Writing Mini-Lessons: Advice to Young Poets from Some Poetry Masters

Learning the techniques and experiences of exceptional writers is one of the most meaningful ways to find your own writing voice, learn to discover new writing territories, and add to your writing repertoire. This mini-lesson focuses on the advice of twenty or so of today’s best poets for children and teens, offered in friendly letter form and accompanied by a few poems. Among others things, young poets are encouraged to read widely and read often. The importance of revision is emphasized, as is emotional honesty and looking at the world with fresh and open eyes. Here is some of the poets’ advice:

Dear You,

I am writing to you about writing.  It is something we both do, but it is not something that I discuss with other people very often.  Maybe that is because I do most of my writing and drawing when I am alone.

I am used to being by myself.  I think some people are drawn to solitary arts to get away from other people.  Maybe they come from big, noisy families and need time to think their own thoughts and put them down privately.  On the other hand, there are those of us who grow up without many people around (I had no sisters or brothers), so being alone is a fact of life from very early on.  Certainly we all have private thoughts that we want to remember.  Those of us who are writers write them down.  Painters paint them.

As an only child I talked to myself.  I still do when no one else is present.  Talking things out helps me to understand them.  And writing is a kind of conversation with myself.  It is also a way of keeping myself company.  As I write, my thoughts get clearer.  Before I could write, I would make up short poems and stories and my mother would write my words down.  That encouraged me to make up more stories and poems.  I’m still at it.

If you asked me what equipment I think a writer needs, my first answer would not be a computer.  I think it is more important for a writer to have a good eye and a sharp ear.  A writer, any artist, usually begins by paying close attention to the world.  Of course, paying attention includes reading as much and as often as you can.  Books are always introducing you to new people and ideas, and taking you to places you have never been.

Where do you get the idea for a poem?
Does it shake you awake?
Do you dream it asleep?
Or into your tiny tin head does it creep
and pop from your head when you are not aware
or leap from your pocket
or fall from your hair
or is it just suddenly silently there?

My guess is that our ideas are a combination of what is outside and inside each of our heads.  That is why it is so important to pay attention to everything around you.  Any detail can start you writing.  For instance, you see the man across the street in that old blue overcoat?  Was he once a pirate, or possibly, a baseball player?  Watch his walk, wonder about him, let your imagination roam.  And please let me read the story or poem you write about him when have finished it.

~ Karla Kuskin

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To My Dear Writing Friends,

I know revision may sound like an ugly word to you.  I didn’t love it when I was in school.  If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop.  I felt insulted.  I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, “Make it shine.  It’s worth it.”

Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope.  It’s a new vision of something.  It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time.  What a relief!

In first drafts, you may write phrases and fragments, then connect and develop them later into something larger like a poem.  Or you may overwrite first – lavishly, loosely – and pare it down later.  Most of us work both ways, depending on moods and the moment.

The possibilities of revision take away pressure, which helps the whole process.  Who needs stress?

Many students say they don’t like to revise because they don’t want to tamper with their first pure, honest expression.  But why should your second (or fourth) consideration of something be less genuine than your first?  You’re still you.  Now that you’ve had time to think a bit more, you may find it very helpful to rearrange words or specify or animate a thought or detail.

Revision may be as small as a single, crucial word change.  I replaced the word “nowhere” with “everywhere” in the last stanza of a poem and that one difference changed everything.

Or a revision may be dramatic.  Once an editor suggested I cut the first thirty lines of a poem.  “Then you’ll really have something,” he said.  But the poem only had thirty-six lines!  At first I thought he was ridiculous.  But the more I ruminated, the more I could see he was right.  The first thirty lines were a preface to the real poem.

I love the little arrows that invite more words into a line.  And what a pleasure it is, striking extra or weaker ones out!  Adios, you unnecessary “very!”  Farewell, cluttery “the!”

A line or phrase grows lean and strong before our eyes.  Penciled x’s!  Punched delete buttons!  (Make sure you keep copies of drafts.  Save, save, save.)

It’s a good idea to leave time (an hour, a day, a week, whenever) between writing a first draft and revising it.  That space and distance help you see your work with a fresher eye.  Also, I STRONGLY advise that you read your work out loud to yourself as you revise it.  No need to feel foolish.  The best writers do this, and it will help you more than anything else.

Now and then, something you write comes out wonderfully well in a first draft.  Changes aren’t necessary.  The more you write, the more this may happen.  But the delicious gift of revision is that it doesn’t have to happen all the time.

Love,
Naomi Shihab Nye

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Dear Young Poet,

Always go back to things.  They help you find out how you feel.  Remember the locker door slamming at lunchtime?  The SOLD sign on your front lawn when you finally realized you were moving?  The green sweatshirt worn by the boy you had a crush on – or the tooth you lost at age six when you were running home from school?

