It’s a question I get asked in every class. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m repeating myself. The same concepts brought from different angles, between different minds, carried along by different words, all returning to the same question.
How do you write poetry? What is different about this type of writing that makes it contained, powerful?
And the answer is precisely that. Poetry is powerful because it is contained. A novelist can afford words, a surfeit of verbosity splattering across the world they build—and the joy of reading those is to be lost among those words for hours or days as you dream awake.
A poet has no such luxury. A haiku: seventeen syllables in three lines which must set and deliver. There is no space here to slowly ease you into the cold water. A poet leaps.
So the first How? is: you must know how to write. You must know the rules of words and writing so you know how and when to break them. You must know the scent and taste and feel of each word, to find them in the darkness and place them just so.
A novelist has the luxury to set a scene, bare the innermost lives of two characters, show interaction after interaction just to understand the mismatched desire they experience, the unrequited love, a longing glance, a sleepless night, and endless dreams of you.
A poet, given ten words to make this introduction, might say:
I want you (to want me) to want (you too).
Or perhaps a lover’s reunion on a rainy day in three lines:
Tongues touch, and raindrops.
Outside (I’m) grey, cold, silence.
It’s warm inside (you).
A poet must understand words, be comfortable with ambiguity, with misdirection. Where each word must carry itself and the weight of the whole. What do these words you chose evoke, how do they sit beside each other in a mouth (for poems are meant to be read aloud), do they wrestle for space? Do they drip from your lips?
A poet must know how to show this and that, the pause, the inflection. How the poem should be read—and the reader must discover that as they read. Meaning exists in what is unsaid, lives in the pause before.
I’m sorry… I love you.
I’m sorry. I love you.
I’m sorry I love you.
A poem is a knife. It slips past your guard, your dreamlike reading mind to find your heart in one swift blow; and if done right—you’ll never even know (you’re reading one).
A novel is to paint with a glorious palette; a poem to sharpen words to a razor’s edge.
The second How? is Form, and it is a convenient fiction.
Useful if you wish to tread your steps through a dance of syllables, to test your words, your pace, to race the steps from beginning to end. Perhaps to compare or reflect on those who came before.
But you do not learn to beat the test, the test is just that—a measure of what you have learned.
Above I said, If a poet is given ten words, as if that was the role of the Form…but the secret is that the Form serves the Poem. The poet chooses to take the ten, not because the Form has value, but because the Poem seeks that shape. The shapes themselves have force, but they exist for the sake of the Poem, not the other way around.
There is no purpose in and of itself, it’s merely a measure, a beat, a rhythm, repeat it only as long as you need to, for it exists for you. Each Form can be considered a path to be mastered, and when it no longer serves the words, discarded.
The mortal mind is shaped towards language, this complex manipulation of words and tokens that stand for our hearts and our experiences, that bridge the gap between us, that find the way from lonely mind to lonely mind.
At the end of everything, none of it matters.
There is just you, and the words, and the rules you’ve stepped over on the way to making someone feel.
That is the measure of your success.