Eric from Iowa City, Iowa asks: “I have seen the power of poetry to express ideas and feelings. I’m convinced that writing poetry would be good for my own soul, my family and those I serve in ministry. The problem is I have never taken a course in school on writing poetry. So my question is: how do you begin, and what books do you recommend?”
I love that question. I love the heart that wants to grow in the crafting of language so that it can serve God as fully as possible. Let me start by saying that there are all levels and kinds of poetry from the most refined and careful and thoughtful and ingenious and deep to the simplest, most homely, “It takes a heap of living in a house to make it home,” kind of poetry from Edgar Guest.
I grew up in a home where my dad read poetry to us, and it was always of the simplest kind — I think that is what families need. Families don’t need really obscure poetry. Families need birthday poems, anniversary poems, Christmas poems, and thanksgiving poems from dad or mom or children. Just write something sweet and beautiful from the heart for God and don’t worry too much about any criticism that you are going to receive because of its artistic quality.
“I love the heart that wants to grow in crafting language so that it can serve God as fully as possible.”
There is a whole history of great poetry that moves you along and takes you deeper into the way language is used, and here are a couple of pointers. There are two books I would recommend. One is by Ted Kooser, who was the poet laureate of America from 2004–2006, which is called The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. The other is Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. These are two books that are written precisely to answer Eric’s question about how to just get started. The other thing I would say besides reading those books is: Take a class at a community college, just take a class on poetry and surprise yourself by getting back into school.
Here is something really practical that everybody can do. Memorize some psalms. When you memorize, you start to get a feel for language. You can say them over and over again to yourself and try different ways of reciting the psalms so that they have the kind of symmetrical parallelism and ring that they ought to have. And I would say that about other poems as well.
I remember sitting in class in romantic poetry with Clyde Kilby and he read a poem to us by John Keats and I can’t remember the name of it right now, but he said, “I promise you if you memorize this poem, it will serve you to enlarge your soul in 50 years.” And it was just the sheer memorizing of a beautiful poem that made the difference.
But here is the most important thing. If a person wants to grow in his ability to write poetry that is not just “roses are red, violets are blue, I’ve tried to write poetry, and so have you.” If they want to grow beyond something into something richer and deeper, read poetry. Just read it. A great book is The Sacrifice of Praise a Christian poetry anthology by James Trott. Or on memorizing there is a book called Committed to Memory: The 100 Best Poems to Memorize by John Hollander. Just go to poetry shelf at Barnes and Noble, pull down some anthology, and start reading poetry. What will happen is when you read great poetry you will start to catch a feel of what makes it great.