Skip to content

How to Write Poetry.


Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams
Write Poetry and Get It Published.
Hodder Educational, new edition 2010. 260pp paperback, £13.00 $16.99.

Stephen Fry
The Ode Less Travelled: unlocking the poet within.
Arrow Books, revised edition 2007. 356pp paperback, £6.47 $15.49

Fiona Sampson
Poetry Writing: the expert guide
Robert Hale 2009. 240pp hardback. £13.99 $15.50

barbed rule


By Peter Riley.

barbed rule
HALF WAY THROUGH Write Poetry, I suddenly remembered poetry. I remembered it as an offer of extendable perception, a substance with a charge in it, a fire or spark between words which meant a possibility of regeneration, an enlivening, you could say, of the human spirit, or a reach for the very edges of experience — a poetry with soul. The opening lines, the invitation, of such poems, were like this—

A ton of white rain will overflow my self-shaped sleeping-bag of earth…

You are in the unlit area of the world…

The glorious dead, walking / barefoot on the earth…

apparelled in earth we hear the wing / beats behind us and don’t turn…

I am from language and will return to language…

A blight from England’s present-day / covers me…

To those who kiss in fear they shall never kiss again…1

The poems cited as examples of excellence in Write Poetry, the kind of thing this instruction manual hopes you might aspire to after training, bear opening invitations such as these—

Fishbones lay in the smelly bin…

When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk…

If you ask me what my favourite programme is…

I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob…

Imagine buttons / That won’t go into their holes…

The whiskey on your breath / could make a small boy dizzy…

She was cleaning — there is always / that to do …

Write Poetry claims an objectivity but is inescapably bedded in a history which is not only partial, it is also generational. It is generally held to be one of the best of these manuals and is still much used.

This is not, of course, definitive, for a poem can begin nowhere and end somewhere resplendent. But I think it is symptomatic of a choice that was made in British poetical culture around 1975-85, in the aftermath of the so-called “British poetry revival” 2, that we are not going to have any more of that strange, disturbing, pretentious, “experimental” stuff (strange to think that my preferred openings above might be from poems classed as “experimental” but they were, aided by some very different poems from the same poets). (Interestingly strange perhaps too, that they show an awareness of formal and substantial ancestry rather more than the others do.)

Write Poetry is one of about twenty paperbacks with the same or similar titles now on the market, all of them, as far as I can see, saying the same kind of thing, and they all, including the more discursive books such as those by Fry and Sampson, inhabit that choice solidly and resolutely, in spite of excursions into informal modes, mostly American, which would not at one time have been permitted. Write Poetry claims an objectivity but is inescapably bedded in a history which is not only partial, it is also generational. It is generally held to be one of the best of these manuals and is still much used. It was first published in 1997 when the poetry it urges you to write was already becoming aged; a majority of the poets it refers to were born in the 1910s-30s and are in fact now dead, as are both its authors. Basically the poetry you are urged to write is that which won wide acceptance on this side of the Atlantic during the late years of the century, and has left behind a small pantheon of super-poets: Heaney, Bishop, Lowell, etc. It is still to some extent the dominant mode but the splintering effect of sectional demands has weakened its hold.

There are also older and different poets referred to but certain features, such as the observational “I” at the centre of the poem, conceived as inhabiting the immediate everyday, can be associated strongly with that wave of success. (The list of opening lines from Write Poetry, above, shows this quite clearly). Such a condition in Auden or Larkin is subject to degrees of irony which had evaporated by 1980. This doesn’t explain the curious absence of Hughes and Plath or anything resembling them, not to mention Dylan Thomas or Geoffrey Hill, for which there must be other reasons.

But teach you it will. It is carefully organised and persuasive, manages not to patronise the reader (the would-be poet) too much and is carried along by a lightness of touch helped by the interplay in dialogue between the two authors. It offers a casual approach in which, compared with most of the other books, metrics is very much played down (one short chapter) so you do not get the great charts of traditional forms and measures of poem or line, though the possibility remains. And, of course, all the exercises and games you’d expect, along with practical matters, such as if you intend to write outdoors you’ll need pen and paper, and how to woo competition judges, dot your I’s and beware of vanity presses (do they still exist?).