Recently, when I went to help my parents move out of the house I grew up in, I came across a little wooden box in the attic.  It contained six baby teeth.  Suddenly I remembered saving them up for the tooth fairy so I could get a big cash return.  Funny that I never did it.  Was it some kind of savings account?  Was I trying to save my childhood?  Was I afraid of the pain of growing up?  Memories mean nothing unless we go back to the baby teeth, the kitchen smelling of pot roast, your father’s face darkening the day your dog died, the color of your best friend’s bedspread.  Things are the stuff of poems.

Even a wrinkle in a piece of paper can be the beginning of a poem!  I started a poem once because I folded a letter from my sister right before I turned off the light to go to sleep.  I did turn off the light, but not for long.  I had to get up and write the line that came to me:  “Now, dear sister, it is you who rescues me from the creases.”  That line ended up in the middle of the poem I eventually wrote, but it was the folded letter, the crease, that opened the door.

Even now, as I write this letter to you, a small spider is running across my laptop and up to my blue metal lamp.  She’s spinning silk from the screen to my keyboard, from my lamp to my desk, crisscrossing and swinging down again.  Her work is the poet’s work:  making connections from thing to thing.  I shall start a new poem for the spider.  “She pulls her string from word to word….”

Now you go do it, too.

In celebration of Things,
Christine Hemp   

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Whoever you are,
wherever you are,
there’s a poem within arm’s reach of you.  Probably lots of poems, but at least one. Guaranteed.  Are you in your room?  At a taco drive-through?  In a sleeping bag?  In a tree?  A poem is there.

Robert Frost once saw a mite crawling across his paper.  He raised his pen to “stop it with a period of ink/when something strange about it made me think.”  That moment – poised to drown a microscopic bug with a drop of ink – grew into a thirty-three-line poem called “A Considerable Speck.”

It was the thinking that did it.  Thinking about the ordinary things around you makes you see them for what they are:  poems.  Whoever you are, wherever you are, there’s a poem within reach – if you think about it.  If you read to the end of his poem, you’ll hear Frost (he could be a grouch) growling about poets who leave the thinking part out of the process.

If there’s not a bug to be found scooting across your paper, all is not lost.  Reach into your pocket.  Take out whatever’s there – a nickel, a movie ticket stub, a key, stuck-together jelly beans – they’re all poems.  Nothing in your pocket but a pinch of lint?  Lint poem.  You really came up empty handed?  Perfect.  Write about an empty pocket.  The thing is to think about it and because you have a mind wonderfully different from anyone else’s mind, you’ll write the poem no one else would have written.

I used to think that poems could be found only in “big” subjects like beauty, wonder, birth, death, love.  Now I like to find the poems that lurk in unexpected places – on a slice of pepperoni pizza, perhaps, or floating down the gutter after a rain.  I once found a pretty good poem in the ear of my cat.  Oddly enough, I sometimes find the big subjects lurking somewhere within the little unexpected poems.  I’ve written a lot of poems about animals.  I never know what directions these poems will take, but I’ve noticed that a lot of my poems about animals have made me think about human nature.  I’ve known a few people like the frog in the well who explains the world.  If the frog in my poem ever makes it to the top, he might discover that there’s a lot more world than the one-star view from the bottom of a well.

I’ve never been to the bottom of a well myself, fortunately.  But a writer’s imagination – anyone’s imagination – is never farther away than the next thought.  That’s why there’s no limit to the number of poems waiting for you to find them.  There are times, of course, when it feels as though someone has snuck in and scooped up, vacuumed up, swept away every possible poem.  Maybe, as in my poem “Writing Past Midnight,” you stay up very late looking for them – nodding off, waking and writing.  Then, suddenly, happily, there’s the poem, right there in plain sight.  And you reach out and put it on the page.

~ Alice Schertle

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Dear Young Poet,

Welcome to poetry.  Writing poems has enhanced my life and will yours for as long as you continue to write.  Why?  Because, for one thing, as a poet, all your senses are alert.  You become a keen noticer of people, things, and experiences.  You are aware of taste, touch, smells, colors, shapes, sounds, and certainly feelings, your own and other people’s.  Keeping your eyes and ears and heart open as you write, little by little, you get to see better, hear better, and know and understand more about yourself and the world around you.  Poetry makes you smart.

Thoughts and pictures come to your mind, but unlike most people, you do not let them slip by as unimportant.  You hang on to those you want to capture and put them in poems to share with others.  Your raw materials, of course, are words, which you group together in a shape or rhythmical structure – your poem.  Words are endlessly fascinating.  A string of them can make a music all its own.  It doesn’t have to be sublime.  When I was four years old, “Marguerite, go wash your feet, the Board of Health’s across the street” had the power to fill me with delight.  Play with words.  Enjoy their sounds, shapes, meanings, and use them precisely.

