Poetry 101: Guidance From Writing Judge Peter Balakian

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Peter Balakian discussing poetry and creative writing with Middle School students at the Red Shirt School in 2013.

Our Third Annual Writing Challenge asks you to deliver a message that will spark activism inside or outside your community, through poetry that incorporates some of your own life experiences.  We asked best-selling author and poet (and Annual LCE Writing Challenge Judge) Peter Balakian to share some of his thoughts about writing poetry. Peter will be one of the judges this year, so READ UP and get the inside scoop on what he’s looking for!

What do YOU look for in a poem?

“I look for a poem that uses strong, concrete image-language…. Good poems have fresh images; not clichés or generic and conceptual language like love, hate, sad, depressed, unjust, or outraged etc… I want the language of poetry to be concrete, and grounded in experience. The great Irish poet WB Yeats said “poems are not about anything—they embody a thing or experience.”

What is the form of a good poem?

“Poems are built out of lines, and the lines should have a sense of shape — long lines, mid length lines (4 and 5 stress lines) or short lines (2 and 3 stress lines)—it doesn’t matter.  The poem should not have a sloppy or inconsistent line structure—a short line then a long line for no reason; the making of lines shouldn’t be arbitrary. Stanzas also matter: poems can come in 2 line, 3 line, 4 line, or more line stanzas, or they can be prose poems in bigger blocks—it doesn’t matter what the form of the stanza is, but if the writer shows some awareness of the stanza this helps give the poem more solidity and authority. “Poems are language music—so the poem should have a voice that uses language in a way that gives off some distinct and distinctive rhythm. Sound play and word choices (assonance and consonance) all matter to the sound system of the poem.”

What characteristics of last year’s poems did you like best? 

“Last year the best poems were the ones that used animals as symbolic figures, or as totemic Lakota/Sioux images, which came from traditional forms of ritual etc. Those poems didn’t espouse ideas or simple feelings about x y or z; they embodied something; they made a reality out of Lakota culture with strong interesting images and symbols.”

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