"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
….are ruthless, prescriptive and proscriptive. If they sound just a teeny bit dogmatic, that’s because these are the faults I come across all the time in others’ work – and in my own. Based on workshops and exercises I’ve led, and on competition entries I have judged, my list bluntly addresses the likely errors of the beginner poet, and some of the more experienced ones too.
The points are necessarily compressed. In point 5, for instance, I don’t mean to suggest that a poem has to rhyme or have a regular metre. But I think it must have some small pattern of shape, sound or structure (for instance, repetition or stanza breaks) to distinguish it from prose. This is only a checklist, but workshoppers and students have found it useful. Click on it to see it better, or look at the end of this post for a printable/ downloadable version.
If anything on it makes you splutter Oh but she can’t mean MY poetry, I do that all the time and it’s fine, my mother says she loves it – well, carry on if you like. Rules are made to be broken and you may be an innovator, a wild-card, a genius.
But probably not, eh? Most of these rules would apply to everything from the most experimental sound poetry, to the most strait-laced of formal poems. If you break several of them, repeatedly, it’s likely that your poetry needs tightening up. Run the checklist against one of your favourite published poems. It probably avoids the major pitfalls expressed in the list, and questions like ‘could this poem have been written by anyone?’ or ‘is this poem boring?’ answer themselves.
By all means share, print off or use with your own class – so long as my name and details remain attached. To find a print-friendly version, click here – Jo Bell’s rules.