Then there’s rhythm and rhyme – a good part of my pleasure in that chant I heard as a child. Your poem’s rhythm does not have to be very obvious.  But whether you use rhyme and a regular beat or prefer the subtler cadence of free verse, a rhythm is always there.  We live in a rhythmical universe, from the dance of atoms and our own heartbeats to the ocean tides and the movements of the planets.  When I write, sometimes I feel in touch with that universal rhythm.  It’s an exciting feeling.

Your impressions and responses are going to be somewhat different from anyone else’s.  That makes them interesting.  Although you have much in common with other people, there is nobody exactly like you.  Often what you see and sense will remind you of something similar.  A good eye for resemblances, especially unexpected ones, is a great asset.  The resemblances in my poem “The Boxing Match” happen to come from sorts, probably because I am a sports fan.  There are many other kinds of poems:  funny poems, those which explore a high moment, a mood, a memory, a happening, and there are many other techniques poets use for effect, as you will discover.

Meanwhile, some final advice.  Use a notebook for your ideas, dreams, and lines and phrases you want to remember.  When you need inspiration, your notebook can get you started again.  Express your true feelings, not what you think you ought to feel.  Read lots of good poetry – out loud and in your head.  And have fun.

So here’s to you.  Here’s to seeing the world freshly with your own eyes and adding your bit to the sum of created things in it.

~ Lillian Morrison

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When I was about the age
you are now,

I didn’t care much for poetry.  I’ve come to figure out that it was because I had a lot of wrong ideas about poetry, from a lot of different sources.  But the main reason was that I hadn’t done enough reading to find out the truth.

I think that’s still a problem many people have with poetry, and that includes some of those who are trying to write it.  They can be bound by their own misconceptions of what a poem is, and maybe even by some of the stereotypes that continue to circulate all around us.

A lot of people, for example, think that poetry has to depend on a kind of fancy language that is found nowhere else but in poetry – archaic words, flowery words, contractions such as ne’er and o’er.  Others will tell you that a true poem is one which is always written in rhyme and meter.  I’ve met some people, too, who believe that poems must always be inspirational or always have to do with beauty.  I’ve heard still others say that a good poem has to be cryptic or depend heavily on some kind of hidden meaning.

Unfortunately, there are many more examples of this kind of wrongheadedness, but thankfully, when you start reading poems, it doesn’t take very long to figure out that poetry is something else entirely.  You might begin with some of the great names from the past, such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Robert Frost, and you might continue on to more contemporary writers such as William Stafford or Marge Piercy, or those found in any number of anthologies widely available today.  What you’ll discover is that while poems always depend on a special use of language, there are many different ways to explore the power of words and sounds, that a poem can be written on just about any subject and with a tremendous variety of forms and approaches.

Finally, I need to come back to reading again, to something that bothers me more than anything else, and that’s hearing young writers say that they don’t read poems because they don’t want to be influenced.  I’ve never heard of musicians who stay away from concerts, or painters refusing to go to art galleries.  Why is it that writers can be so afraid of being influenced?  Aside from finding out what poems are really all about, and the various ways they can be written, we can read to see how poems open up our own lives to us – to discover what we didn’t know we knew, to paraphrase Robert Frost.  In short, our reading is the most important place we begin to learn our craft as writers – that long, long road, where it’s necessary to have all the help and inspiration we can get!

~ Mark Vinz

Turning Advice to an Everyday Thing Poem

Samples:

What Am I?
I work so hard being pressed
against a desk, a wall, paper, or even
against someone I have never
seen before.

Even on days I want to
sleep in, I am still woken up
by someone who wants to write a poem or story.

I am used every day,
yet no one notices,
no one cares.
You think someone would care,
but they grind me and sharpen me
like a spear,
but then I break, so they do it again.

When people get frustrated or mad,
they kill me, break me,
or even crush me.

I wish I was a pen.
~ Mathew

Manhole Covers
The beauty of manhole covers–what of that?
Like medals struck by a great savage khan,
Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable,
Not like the old electrum, chased and scored,
Mottoed and sculptured to a turn,
But notched and whelked and pocked and smashed
With the great company names
(Gentle Bethlehem, smiling United States).
This rustproof artifact of my street,
Long after roads are melted away will lie
Sidewise in the grave of the iron-old world,
Bitten at the edges,
Strong with its cryptic American,
Its dated beauty.
~ Karl Shapiro

A Just-Finishing Candle
A candle is made to become entirely flame.
In that annihilating moment
it has no shadow.
It is nothing but a tongue of light
describing a refuge.
Look at this
just finishing candle stub
as someone who is finally
safe
from virtue and vice,
the pride and the
shame we claim from those.
~ Rumi