The positive aspect of the advice given on the actual writing of poems is that it emphasises balanced and careful consideration, the capacity for self-criticism, refreshed observation and the need to maintain tension in the lines. It crosses stylistic frontiers and lays the whole field of poetry open before you, or seems to.

And it is open, within the terms of a contract between producer and market, an agreement to stay within certain bounds beyond which any kind of excess, any raised voice, any embracing of acute distance, is not tolerated. It is not exactly an authoritarian demand, it is more an assumption impressed on you. The repeated insistence is on smallness, modesty, a balance between inspiration and craft which assures things do not get out of hand. We even read at one point the recommendation to “think small”. So it is low on significant content; content is treated as a given, always to hand, activated by typical experience into poetical material. It is when they start telling us what we should not write as poetry that the sense of a hidden agenda arises, and a nervousness is betrayed in a refusal to specify or define.

We must avoid “obscure and pretentious” poetry”. Already we could name some of the poets he must be getting at, especially when he adds “which no one wants to read”, a clause we have seen again and again in criticism of some of the best twentieth-century poetry in English. We must avoid “vagueness and abstraction” which seem to be more or less the same thing, or abstraction leads to vagueness and should not be attempted by the inexperienced. A big question concerning the nature of linguistic transfer is here brushed aside. We must prefer the “concrete”, which means attention halted at a domestic or commonplace level. Presumably we may speak of fish and chips but not of hunger or the fishing industry. “A narrative is all right so long as the narrator sticks to words as simple as dog, horse, sunset.” It continues: “Don’t be flashy or ornamental”, avoid “high flown rhetoric and odd philosophy”—we are left to our own devices in the attempt to recognise “odd philosophy”. I think this is the only point in the book where the word “philosophy” occurs. Nowhere are we offered a “normal” or “right” philosophy; such would not seem to be within poetry’s remit. This dictum is connected to mention of Yeats and it is true that Yeats got involved in some very difficult beliefs, though “odd” seems too casual a word for a passionate and hopeful spiritualism which was common in his generation (Conan Doyle, etc.) and later (Hughes and Plath). The risk of ”high flown rhetoric” must be why we are encouraged to study and imitate Heaney but not Yeats. But “rhetoric” is the wrong word for Yeats’ meditations on experienced legendary matter. It is all simply too grand for the self-contained 1990s English poet.

The idea gets clearer and clearer: think small, don’t get into large-scale concerns. Always we are re-directed to the mundane immediacy, and to the writing self as the pivotal access through sense. Our poetry must “connect with the world we live in”—but how can we not already be connected to the world we live in in order to live in it? The teaching gets stuck in nonsensical formulations like this from time to time because it strives to be positive while the message is in fact negative – it is telling you not to venture anywhere but to stay where you are and behave yourself. You are always directed back to the self as a witness rather than an actor. It doesn’t actually say that you are always the subject of the poem, but it means it. It does say ”show your self” … even “describe your symptoms”. Thus Heaney is praised because his dealings with the Irish Troubles operated within his own perceptive sphere — “on his own terms… his own private response to the situation” rather than engaging directly with the war. In a telling sequence of citations concerning poetry as a public or political act (pp.226-7) Shelley’s passionate lyrical outcry, poetry meant to reshape the world,3 is followed through Yeats’ hesitant fear of the power he may have unleashed4, and Auden’s passionate sense of defeat5 to reach Muldoon turning his back on the whole thing, as nothing but “crass rhetorical posturing”6. You’d think such experts would know what “rhetorical” really means. This sequence is a poetical mapping of the people’s sense of where they stand in relation to the governing power during the last hundred years, but the final retreat is a capitulation rather than a critique.

It is the same impulse of retreat that brings us to “poetry…should show rather than tell.” which is a widespread mantra of poetry teaching now. Poetry in all its history has told and told and told again, both fictively and directly, and when it has sung it has been able to use song as a vehicle or encapsulation of the most urgent telling (viz. Blake’s Songs of Experience.) “A poem should not mean but be” is an often-quoted slogan in this field7, and here it is again as the book’s final word, but it is one which makes incompatible alternatives out of conditions of being and act which imply each other.

