I went to the first of this semester’s poetry Saturday University at Vanderbilt today, where Thomas Lux read and answered questions about poetry. Below are my notes, somewhat cleaned up for public consumption:




Q: re enjambment/process

The single most difficult thing to do is to pay attention objectively to our own work. At a certain point in composition, after first drafts, when editing, you need to put on different glasses—so you have a verb lens (look for passive voice, too many -ing endings, etc.), line break lens, etc. Read your work as if you didn’t write it.

Line breaks are to help teach the reader exactly how you want the poem to be heard.

Most line breaks are in logical/grammatical places (where the reader breathes) but also can be used to set up suspense or a sort of double entendre, where the line makes you think one thing is coming, and then it’s something else. Line breaks may seem arbitrary, but the poet should have a purpose. “I want everything to be auditory.” The bottom line is, nothing is arbitrary—you choose it, so think about it—try different things + pay attention.

The more you work on a poem, the more spontaneous it should seem to the reader.


Q re his process

Starts with an image, or a little thing nagging him, or a title that jumps into his head or jumps out of the middle of reading he’s doing. Saves up fragments. When he has time to write, uses fragments to start a batch of poems, maybe 5 or 7 poems at a time, then does drafts cyclically so works on them in order (can’t edit poems out of order)—types them up—works on typescript with four different coloured pens, still cyclically. So edits in order all poems in red, then green, etc (colors don’t matter, just help him to see where he left off). Once all edited in all colors, does clean typescript and repeat until happy. “Part of the obsessive, nutty way I try to put order on something very subjective.” Doesn’t know what he wants to say when he starts. Process of discovery.

Like Robert Frost said, find out what you don’t know you know.


Q re meter

The point of meter is working off of or against the meter (for reason). You don’t just fill the meter perfectly (“that kills poetry”).

Writing in received forms of any kind (sonnet, sestina, etc.) or any kind of form (even made up) doesn’t limit us—it frees us, because it forces us to think in another way, and helps us to make discoveries.

All that said, Emily Dickinson said—who cares to count syllables when a thought takes your breath away—but meter helps you find those thoughts.

You don’t read poetry because it’s well-made, even though that’s important, but because of the crazy stuff, the stuff that moves you.


Q when/how to decide to abandon a poem that isn’t working

Sometimes poems just don’t fly—wooden. Put them away. Sometimes years later, discover something in them you couldn’t see originally, but usually not. “It’s always more important to work on the next poem.”

Do submissions mechanically and don’t take rejections personally. (Editors are just people.)

Keep a list of magazines you like and keep envelopes ready to go. Send them out as soon as you get them back.

Hire a secretary in your brain to do this, for an hour or two every week.

I advise being as cold about that, and as indifferent, and putting all the passion into writing and making the poems better—not to get published (or to get anything), but because poems are important.


Q Do the best poems get heard?

Eventually. Emerson said no such thing as unrecognized genius. You’re trusting a human being—one particular judge wants to grab your book while another might hate it. Sooner or later somebody will pick up your work if it’s good.

Which poems are going to last will be settled long after we’re dead, so it’s pointless to worry about it.


Q Ever write a poem perfectly the first time?

No. Usually it takes five or six tries to even get a first draft. Some poets write quickly, but it’s rare for great poetry. Fast writers: Keats—Hart Crane—Rimbaud—but they had an advantage we don’t have, in that they were raging geniuses.


Q Titles?

Sometimes find inside the poem after writing, but frequently starts with title. Finds a few words in the middle of somebody else’s otherwise unexceptional sentence, or jumps into head.

When a person reads the title, I want them to have to read the poem.

Our main responsibility to the reader is to not be boring.


Q Craft books?

  • Mary Oliver
  • Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms
  • Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics
  • Dorianne Laux

Give yourself exercises. Doesn’t like writing prompts because generally autobiographical (“which is really interesting to us but not always to the reader”) and thinks poet should already have an idea of what they want to write about.

Sometimes I’ll arbitrarily set myself a goal: “in this draft, I will find 7 syllables I can cut.”

Editing—cutting—first + most important revisional tool. We have to be draconian about removing dead syllables, polysyllabic words (because usu abstract/explainey). Be ruthless. Slash and burn.


Q Rhythm?

When people say, “how come poems don’t rhyme anymore?” I want to say, “Are you fucking deaf?” because we still rhyme. My poems are full of internal rhyme.

Pay attention to stress syllables: how frequently and where they come.

In normal English, about 60% unstressed; he aims for 50/50 stressed/unstressed.

Also, pay attention to onomatopoeia. Use unpleasant sounds for unpleasant things.

Play with synesthesia. Forgot who said “a poem is only as good as its sensory information.” That’s why abstraction and abstract words don’t work.


Q Humour?

People ask, “why are you using humor in your poems?” and I say, “Well, I’m trying to be funny.”

Some people think poetry has to maintain a constant gravitas; he disagrees. Sometimes humour can tamp down something really dark. A survival technique. Playful or whimsy to satire. If you’re not funny in real life, don’t force it.

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