Book Review Poetry

Poetry for Dummies


I’m currently reading Poetry for Dummies published in 2001 and have given myself Saturday afternoon homework.

poetry for dummies

In the middle of chapter 9, a chapter describing Open-Form poetry, there is a great open verse tutorial. I’ve found it online as well at the Dummies website too and have copied it below.

Think of open-form poetry as a way of thinking — an especially intense awareness of every single aspect of the poem, from subject and tone to music and rhythm, from the physical shape of the poem to the length (in space and in time) of the lines, from the grammar you use to the parts of speech.

When you write an open-form poem, try to be very conscious. Everything in the poem, every feature, every aspect, must have a reason for being there. Be conscious of the following:

  • Economy. Cram as much energy as possible into each word. Cut everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there.
  • Grammar and syntax. Are you always using complete sentences? Well, that’s fine — but you could also do it another way. Decide whether you have a reason to write in complete sentences for this poem. If you can come up with a reason, fine. If not, consider alternatives — bursts of words, single words, word fragments. And who says you have to use “proper” grammar? Or punctuation? Try breaking a few rules, if that improves the poem.
  • Parts of speech. Some teachers say you shouldn’t use adjectives or adverbs; they prefer nouns and verbs instead. That’s an excellent starting point: Use only the words you need. If all you’re doing is prettifying something, forget it. Use adjectives only when they’re surprising (“your green voice”), contradictory (“aggressive modesty”), or give information the reader simply can’t get elsewhere (“It was a Welsh ferret” — how else would we know a ferret was Welsh?).
  • Rhythms. Look at the rhythms in your lines. Does the rhythm of the line contribute to its meaning? Anything sing-songy? If so, is it good that it’s sing-songy?Often, open-form verse falls into iambs (a group of syllables consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in “alas!”) and dactyls (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed, as in “penetrate”). Don’t let this happen unless there is a reason for it.
  • The physical lengths (the number syllables and the actual length) of the lines you use. Avoid falling into exactly the same lengths. Every length should have a reason behind it.
  • The length (in time) it takes to read each line aloud. If each line takes about the same number of seconds, figure out whether there’s a reason for it. If there isn’t, consider other shapes and lengths.
  • Line endings. Poets realize that line endings carry a certain emphasis or pressure. Your lines should end where they end for some reason. The way a line ends — where, and after what word or punctuation mark — should be the best way to end. Do you want a pause there? What’s going to happen when your readers go to the next line? Something unexpected? Some surprise?Read a lot of open-form verse, and you’ll notice that poets use a great deal of enjambment, winding the words around the ends of lines in gorgeous and meaningful ways.

I have so many half-formed poems that need to be worked on. I brought one of them to the table with me and tried to think of its’ form and consider it in the light of each of the bullet points above.

My poem went from this:

The Rush of Wings


Each day that passed she fell in order with living

The resonance of time, individual

The light of the sun

Counted on


The rush of wings

Shook loose the snow

Buried on top of the earth


Dreams of her mother

Visited at night

Awaking other thoughts that had been lost


taking care of yourself,

cleaning the closets,

using glasses from the cupboard,

time alone


When quietness had come.

To this:

The Rush of Wings


Death is a gaping hole

A limp lived with

In the wake of a loss

Someone is left alone


Each day passed

Living fell in order

Time, individual


The movement of the sun

Counted on

My grandmother smiled.


The rush of wings

Shook loose the snow

Buried in the earth


Dreams of her mother

Visited at night

Awakening lost thoughts


Taking care of yourself

Cleaning the closets

Using glasses from the cupboard

Time alone


When quietness had come.


Other quotes I’ve picked up in my reading are below:

More meaning, fewer words. pg 10

Use vowels, consonants, sounds as a rhythm to the music of your poetry. pg 69

An intricate braid of poems. pg 103

Let the natural poem breath make the line break. pg 163

One thing I don’t do very often with my poetry is to speak it aloud. Joining a writers group allows this verbalization, which in turn informs my poetry by the way I hear myself and the way others describe understanding my poems.

(I liked the grassy swirls on the first image above. I took this at Phipps Conservatory.)

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