All the “How to Write Poetry” books I’ve so much as glanced at, including the more substantial and discursive ones such as Fry and Sampson, struggle with the need to appear generous in allowing widely different techniques, while insisting on restraint and forbidding poetry which engages passionately with the conditions under which we live, or is challenging in its figurative workings. The preferred mode, the one which can be taught and will get you published and win prizes is essentially genteel, whether oppositional or not. It does not shout about injustice, and it does not allow its vocabulary to reach far beyond domestic impedimenta or the given terms of human interaction.

Obviously a guide-book such as this cannot begin to cope with the admission of conspicuously avant-garde texts into the fields of dissemination and reward hitherto governed by the “mainstream”, especially as they are mostly bad pieces of avant-garde writing, mechanically conceived.

Or so it was in 1997. My sense of the situation now is that there has been an influx of young poets, largely from creative writing classes, who are changing the whole picture. The small poem8 erecting the self as primary agent is probably still the dominant mode but its share of the readership and prestige is now in competition with more direct political involvement, larger structures, narratives, and ways of writing in which words confront each other to a purpose. Since this book was written there have been major changes in the young population of the poetry scene, importantly but not only from former colonial Anglophone zones, which have brought with them serious psycho-political conflict as well as tales of far away villages which are not inside old white heads but there on the ground as the product of a history. And obviously a guide-book such as this cannot begin to cope with the admission of conspicuously avant-garde texts into the fields of dissemination and reward hitherto governed by the “mainstream”, especially as they are mostly extremely bad pieces of avant-garde writing, often mechanically conceived. I can only suppose that the admission of such texts to the most prestigious and long-established organs must be because the editorial need to be up-to-date is divorced from any real acquaintance with the “other side”. So they do not know where to go for their avant-gardery and have no means of recognising value9. I’m sure Write Poetry will assist a lot of would-be poets to grasp something of the nature of poetical language-use, but there are no instructions given for writing bad avant-garde poetry.

STEPHEN FRY’S BOOK is very much a product of English dilettante enthusiasm with a big load of Germanic pedantry attached, in which almost nothing is treated entirely seriously. It perhaps deserves to be labelled “middle-class” culture. There are serious, and quite wise, moments but they appear as interludes in an after-dinner speech. The discourse is soaked in an assumed easy familarity. “Dear Algie Swinburne wrote sapphics too” he says, as if Swinburne were a favourite uncle. Perhaps he was.

Most of it is a great catalogue of the mechanics of poetry, treated as mechanics, including 120 pages on metre, culminating in a table of all possible metric lines with examples supplied by the author. (Who would have thought that “Hurdy-gurdy, silly billy, Humpty Dumpty” was a line of ditrochaic feet?) Then 45 pages on rhyme and another 120 pages on form, which lists all possible verse forms from blank verse to clerihews, with examples drawn from the classics or the highly respected (Bishop, Heaney etc.) when not by Fry himself, who ingeniously describes a form using the form itself—

Heroic verse has passed the test of time:
Iambic feet in couplets linked by rhyme.
Its non-stanzaic structure simply screams
For well-developed tales and epic themes. …

It’s a kind of mechanised expertise which steers well clear of radical questioning, but accepts a ready-made system of classification. One sometimes feels oneself in the world of philately or engine-numbers.

A chunk of thirty-six lines like this takes some swallowing, however much they do show you what the form is, and there are plenty more. It’s a kind of mechanised expertise which steers well clear of radical questioning, but accepts a ready-made system of classification. One sometimes feels oneself in the world of philately or engine-numbers.

