like dropping Spanish language learners into Madrid for a month. Immersion works!
  • Offer ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. That said, you should always ask the writer up front (or agree before beginning as a group) how she wants them. Some poets love specific ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. Others find such specificity invasive. They prefer that you just point out strengths and weaknesses without sharp examples of possible changes. They don’t want to be influenced by them, in other words. Others like the specific ideas because it leads them to their own specific ones, similar to but different from the reader’s.
  • Know that all critiques are food for thought. Writers may later sample them by returning to the written annotations, then either moving on the ideas or choosing not to. Again, agency remains with the writer. She owns the poem. That cannot be stressed enough.
  • It is OK to say what the poem means to you as a reader. This meaning may surprise the writer. It may also illuminate flaws to the writer, who will realize that her lack of clarity has lead readers astray. Alternately, as is only appropriate in the reader-writer agreement, alternate readings may delight the writer, who actually can learn something about herself and her writing from such responses. Remember, though, that all interpretations must be rooted in evidence from the complete poem. Without that, it is nothing but a chasing after the wind (Biblical for “a worthless enterprise”).
  • Compliment the writer for taking risks, even if it doesn’t quite work yet. Explain why and how the risk might work with changes or a different direction. Some writers, especially in school settings, play it overly safe and follow the example of professionals or exemplar texts too closely. Such vanilla mimicry does not invoke the Muse, it invokes the grade. Writing poems with a good grade in mind through safety and mimicry is an assault on everyone’s sensibilities. If you see it as a reader, offer ideas on how the writer can free herself, have fun, be creative, take risks!
  • That said, if the poet writer is genuinely trying ideas seen in professional writers’ works (or studied in class) but making it walk to the beat of her own drummer, encourage that and explain why it is working or why it is not quite there yet. This might be one of those poetry terms everyone is immersing in or it might be as simple as unusual word pairings that have been noted in other poems.
  • Remember to gently warn writers off the habit of unintentional plagiarism. This happens when students accidentally insert a key word or word, idea or ideas, seen in an exemplar. One way to say this is, “Although this allusion to Eden is cool, it’s too similar to what Frost did in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’ See if you can write about lost innocence in a different way, one you think no one has thought of before. What does it look like to you, lost innocence? Using your own experience might be a starting point for revision.”
  • Share what’s important to you and should be to the writer. The title. The “turning point,” if it exists (or if it should exist). The all-important ending. The consistency and effectiveness of the poem’s theme throughout. What you care about is infectious. It will help the writer to care about it, too.
  • Use the language of ethos. Be understanding, helpful, respectful. “I see what you’re trying to do here and it could lead to good things. For me, however, it’s not working yet because ______________. I think it might work if you use more ___________ or try to _____________.  To think of ways to do this, you might ask yourself ____________.”
  • Words and terms that should be heard early and often: specific nouns, active verbs, imagery, the five senses, unusual word pairings, alliteration, similes/metaphors, sound devices (specify), rhetorical devices (specify), unity, theme, importance, allusions, clarify, elaborate, economy of words, clichés (as in “toxic effects of”), assonance, consonance, mixed metaphors, anaphora, etc. These words / terms will be the same in most settings, but in a classroom setting may be unique to the instructor / mentor and her points of emphasis.
  • Explain why any language specific to the writer must also be universal to readers. The balance is important, so point out where that balance is working and where it isn’t (adding reasons).
  • End with on a positive note. Then, always extend an invitation to the writer. “Do you have any questions for me (us)? Is there anything I (we) said that you don’t fully understand?
  • Know that poetry criticism as a reader will, in the long run, improve your poetry as a writer. Done correctly, the marketplace of ideas fills everyone’s shopping bags equally.
  • Thorough and effective critiques are inspiring. When writers see that their works have been afforded the time and effort necessary to good criticism, they will respond in kind, roll up their sleeves, and really get to work on Draft #2. It’s the fact that there are readers out there, people who care, that makes a difference. What, after all, is a poem without a reader? A tree falling in a forest with no humans to hear it! Audience is essential, and writers should always have it in mind as they write.

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death


Fringe. Niche. Eccentric.

These are words you might hear when people describe poets or poetry in general, at least in the States. Thing is, the joke’s on them (or at least in their mirrors). Why? Because everyone’s a poet, or at least was at one time.

