Six Courses Served With a Shaker of Salt: Advice to Young Poets
Former Illinois Poet Laureate (2003-2017)
Read. The most important thing you can do is to read widely and tirelessly. Yes, you should read the great masters of all ages, but don't forget poets of your own era, for they are facing the same challenges and possibilities and frustrations as you. Use your knowledge of past poets and apply those skills, methods, and attitudes to the trials of the present. Make your work of this moment, which is, after all, your moment, but steep it in history.
Also, read things other than poetry. Read history, science, biology, economics, fiction, religion, ethics, philosophy, etc. Read the newspapers, read magazines, read anything you can get your hands on. Remember to challenge yourself and your ideas. Don't read only those who agree with you and your world view.
Revise. Don't be content with your first draft. Think and rethink. Write and rewrite. Save your drafts and look them over. Even if something doesn't work in one poem, it may well work in another. Be someone not easily satisfied. Be stubborn about getting it right: word, idea, image, emotion. Above all else, love words, not just for their meaning but also for their musical sound. Learn to play words as you would a piano or a guitar, for in the end words are both the instrument you play and the song you make.
Risk. Don't play it safe with your writing. While it's smart to be a safe driver, playing it safe with your writing will ensure that it's dull and predictable. Risk intellectually. Think big thoughts. Risk emotionally. Allow yourself to examine your emotional life. If you don't surprise yourself, you'll never surprise your reader, as Frost remarked. Imagination loves chaos as much as it does order. Trust in the redemptive interplay of these opposing but life- giving forces.
Try to Write Like Somebody Else. As poet Theodore Roethke advised, pay attention to the mode and manner of other poets' work. Try out these forms in your own poems. In effect, try out these other poets' voices and see if they fit in your mouth. After a while, you'll learn how to think and move and write like these other poets. Then, in a process both paradoxical and magical, you'll move beyond them to find your own voice. But first, try on these others as you would try on a pair of jeans. See what fits, and make it your own.
Form a Community of Fellow Poets. Poetry can be a solitary art, practiced in solitude and often appreciated best when read alone. But not always. We learn from our peers and friends, those we trust and respect. Learn to be honest with each other. To praise weak writing is the cruelest thing you can do. You may think you're being kind, but you're actually showing your friend, and poetry, the greatest disrespect.
Savor the Craft. Poetry connects you to a lineage of humans who yearn to make sense of their world by giving voice to their inarticulate fears, joys, and desires. Poetry is an ancient and noble art to pursue. It enriches and deepens your daily life. Just as importantly, it enlivens the community you're part of. In this way poetry is, as Rene Char said, "the contribution of the creature to creation."