So of course there is no need to say anything much about poetry, such as what it is for, and the one section to risk thought is the final one, “Diction and Poetics Today”, which is much as you would expect. It falls over itself, of course, in the attempt to exercise generosity, of the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Modernists kind (this sentence does not actually occur) but the generosity is laced with warnings about pretentiousness and inchoation. It also includes a relishing of some of Norman Douglas’s most salacious limericks, and other erotica, and complains about a general anaemia in current poetry: “There is no iron in its blood, no energy, no drive…A lifeless trickle of the inwardly personal and rhetorically listless.” This appeal for full-bloodedness might seem to echo my own appeal for “fire”, etc., in opening lines, but it is a quite different excitement he is after, one which thrives on traditional male heroics. Its endorsement of many different modes needs to be weighed against its hushed and awed respect for the “big guns” as he calls them, who comprise very much the standard roll-call of late-century successes, ten of them, starting with Heaney, Harrison and Motion and getting no nearer to youth than Armitage and Duffy. However, as big as their guns may be, and however long the long poems of which he treats may be, without approaching a concept of epic, the conceptual field of the poem remains diminutive.

The book is dominated by prosody but even in that field the discussion rests on received definitions with no fundamental questions (“What, actually, is a syllable?” “What are the possible voicings of this line?”). Fry’s insistence on correct technicalities sometimes makes him find fault in the betrayal or absence of a formal scheme,  which he claims that all poetry must have, but  immediately contradicts himself through his own genuine admiration of an achieved but informal or faulted writing. He speaks of Whitman and Browning in this way, and to some extent, Hopkins. Thus he examines the metrics of one of Blake’s songs, finding what can only be called, in his terms, “prosodic incompetence”, and then declares that it really doesn’t matter because, “I love it”. You can’t grumble about that; evidently the gentility principal has its uses.

It is in many ways a congenial book full of entertaining and sensible remarks, but to appreciate it you would have to agree that the entire history of twentieth-century poetry is fixed, all the better as well as the best poets duly recognised, with no differences of opinion, no discoveries or rejections to be made, the whole pudding waiting there ready for eating, and here is the recipe. So it is with all these how-to books.

FIONA SAMPSON’S IS the most up-to-date, the most discursive, the most knowledgeable, the most thorough in detail with the firmest grip on the poetic ancestry, of these books, but it is also the most doctrinaire. This is what I would fear from the choice of the word “expert” in the sub-title (there are, in the last analysis, no experts in poetry) and from a jacket blurb beginning, “Written by a prize-winning poet…” (it is, as everyone knows, increasingly difficult to find a poet who has not won a prize). She is in many ways at the top of the English poetry scene as former editor of The Poetry Review, a professor of poetry, judge of major competitions, international multi-prize winner, MBE and so forth. I generally find her own poetry very competent and rather more willing to venture risks in diction and figuration than you would expect – more indeed, than is allowed in parts of Writing Poetry.

It is odd to find a professor of poetry treating what she calls “folk song” as a written construct, or a piece of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse noted as written in “stepped” form…

The coverage of possibilities is up-to-date strictly in terms of the written piece of language. Performance poetry and all such do not exist, cannot exist, because all poetry is treated as written whether sung or spoken. It is odd to find a professor of poetry treating what she calls “folk song” as a written construct, or a piece of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse noted as written in “stepped” form, that is, dropped down in the middle of a line, when all that has happened is that part way through the line it passes to a different speaker. She also commits the common academic mis-reading of the word “lyric” to mean a versed poetry concerned exclusively with the poet’s personal experience, which, in fact, most of the modern poems she admires are. She seems not to notice a contradiction in defining “lyric” thus and exemplifying it in the most strictly controlled forms of pre-modern sung poetry, with their own formal built-in distancing from self-representation. In fact, she generally assumes that the “I” of the contemporary short poem is directly meant as the author, but they all do this, and there may be some justification for it when the poets seem to accept the assumption.

One of the uses of these how-to books is that by example and reference they can lead you to places you would not otherwise reach – European or American modernists, for instance, even if you just dip into them for a few seconds. Of these three books, Sweeney and Williams’ Write Poetry in fact does this the most, Fry the least; Sampson’s book has far more examples quoted than the others, but hidden agendas come into play. Some zones are completely excluded from all three books for reasons which cannot concern difficulty or over-complexity, such as Scottish minimalism (Ian Hamilton Finlay, Thomas A. Clark, et al.) or Imagism.

