I have come to believe that writing an effective poem, and teaching the writing of poetry, begins with a poetry two-step.
FIRST DANCE STEP: Images create emotions.
This is easy enough to demonstrate. If we hear on the radio that twenty-five people died in a flood in some far-off land, we think to ourselves how sad that is. Still, we probably don’t feel very much.
Yet if we see a dog run over in front of us, and hear that dog yelp, and see it convulsing in the street, we are likely to feel far more. It’s not, of course, that we think it’s more sad that a dog was hurt . . . it’s just that, because we are “present” for the accident, the dog’s injuries feel more visceral and real.
Concrete images accomplish the same thing. They place us at the scene. They help us experience what is happening, and so involve us.
SECOND DANCE STEP: Surprises grab interest.
There is a famous line by Mark Twain that begins like this: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice note saying . . .” At this point, of course, we are expecting Twain to offer some solace for the surviving family or praise for the deceased. Here is how the quote actually goes: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice note saying I approved of it.”
The fact that the line violates our expectations is what makes it memorable.
In the same way, if you sit with a group of people watching a film, the moments that will elicit the strongest responses will be the ones that surprise the viewers. Maybe there is an unexpected twist or turn in the story. Maybe a character has some quirky take on things that the audience would never anticipate. Maybe someone says the exact opposite of what we guessed they would say.
As writers, then, we want to think about how we can keep the interest of our readers by surprising them. In poetry, of course, this often means including surprising language, unexpected shifts and jumps, idiosyncratic ideas, or even unanticipated music.
TWO-STEP REVISION: How to dance your way to revision.
When I am revising a draft of a poem, or reading a student’s poem and hoping to make some suggestions, I ask myself this question about every line: Does it 1) contain a vivid image? 2) surprise me in some way? or 3) do both at once?
If the answer is “none of the above,” I figure that line should probably be cut or revised. As simple as that.
CAUTION: With creative writing there are always exceptions.
I know, I know: there are excellent poems that defy the two-step rule. There are no hard and fast rules in writing creatively. Still, I find the two-step dance helpful with my own poetry and also with the poetry of my students.