As proof, my favorite 2 minute and 37 second video to share with students is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me.” Before reading a found poem wholly consisting of things her son said when he was 2- and 3-years-old, she shares what William Stafford once said when someone asked, “When did you become a poet?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question. The question is, when did you STOP being a poet? We’re all poets when we’re little. Some of us just try to keep up the habit.”

A little logic tells us, then, that the kid in all of us is the poet in all of us. It’s kind of like Halloween. You never quite get it out of your system. Now #2 behind Christmas in retail sales, October 31st has practically been taken over by adults who want to play dress up and “trick or treat” (without the door-to-door nonsense), too.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a party animal, then, you should take note: It’s the ordinary that should scare you to death.

What if I asked you to write something scary, for instance? Too often, when writers set out to scare readers, they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Fox News talking heads by any measure of time.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child (whether you’re age 50 or 12). As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack little kids have for seeing malevolence in the ordinary, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than a house’s basement.

Don’t believe me? Close your eyes a moment and conjure the basement of the house you grew up in. In my case, there was a rec room of no account on one side and then the unfinished side: concrete floor, washer/dryer, sump pump, oil tank, furnace, and that all important basement prop, “thing that goes bump in the night.” I can recall many a nightmare where various horrors came through the door separating these two sections.

But let’s move on to a good example of how basements tap can into our inner child mentality (and therefore our poetic imagination). It appears in the late poet Thomas Lux’s poem,  “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen. As it’s only three 9-line stanzas, let’s take a look:

      Cellar Stairs
      by Thomas Lux

      It’s rickety down to the dark.
      Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
      on your left and want to slash your throat,
      but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
      On a shelf above, tools: shears,
      three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
      poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
      halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
      you don’t want to fall face first into,

      no, you don’t. To your right,
      a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
      on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
      on a bad. Against the wall,
      on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
      together, no pair, as if the dead
      went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
      which is down these steps,
      at the bottom of which is a swollen,

      humming, huge white freezer
      big enough for many bodies—
      of children, at least. And this
      is where you’re sent each night
      for the frozen bag of beans
      or peas or broccoli
      that lies beside the slab
      of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
      each countless childhood meal your last.

      “Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. Heck with masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, people are killed every day by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs.

My advice, if it’s scares you’re after? Put down your remote and channel your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job — as a writer, as a poet, and as an aficionado of Halloween — is to make them thrum. Basements, attics, crawlspaces, closets, the one room people tend to avoid.

After that, scare yourself even more. Try reading some poetry. Or scare ME by writing a short poem about your cellar and sending it my way. I promise it will not be shared here or any other place, like behind the furnace.

See you later. I’m going to the cellar for a ball-peen hammer and some ideas I’ve been toying with.


How Voice Escorts Us into the “Interior of the World”


It seems fitting that Tony Hoagland’s farewell book to the world would tackle the concept of voice. If any poet knew of what he spoke, Hoagland was the man. Whether you read his poems or his sage essays about poems or writing poetry, you “heard” Hoagland and felt as if you were lucky to have found an open seat in his seminar.

The last seminar you can attend is The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The posthumous collection of essays stands as a short, “Hey, wait a minute,” on the matter of hard and fast rules about poetry writing. Chief among them? Your poetry must be as concise as possible to succeed.

The old adages sound logical, but Strunk and White weren’t poets, either. What about voice? With due diligence, Hoagland demonstrates that voice often requires colloquialisms, idioms, asides, etc. — the stuff that leavens our daily speech.

If executed with purpose, voice quickly bonds writer with reader, who is more than willing to forgive linguistic excess in exchange for a temporary soul mate capable of providing an insight or two on the world.

Hoagland provides many examples of poems, some complete and others frustratingly not, to back up his words. Here’s an excerpt he uses from Lisa Lewis’s poem, “While I’m Walking”:

Once I saw a man get mad because two people asked him
The same question. The second didn’t even know of the
Anyone would’ve called the man unfair, unreasonable,
He stormed at the person who approached him
That unfortunate second time, and it was nothing,
Where’s the restroom? or Where could I find a telephone?
He was a clerk, and the second person, a shopper,
He “change his attitude”…

But though it ruined their day it improved mine, I could rest
Less alone in anger and wounded spirits. That was long ago,…

Hoagland comments, “Lewis’s plain linguistic style might be described as ‘prosaic,’ that is, verbose and unpoetic, yet it compels us because her speaker tells more truth than we usually get, and she does so with a bluntness that tests the conventions of decorum. Lewis is a narrative-discursive poet in style, not a poet of lyrical language, but there is a rhythmic, businesslike terseness in her storytelling and thinking that is riveting in is purposeful informality. Her speaker captivates us for the duration of whatever she wants to say. That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us deep into the interior of the poem, which is also the interior of the poet, which is also the interior of the world.