In the plethora of examples brought in to endorse every point she makes, the appeal is still focussed on the same successful late-century poets vaunted in Write Poetry, but in an updated version, a continuation and to some extent trivialisation of that same ethos of imprisoned transparency. The impression is of a host of British contemporaries (most of them London-based) who can be set beside any earlier poets as exercising the same skills, and whose virtues lie not in a poetical encompassment or imaginative concentration but in a facility which achieves a “natural” smooth-running and precise picturing of their own sensitivities. Sampson has a habit, which I find particularly upsetting, of pairing established classics with members of her favoured set of contemporaries, as exercising the same techniques regardless of poetical scope or aim. John Burnside gets paired with both Shakespeare and Eliot for skill in internal phrasing, Wilfred Owen and Dafydd ap Gwilym with Gwyneth Lewis and Kathleen Jamie, both for Welsh half-rhyme technique, Auden and David Harsent for ekphrasis, and many more.

The smallness of poetic ambition is now absolute, and so there is…a distinct lack of interest in the grandfather generation, the great founders, in many people’s view, not so much of Modernism as of modernity.

This is all part of the process of reciprocal diminution. The smallness of poetic ambition is now absolute, and so there is, as there must be, a distinct lack of interest in the grandfather generation, the great founders, in many people’s view, not so much of Modernism as of modernity. Yeats and David Jones are absent, as is W.S. Graham; Eliot is reduced to the Quartets; Pound, Stein and Stevens barely touched upon in passing. When dealing, as she must sometimes, with matter which is alien to the process she advocates, Sampson could be said to skim off the poetical surface and consider it in isolation as an example of the craft of effect, which is all that matters, which is what is taught in all these guidebooks. True, she cuts right across the stylistic antagonisms which clutter understanding of poetry now: Thomases Dylan, Edward, and R.S. are of equivalent interest, as are Larkin and Hill, or in fact the whole crowd, because the actual substance of their poetry, its purpose and extended results, are irrelevant, and a brief excerpt is as good as a book-length poem when all that matters is the crafted surface. This is in its way an exercise of generosity, of course, in which Sampson’s own likes and dislikes are, apparently, set aside, but it is a generosity by which, in a discussion of extended forms, Milton, Wordsworth, Auden, MacNeice, Craig Raine, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch are all doing the same thing (writing very long poems). The answer is to be faithful to “your concerns”, which are, in long short or medium poems, external to the writing but determinative.

There are also hidden agendas. The chapter on clarity is a polemical attack on a lot of unnamed contemporary poets, including — but far beyond — the “experimental”. This is a pity because clarity is important, and by jettisoning it many of the more “advanced” poets have dug their own graves, not just in terms of loss of readership, but in a disabling of the poem itself as a vehicle. But Sampson’s version of clarity is dictatorial. It is absurd to say that clarity is (“fundamentally” she says) dependent on correct grammar, in sentences, with subject, active verb and, usually, an object. It is not true that a clause standing alone without an active verb is necessarily an irritating unanswered question or some other kind of problem, as she implies. It is a common feature of the spoken language to which writing has free access in poetry or prose, as in the verse of Shakespeare’s late plays and many other places. It usefully expresses a rich stasis or a dramatic stress, or a passionate urgency, or some other unteachables.

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.


  1. All these examples are taken from the anthology A Various Art edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville, Carcanet 1987
  2. This was an episode in the late 1960s-1970s in Britain when forms of unorthodox, far-left or even “experimental” poetry saw an apparent public success in various ways. My own view is that it didn’t really take place but the illusion that it was taking places prompted the ”mainstream” to see all forms of difference as a unitary enemy which was now available for attack.
  3. The Masque of Anarchy”
  4. The Man and the Echo.”
  5. “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”
  6. “9 Middagh Street”
  7. From “Ars Poetica” by the American poet Archibald MacLeish, 1892-1982.
  8. Sampson is surely right to say, as she does, that the current normal poem length of 30 to 40 lines reflects the fact that all competition instructions tell you to submit poems of “not more than 40 lines”.
  9. These remarks are based on perusal of the contents of issues of The Poetry Review, always thought of as the supreme establishment organ, in the years 2016-2018.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *