Rules for Poets: 1 — Poetry Happens on the Page

A poem must happen. The reader must experience it. A poet that writes about what has happened off the page has not written a successful poem.

This poem fails because it happens off the page:

15 minutes of fame

15 minutes of fame
that’s all it really is
making a tangible difference
is a feeling that lasts forever
a rare chance
a rarer feeling
but i like it

(Author ‘s name withheld)

Nothing happens here. The poet just writes about how he or she feels about something. That “something” (where the poem really is) is off the page. In this case, the poet is talking about achieving fleeting notoriety as opposed to making a real difference in obscurity, but talking about something is not poetry.

This poem by William Carlos Williams succeeds because it happens on the page:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Here, we readers experience a moment as though we were there with the poet. We see the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain besides the white chickens. We are at a farm, watching something that has caught the poet’s eye. He doesn’t just talk about it. He shows us.

Note that the poem begins with the poet “telling” us something (“so much depends / upon”) but then spends 6 of its 8 lines (75% of its length) “showing” us concrete objects. Few poems can exclusively “show” and be successful, but the ratio here falls overwhelmingly on the “show” side.

And yes, when people say “show, don’t tell,” they are saying “the poem must happen on the page.” “Don’t editorialize” comes to the same.

Place the reader where you are. Show them what you see. Let them hear what you hear and touch what you touch. Poems are “sensual” in the literal sense of the word: they must happen through the senses — the reader must see, hear, touch, taste, and smell an experience on the page.

Going back to the first poem, ask yourself: What do I see? What do I smell? What do I touch? What do I taste? The answer is “nothing” in each case. We do “hear” the poet talking, but nothing in the poem makes any noise: no flashbulbs pop, no crowd applauds, no person says “Thank you” after being helped. The senses simply aren’t engaged. Nothing happens.

Simply put, a poet talking is not the same as a poet writing a poem. “15 Minutes of Fame” would make for a fine interview, opinion piece, or editorial, but it is not a successful poem.

Here’s a poem by Aliza Einhorn that engages our senses and thus “happens on the page”:

In Central Park

You tell me you’re not afraid of death
as we walk around the reservoir,
holding hands.
You could be anyone to me.
Lights left on in the Manhattan skyscrapers
seem to run towards us
and your family in Bombay can’t believe the photos:
a park in the heart of the city!
“But Central Park is the lungs,” you say.

Last night, your headache wouldn’t stop.
Distractions of the home theatre
and two digital cameras were not enough to make you well,
three aspirin failing us once again.
A pushy throb at the forehead first,
the pain arched its way back like my fingers did
through your thinning hair.

Finally we decide to make love.
You push my breasts together, my legs apart.
It’s the first time.
And when I taste you,
I taste mud and rock and water,
and I imagine I taste the gift
a friend brought you from back home,
six varieties of mango.

If I could,
I would find a spot right here and dig,
find fossils of the body in love,
not these trotting joggers,
couples panting around the park’s circumference.
I would search for a woman opening her better half,
her lover taking that sweet nut between his teeth.
“That was good,” you had said,
your headache slowing, finally, to a crawl.


Rules for Poets: 2 — Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out

Rules for Poets: 3 — Poetry Is Poetry Not Because of What It Says But Because of How It Says It

Rules for Poets: 4 — Poetry is Language on Fire

Rules for Poets: 5 — Write at All Costs


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