“In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.”

And so the book leaves practitioners with an oxymoron of sorts. For voice, the poet must practice her intimacy, plan her informality, execute her natural voice for a casually-preconceived cause.

There are some writing exercises at the back of the book, if you wish. And some reader-writers will dive in. But others, like me, will find the book’s encouragement enough. Rereading a 168-page book is an exercise of sorts, too.

Either way, you’ll leave the book realizing that there are more angles than you thought to “voice,” and more “types” of voice, too, such as “speech registers” and “imported voices” and “voices borrowed from the environment.”

Bottom line? Strunk and White were fine for your college freshmen writing course, but maybe not for your poems. Perhaps it’s time to make like Pygmalion and give voice to your art.

Rubbing the Lantern of Memory


We all have topics we are drawn to. For me, one of those topics is memory. Why? Because it’s a tricky thing, sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. Like life, then, and so, a perfect metaphor.

While poking around the book, Selected Poems & Translations : 1969-1991 by William Matthews, I came across “Housework,” a poem that hits my topical sweet spot. Let’s listen in (to the voice in your head, I mean):


by William Matthews

How precise it seems, like a dollhouse,
and look: the tiniest socks ever knit
are crumpled on a chair in your bedroom.
And how still, like the air inside a church
or basketball. How you could have lived
your boyhood here is hard to know,
unless the blandishing lilacs
and slant rain stippling the lamplight
sustained you, and the friendship of dogs,
and the secrecy that flourishes in vacant lots.
For who would sleep, like a cat in a drawer,
in this house memory is always dusting,

unless it be you? I’d hear you on the stairs,
an avalanche of sneakers, and then the sift
of your absence and then I’d begin to rub
the house like a lantern until you came back
and grew up to be me, wondering how to sleep
in this lie of memory unless it be made clean.


The first thing Matthews gets right is how everything from the past shrinks. Anyone who has “gone home again” á la Thomas Wolfe knows as much. He puts that to work in this poem by mentioning the “dollhouse” effect and the “tiniest socks.”

As a teacher of poetry, a genre most students are allergic to, I always encouraged students to simply identify cool lines that they liked. Avoiding treasure hunts for poetic devices helped young readers to relax and just go with what sounded neat. Inevitably, they were drawn to words and lines that were (wait for it) poetic devices.

I’m sure, if I assigned this in a classroom, students would jump all over “And how still, like the air inside a church / or basketball.” Ninety-nine of us could link stillness with the inside of a church, but the inside of a basketball? In a poem going back in time to the life of a young boy? Now that’s pretty cool (and oh, by the way, a simile, too).

The only other requirement I had in class is that students look up any word they didn’t know. Here it would be “blandishing” as in “blandishing lilacs.” To blandish is to coax or cajole so, metaphorically, we get the spellbinding smell of lilacs that often attracts people’s noses.

More cool lines? How about, quite simply, “and slant rain stippling the lamplight / sustained you, and the friendship of dogs, / and the secrecy that flourishes in vacant lots.” It’s kind of a sad, viewing-the-past-through-the-gauze-of-memory moment, no? Perhaps this was a lonely boy, then?

Then we get the line about “this house that memory is always dusting.” Neat. Each time you return to a particular memory, you’re dusting it, cleaning it up, changing it ever so slightly.

Finally there is the allusion to Aladdin’s lamp, wherein the house is rubbed “like a lantern” until “you” (who really is the speaker himself) returns by growing up “to be me.” Dopplegänger stuff, almost. And why I like memory poems so much, especially where the speaker is a player and all of life a stage.

In a word: Cool.

Dear Student, What If You Were the Teacher?


Dear Student. What if you were the teacher? What if you had to conduct a lesson on this or that challenging poem?

That’s the best advice I can give to students who make the mistake of Googling “[poetry title] analysis” the minute they are assigned a paper. They may as well be typing “[poetry title] think for me because I don’t believe in myself” into the search  bar.

What do you love best, student? Sports? Dance? Karate? Music? Gaming? And how would you go about teaching the basics to someone who was clueless about this pastime you love?

