Common Mistakes

The question was: What do you feel is the most often seen, or most egregious, error made by poetry novices and not-so-novices alike? Here are some of the answers:

Mistake: Thinking the power of the "story" creates the power of the poem

Too many people think if they write about something harsh, or frightening, or emotionally scarring, that it will make their poems good. "If I write about rape, it will be so moving!" they say. But it doesn't work that way. Trite images (or lack thereof) and poor writing cannot be elevated by the topic. Indeed, they can succeed in making a mockery of the topic.

Advice: Stick to less emotionally charged material until you know that you aren't going to cause giggles in your reader. Trust me. No one wants to giggle at a poem about child abuse, or war, or rape. Write about something easy to describe, and easy to discard. Don't try to write something that will change the world. First, try to change your way of perceiving the world.

And good luck.

Julie Carter

Attempting to write poetry without reading any

I run across this constantly, among beginning writers, young poets I've tutored, and newsgroups. There seems to be this general sense that reading and studying poetry will somehow kill spontaneity and make your writing "less original." I think most would agree, though, that to build a beautiful house you need to first understand how beautiful houses are built.

Advice: Find good poets, and read them obsessively. Study what they do with language, how they build imagery, what machinery is at work. Go to the aapc website and read the bios of poets you admire -- many of them include lists of poets who have influenced them. Write to poets whose work you admire and ask them what you should read (and maybe even what you should avoid). Here's a list of poets/books to get you started, in case you're curious as to my opinion:
  • Elizabeth Bishop / Geography III
  • Theodore Roethke / (anything)
  • James Wright / The Branch Will Not Break / St. Judas / Shall We Gather at the River
  • John Balaban / Words for My Daughter
  • Tony Hoagland / anything
  • Kim Addonizio / the Philosopher's Club
Preston Mark Stone

A mistake I see performed commonly by better-than-average poets

is the use of all those figures of speech, sound devices, and interesting line breaks that our teachers told us to use (and for you lower-than-average poets-- USE THEM!!), but without some sort of direction or means to marry those devices/figures of speech with the action or theme of the poem.

In other words-- try as much as possible to be deliberate with the use of imagery, sound device, and line breaks. If you are writing about a carnival, you might not want to use lots of words that suggest light breezes and quiet. Think lots about what kind of impact you want your poem to have on your reader, and try to make the line-breaks, sounds and images create that impact.

If you think I'm asking the near-impossible, you're right.

Ryan Deschamps

"just one more pretty adjective, please"

Cause: Often used to fit a couple of extra syllables into a line, or to introduce an interesting internal rhyme, or to add weight or clarity to the image, or to differentiate one object from another, or (see - I can go on making excuses up all day)

Why is this not "a good thing": think of a poem as a christmas tree, and the adjectives as baubles. The more baubles you add, the prettier the christmas tree becomes. But add too many baubles, and the christmas tree disappears under a dazzle of meaningless balls. In the end, it is the message of the christmas tree that is important, not the tacky dross we (well, I) add to it.

Cure: for me, there is no cure - my only hope is that when I post an adjective infested poem, someone takes the time and trouble to give me a hard beating with the criticism stick. For others? Maybe they can learn from my mistakes...

Rik Roots

Linebreaks don't make something automatically a poem

There has to be something happening STRUCTURALLY; the breaks have to be there for a reason; the sound and sense of each word, line, phrase, stanza has to be there for a reason that relates to some other part. I'm not talking about the easy meter, sing-song stuff here (you can get structure with very little content just by playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on the piano; but it isn't Beethoven or Debussy); I'm talking about the mistake of smart ideas and images, narrative, pregnant pauses, etc., laid out in a "clever" way, being "enough". A look past those things, "under the hood", shows not much there. It's not just paying attention to how the story is told; it's about how the words relate to each other when you take the story away.

Steve Layton

Attempting to describe an emotion, sensation, reaction, mood etc. head-on simply saying what you felt or thought. The experience of human response is complex and individual, its classifications banal and ten-a-penny.

Advice: Forget about describing your own responses. Assemble bits of language, concrete imagery from the occasion of the experience(s), sounds and words and phrases and rhythms which seem to resonate with the experience, whether actually part of the experience or not. Aim to give the reader fragmentary, overlapping and interlocking components of an experience, rather than the thing itself.

Jim Sheard

Rhyme padding

The practice of adding totally unnecessary words and phrases to fill out a rhyme scheme.

The only solution is to actually put in the time to develop meaningful material...or change the scheme.


Grammar and Spelling

Mine:Thinking that talent can excuse sloppiness when it comes to a basic application of good grammar and spelling.

Cure: Remembering that Julie Carter might read it. :)

Solution: Don't give up even if the lack is caused by real cognitive problems. Review old lessons, memorize old spelling rules, reread any and all work before considering it ready for public view. Spellcheck everything. When a error is pointed out despite all your precautions, thank the commenter and take a look at the passage where the error was made, review rules again. Keep husband or dictionary at hand at all times.

debi z

Totem Words

These are the words that are so common, they've become almost funny. Everyone uses them because they are easy descriptors for emotions, but this fact alone has made their use an eye-sore. They have become like the White Elephants of prosody, and finding more than one in an opening line is usually not a good sign.

