Posted by: Adam Roper | April 12, 2009

How to write poetry: Part 3

If you type “how to write poetry” into Google you will get thousands of varying results (which I realized late one fine early-spring evening). Some of these results treat poetry as very cut and dry, others treat it very philosophically. A few of the sites I came across explained that poetry must be properly structured with clear iambic pentameter (which, because I am not very technical, kind of suck at). As it appears, the idea of an artist seeking to explain the best way to do art, based on their own experience, is common. Meh.

I started thinking more about this, after my initial existential crisis. How can I describe poetry? What is the essential point of the written word?

Poetry is a craft, like every other art form- composing/performing music, painting, reading, dancing, etc. Learning the technical aspects of a craft can set you free or limit you, depending on how you look at at it.

When an illiterate person opens a book the feeling they have is being stuck. All the words are there, but they feel powerless to do anything with them. For me painting and music are the same way. The reason I have such a hard time creating music is that I’m illiterate when it comes to time signatures and chords. And the reason I can’t paint is my illiteracy with shapes.

This is not to say my heart is not there. I want to paint, dance, and write songs because seeing paintings and listening to music has inspired me, but I usually give up for lack of resources.

So here is something I have learned: Art is both skill and creativity working together. I believe when we begin learning about a craft- the technical aspects of it- it sets us free to use those skills to express creativity. This calls for a strong sense of patience in any artist’s life- a person who has played guitar for years continues taking lessons for this reason, a writer can spend his whole life writing and still wrestle to find just the right word or phrase, a singer is always seeking to master vocal methods. You can have the skill but feel a lack of creativity, and you can have creativity but feel a lack of skill. A craft must be learned as much as loved.

As a writer I sometimes feel powerless when I sit down to write. I’m still trying to learn the basics- how to capture what I want to say in the most effective way possible, how to convey images that appeal to the senses, how to create a sense of flow. I can say all these things about poetry but, unless I’m actually learning, everything I say is just talk. Simply said, to be an artist is to be a lifelong learner.

The great mystery of art lies in the diversity of a crafted work. A guitar in the hands of Andy Mckee would sound different than a guitar in the hands of David Evans. A poem by Emily Dickinson is much different than a poem by Bradley Hathaway, though they both used words. Each artist uses the same tools to create, though what they create is as diverse as their character and setting in life.

What, then, is the craft of poetry? What are the most basic elements of a writing life? What are the guitar strings, the key signatures, the paints, the tones and movements of poetry?

I will answer all these questions tomorrow (and leave you hanging! Ha Ha! Take that LOST).




  1. You, my friend, are a master of suspense. Well played

  2. I’ve met “musicians” that refuse to take lessons because they are afraid the teacher will influence their sound too much. They fear conforming to typical music, I suppose. But this is ridiculous because they will never grow (or at least grow very slowly) when they are closed off to learning. Their music will become stale.

    I fully agree with you that art is a combination of skill and creativity… and both need to be fed and nurtured.

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