True, you would use your experience, but you would probably want to brush up on things you still DON’T know or certainly could IMPROVE UPON to do it right and to separate yourself from lazier teachers.

News Flash: People who teach for a living are first and foremost students themselves. To teach well, they must first learn all they can (and the well is bottomless, so on and on it goes) about their subject matter. The knowledge they gain makes them sharper, more interesting, and more impassioned about their subject matter.

So, dear student, take a page out of their books. Read that poem over and over. Put it to song if you must. Make sure you know every definition of any word you don’t know, then choose the best fit so there’s complete clarity, at least on the surface level.

Remember, as teacher, you have to know what many others don’t bother to know.

Think this is no fun? Then stop playing victim and handing the remote control to your life into other people’s hands.

Put some intrigue into it! Play detective (or cast yourself in any police drama slash mystery program you love from TV). Come up with solutions and interpretations that satisfy ALL of the evidence in the poem, not just some of it.

Solving something challenging is way more satisfying then figuring out a nursery rhyme, so why surrender at the get-go (a.k.a. “Google”) when you can make this fun?

And then there is pride. Anyone getting up before the class to teach (even if that’s not the case with every poem you read for class) would want to look competent, no? For the same reason you shower, dress properly, brush your teeth and comb your hair before going out in public, yes?

The bottom line is this: Analyzing poetry or any literature takes time. There are no shortcuts. You don’t do free throws in basketball at team practices only. If you want to be good at crunch time—team down by one with two seconds on the clock and the gym filled with screaming fans— you put in time at home.

Believe in yourself, student. Because any teacher worth his or her salt believes in you, too. Just as in every good teacher there is a perpetual student, in every good student there is a perpetual teacher (someone who keeps repeating to self, “What if I were the teacher?”).

That’s the secret to success, and though it may be a reach, it is within—and not beyond—every good student’s reach. Yep. That’s you. Get used to it. Then take some pride in it.


Not Mirror, but Wobbly-Puddle Images


Have you ever written something (a letter, a poem) only to have it disappear on screen before you had a chance to save it? Poof. And so, with all these ideas in your head, you start anew. You have no choice.

But the creature created in Version #2 is a relative rather than a replication of the lost draft. A second cousin twice removed. It is the same in many ways, yes, yet different in other ways.

Some writing teachers play this game with pencil and paper (the easier to play “Poof!” with). Their students get to write a draft longhand. Then the teacher collects the work. Next thing you know, teacher is saying, “OK, students, now I want you to rewrite the poem. First write ‘Draft 2’ next to your name on top, would you?”

After the requisite groans, the student writers doggedly write again, remembering the good stuff, of course, but writing a true second draft because they have been denied the first to mostly copy and happily have no choice.

Yes, Christina Olson, winner of one of Rattle‘s 2020 Chapbook Awards (for The Last Mastodon), writes something like this in her letter-as-poem (epistolary to you) to a loved one. Notice all the repetition in Part 2. Notice how it echos Part 1, only with the sound caroming off a different slant of cliff.

Maybe you like one letter more than the other. Or maybe hearing it twice in different versions presses home the importance of certain ideas and ways of putting them, another pay-off of this technique. It’s an exercise you can play, too. Check it out:


Reconstruction Errors, Part 1 & 2
Christina Olson


All day I’ve tried & failed to write
this letter to you. Do we deserve anything
for our failings, our clumsy fumblings
in the dark? I have no excuse
for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurch from truth to truth.
The sky can’t decide between bruise
or blue; in this way, it is like the heart.
We were a long time ago, you & I—
we had all our original teeth. You sent
me a video of the lake, the rustle
of blue on the rocks. I weep because our dog
is dying, because I haven’t smelled
fresh water for such a long time.
That summer, I visited La Brea twice.
It gave my pain some geological perspective.
The surface of the tar pit shone
blue-black, reflected the sky, smelled
of street. But I forgot my science;
there are more predators than prey
in the pits, the bones dragged to the light.


But I forgot my science: there are more predators
than prey in the pits, the bones dragged to the light—
original teeth. The surface of the tar pit
shone blue-black, reflected the smell of street.

You sent me a video of the lake, the rustle of blue
on the rocks. Do we deserve anything for our fumblings,
these clumsy failings in the dark? The sky can’t decide
between bruise or blue; in this way, it is like the heart.
I have no excuse for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurch from truth to truth. We were a long time ago,

you & I. That summer, I visited La Brea twice.
It gave my pain some geological perspective. I weep
because our dog is dying, because I haven’t smelled water
for such a long time. All day I’ve tried & failed.