Some of my favorites:
  1. Dark - "my mind was dark with (insert emotion)"
  2. Heart - "my heart was left (broken, smashed, pureed)"
  3. Bleeding/Blood "my blood surging like a (run for your life)"
  4. Soul - "...setting my soul free to do (insert activity)"
  5. Beauty - "(insert subject) was the vision of beauty"
  6. Shadows - shadows crept over the (walls, graveyard, Radio Shack)
  7. Excelsior - words cannot describe my hatred for Stan Lee.
Tom W.

Mistake: No sonic awareness

Cure: Read Dylan Thomas.

Advice: Read every single fucking draft of your own work out loud numerous times. Preferably in front of a mirror so you can see how your mouth is moving as you over-enunciate.


Mistake: Inability to separate the narrator's voice from the voice of the writer.

Cure: Do exercises in which you write pieces from the point of view of an inanimate object, a person of the opposite sex, etc.

Advice: Realize that you should be trying to convey experience with your writing and that no one but your mother and your therapist gives a flying fuck about your emotions, your ~feelings~, or your sense of darkness enveloping your sacred soul.



I'm going to name more than one, so I'll name them really vaguely.

Kind of in line with what you're saying, I think form is often misunderstood and underrated; not form as in the shape, but in how the words relate to each other; presumably the most obvious tactic is to pick the best word for each statement, the best sentence for each moment (I play chess that way and lose), but it's easy to forget that each one of those words and sentences is relevant up to (or down to, if you write in English) the end of the poem, and if you play them right, even farther. So you can play with them after you've planted them in the mind. This does seem vague, and obvious too, but my advice is simply avoid tunnel vision.

I suppose the specific element I notice most often ignored is syntax. If the words are good, people read them one at a time, so the order they're in always has an effect. One example:

I feel like I stepped on a nail with my brain

as opposed to:

I feel like my brain stepped on a nail

In the first, the sensory data is delivered before the reader is aware that it applies to something impossible; in the second, the fact that the statement is figurative is made clear first, and the imagined sensation is mediated. There are better examples; it works better when you're reading slower. The length of the statement is also important, because it effects surprise vs suspense. This stuff comes in handy if you're telling a story.

A quote: Poetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in presentation. If I remember correctly Philip Larkin said that. The statement may be argueable, but with a poem-in-progress lying in front of you it's easy to forget that eventually it will be one series of events with a start and a finish, not a map. I imagine the only poets who've never forgotten that are ones who don't think about their statements.


Malady: Forgetting that poetry is poetry. Fiction. Art. Not journalism. Not a diary entry. Not therapy

It may mimic these things at times, but will not succeed as poetry without due attention to all appropriate poetic devices and details.

Rx: If your purpose is to mend that achey-breaky heart or pump up that leaky-squeaky ego, consult a professional. If your purpose is to write a good poem, never forget that the quality of the poem comes first - before loyalty to facts, sentiment or memory, before the need to unburden yourself of that chip, skeleton or baggage. Abandon the irrelevant excuse "but that's how it really happened!" It's a poem killer. How it happened, or what she wore, or what the weather was like are merely the means to your end, the paint on your palette. Create, eliminate or alter reality as the poem demands. And listen carefully. Some poems speak very softly.

Avoid the "Mindless Extremes of Love" school of poetry

Two Examples:
  1. Endless Love: My love is higher than a hawk,/ And deeper than a well. - From the movie "Calamity Jane", starring Doris Day.  
  2. The flip side of Endless Love: You done me wrong.  Since I am made of gold, you, obviously, are the Anti-Christ.  Poor me.  I still love you.

Failure to acknowledge there is a world beyond the narrative

Not being open to other forms of poetry besides the metric centered, left justified, line and strophe broken, generally narrative model. I think I see this mistake frequently here, in both crits and the recommended reading. Of course I love much of the above poetry, both here and in the world of books - but it's not all there is.

Recommendations? In addition to the usual reading list of Thomas, Heaney, Yeats, Frost etc etc how about -
  1. Some journals. "Shiny" is a good one. "New American Writing" is another. "American Poetry Review" too. Jacket Magazine online and free, I think at is a current favorite of mine.
  2. Some essays on poetics. "New American Poetics" I think is out of print, but the essays from it have been reprinted all over the place, including in "The Poet's Work" and the Norton postmodern anthology.
  3. Some anthologies. The above Norton. "Poems for the Millenium" volumes 1 and 2 are very hefty and very very good. ed by Jerome Rothenberg.
  4. And some poets. I have a slew of favorites, but some of the best are Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Philip Whalen, Anselm Hollo, Anne Waldman, Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, John Ashbery, Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Amiri Baraka, James Schuyler, Gary Snyder, etc ... Wooops forgot Denise Levertov. and Jack Spicer.
Nobody has to like any of this, but acknowledging that it exists and is part of the art is important I think. I guess part of what I am saying is that it is good to read poetry that you don't like too.

john sullivan