How To Become A Poet 2.0

By Mike Essig

I am not a Poetry God, just an aspiring poet. My thoughts on poetry are personal, based on decades of reading, writing and experience. BUT THEY ARE NOT LAWS. I can’t tell you how to write, I can only point out what I have learned that seems important to me. You can disagree at will.

As to grammar, punctuation and syntax…

Many people seem to think poetry is not subject to the rules of grammar, punctuation and syntax and therefore doesn’t require knowing them. They are wrong.

Poetry allows many opportunities to break those rules, but to break them effectively, you must know them in the first place. If you don’t, your writing can quickly devolve into sloppiness. e.e. cummings broke all the rules, but his skill was in knowing just how to break them to get at exactly what he wanted to say. He was exhibiting his command, not ignorance of the rules. Know them.

Also, avoid the first person singular whenever you can and never use the passive voice.

Eschew the verb to be. English is rich in verbs, “To be” is the weakest among them. It can’t always be avoided, but your writing will be stronger if you find robust alternatives.

Just flinging words at a page is not writing poetry. It is just flinging words at a page. Try to find a structure that works for you, then use it.

As to topics and audiences… There is a world of topics out there. You can never run out. Poems lurk everywhere. Your love life and your sadness are topics, but they are tedious after a while and make better therapy than poetry. Try other things.

Everyone says, know your audience. Write to it. I can only say that when I post on Medium, I never know how which poem will be received. In fact, I’m usually wrong. I’d say be aware of your audience, but write for yourself.

As to the political and topical…

No one keeps last month’s newspapers or, I guess now, saves last month’s digital versions of the Washington Post. They are topical, and so are locked into the time of their creation.

Poetry that survives does so because it is universal, it transcends the topical. If you write a poem only about Trumps new immigration rule, you will get a lot of attaboys for a few minutes. Then events will move on and no one will ever read it again. Poetry can include the topical and political (see here), but it cannot simply be political and topical. At that point it stops being poetry and becomes propaganda. There is a place for propaganda, but poetry is not that place.

As to inspiration…

In my first essay I said my method is a non-method. That is true, but it does have a structure. Every day I spend two or three hours reading and writing. The writing stems directly from the reading. If you were well-read enough, you would be able to track my reading list from my poems. There is a direct correlation.

I do count on the Muse but I make sure she’s well fed.

So I say again, the more you read, the more and better poetry you will write. I don’t believe you can be a good poet without reading and thinking widely.

Read, read, read, read more, and then keep on reading.

And if you are new, don’t forget to imitate. Most poets serve an apprenticeship. Apprentices become better through imitation. Nothing wrong with it. Nothing.

Again, that’s just my belief based on my experience.

In all of this, it is important that while any kind of writing is difficult, it should be fun and satisfying as well. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, why bother. Life’s too short.


(Mike Essig is the author of numerous great poetry books such as “The Biology of Strangeness” and “Huck Finn is Dead” which are available online)

Huck Finn is Dead                     The Biology of Strangeness