Self-Analysis as Creative Source


The best cure for writer’s block is the writer herself. Consider, writer, your field of expertise. Within the goal lines you will surely find these players: self, ego, and consciousness. Now jump in the stream and, as the psychologists say, let yourself go.

If you do, and you start with the prompt “I always have to be…,” you might come up with a poem like Ron Padgett’s “Think and Do” below. It looks easy, reading it, and nothing inspires an idea-hungry writer like the sensation of looking easy.

From a few things that define you as a person, you just relax on your back and let the stream of consciousness carry you down river. Enjoy the muffled sounds of forest and rushing river (your ears are underwater) and especially the moving sky and clouds above you, framed like art by treetops.

Before you know it, your sense of humor will kick in (it always does once you’re relaxed). And before you know it, you’ve gone from stuff you’re good at to non sequiturs. You know, like Rodin’s The Thinker, a big lug of a statue that holds within its muscular body all manner of contradiction.

By spicing your self-analysis with specificity and thought processes that your friends, upon reading them, would say, “Yeah, that’s just like him,” you’ll have a lively poem to work on in no time.

Looks easy, right? (Cardinal rule for writer’s block: Bring a sense of humor.)


Think and Do
Ron Padgett

I always have to be doing something, accomplishing some-
thing, fixing something, going somewhere, feeling purposeful,
useful, competent—even coughing, as I just did, gives me the
satisfaction of having “just cleared something up.” The phone
bill arrives and minutes later I’ve written the check. The world
starts to go to war and I shout, “Hey, wait a second, let’s think
about this!” and they lay down their arms and ruminate. Now
they are frozen in postures of thought, like Rodin’s statue, the
one outside Philosophy Hall at Columbia. His accomplish-
ments are muscular. How could a guy with such big muscles be
thinking so much? It gives you the idea that he’s worked all his
life to get those muscles, and now he has no use for them. It
makes him pensive, sober, even depressed sometimes, and
because his range of motion is nil, he cannot leap down from
the pedestal and attend classes in Philosophy Hall. I am so
lucky to be elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the
word elastic, and have it snap me back to underwear, which
reminds me: I have to do the laundry soon.

14 Rules for Writing from Tim O’Brien


In Dad’s Maybe Book, author Tim O’Brien spells out some rules for writing intended for his sons, Tad and Timmy. They are equally intended for the reader, who is serving as a vicarious child of the O’Briens reading along.

Below are 14 Rules O’Brien shares, directly quoted from the book, and though he says “story” now and then, I daresay the advice works for poetry, novels, plays, and essays as well.

See if you agree:


1.  Review the difference between “lie” and “lay.” A good number of TV personalities, politicians, poets, recording artists, newspaper columnists, pediatricians, and crime writers should do the same.

2.  Do not be terrified of emotion. Be terrified of fraudulence.

3.  Stories are not puzzles. Puzzles are puzzles.

4.  Information is not story. Information is information.

5.  Pay close attention to the issue of simultaneity. In life, as in a good story, numerous things occur at the same time, even when your attention might be riveted on a rattlesnake coiled to strike. In other words, when you’re writing stories, do not juggle only a single ball. (Single ball jugglers rarely get hired twice to entertain at birthday parties.) Fill your stories with “nice contradictions between fact and fact.” Fill your stories with food and drink, the weather, tired feet, dental appointments, phone calls from out of the blue, upset stomachs, flat tires, pens that run out of ink, undelivered letters of apology, traffic jams, swollen bladders, and spilled coffee. These and other intrusions must be endlessly juggled as we make our way along the story lines of our lives. Therefore, don’t insulate your characters from the random clutter that distracts and infuriates and entertains all of us.

6.  Similarly, do not let excessive plotting ruin your story anymore than you would allow it to ruin your life.

7.  Bear in mind that stories appeal not only to the head, but also to the stomach, the back of the throat, the tear glands, the adrenal glands, the funny bone, the nape of the neck, the lungs, the blood, and the heart—the whole human being.

8.  You are writing not only for your contemporaries. You are writing also for a seventeen-year-old student who might encounter your story two hundred years from now, or for an old man in Denmark in the year 2420, or for a lonely widow sitting at a futuristic slot machine in the year 4620.

9.  Also, believe it or not, you are writing for those who have preceded you— for Thomas Jefferson, for the children of Auschwitz, and for a father who may no longer be present to read your story.

10.  Surprise yourself. You might then surprise your reader.

11.  Do not fear (or deny) your own ignorance. It makes for curiosity.

12.  Do not fear (or deny) ambiguity. Though the prose itself may be crystalline, good stories almost always involve people snagged up in confusing moral circumstances. Think of Raskolnikov. Think of Charles and Emma Bovary. Think of your dad.

13.  Pay attention to every word. There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, plus a few punctuation marks. Those twenty-six letters, if poorly arranged, will result in mediocrity, infelicity, or plain gibberish. But from those same twenty-six letters, well arranged, come the sonnets of Shakespeare. The letters of the alphabet can be likened to the four chemical bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—that constitute the building blocks of all plant and animal DNA. The precise sequence, or order, of the bases determines whether an organism becomes a polar bear or a dachshund or William Shakespeare. Therefore, along the same lines, I suggest you do all you can to arrange the letters of the alphabet in exacting sequences.

14.  Read your writing aloud. Does it make sense? Does it make music?

Redefine, Sense, Identify, Write


As a teacher, I often made use of the brief riches to be found in two sources: poems and short documentary films. Preview, prepare writing or discussion (or both) prompts, show, and turn it over to students.

For me, The New York Times’ “Film Club” series was an indispensable source of watch-and-write material. Most often the “write” was a Film Club Journal entry, but other times it was the gateway for an essay or poem or opinion piece.

As an example, consider the possibilities in the 7-minute documentary film called “Sanctuaries of Silence.” It tells the story of Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist (of all things) who goes out with sensitive listening devices and records the sounds of silence.

But hold on there. Let’s redefine first, an always fruitful assignment for students. Don’t let them assume or forever fall back on denotations. For creative purposes, pick an intriguing word and have them redefine.

Hempton redefines silence as the absence of human-made sounds. For him, sounds of the natural world alone don’t count as “noise.” No, noise pollution—that is, the product of the human race—rates as true “noise,” and it’s harder and harder to escape from it (think of planes passing overhead, even in the most remote of locations).

For student writers, going outside and putting their senses on high alert is good practice, whether it is a man-made setting or a natural one. In this case, it is sounds they would focus on and record in notebooks, but certainly it could be sights, smells, tastes, and sensations of touch as well.

Identify? What’s making that sound? If you think the exact source and its name is easy, just try identifying it. Hunting down the source of a noise is not always easy. Even crickets can grow shy when you get close enough, and does your average writer know the difference between a cicada and a katydid, a wood thrush and a yellow warbler? How about an urban setting? Manmade objects have specific names, too.

There’s an exact word for everything, all right, and specific nouns, along with active verbs, are the muscle and bone of good writing, no matter what the genre.

Starting with film or poem or both always makes for excellent writing kindling. Students love them, too, and they don’t eat up a lot of class time, so there’s a lot of educational bang for your instructional buck.

Not a teacher? Be an autodidact. Put that notebook to good use. Redefine, sense, identify, and write!

Billy Collins, Animated


Billy Collins, one of the most recognized among American poets, did a wise thing years ago. He harnessed the power of video to many of his poems. This not only helped poet-writers with the art of imagery, it also gave reluctant poet-readers (often known as “students”) a door into the not-so-bad-after-all genre of poetry.

Given the amount of technology available to writers, teachers, and students alike, Collins’ example can lead in multiple directions. As readers, you can read, reread, discuss, reread, enjoy, reread, analyze, reread, and then view a poem.

As a writer, you can write your own. For some writers, wondering what your words would look like if animated might inspire the specific nouns which give birth to imagery.

Finally, as an animator, you can create a video for your own poem (or one for someone else’s poem that inspires you). The tools are there, even in the classroom in the case of many tech-savvy schools.

But whatever you do or don’t do, seeing and hearing accessible poems like Billy Collins’ will prove (once again) that poetry is meant to be read aloud, whether it be yours or someone else’s.

Here is Billy Collins’ TED Talk, which introduces animation for his poems “Budapest,” “Some Days,” “Forgetfulness,” “The Country,” and “The Dead.”

And here are words to the poems used in the video:


“Some Days”


“The Country”

“The Dead”

Searching “Billy Collins Poetry” on YouTube will lead you to even more of his poems set to video.

Happy reading (and rereading) and viewing (and reviewing) and finally writing (and revising).

Notice the important of re-‘s. Then go have some fun.