Monday coffee: Ted Kooser on repairing your poem

poetry-home-repair.JPGI just finished reading Ted Kooser‘s The Poetry Home Repair Manual.  He’s one of my favorite poets (and not just because he’s from Nebraska), and every piece of advice he gives (with a couple of exceptions) is just right. And (those of you who write fiction), much of the book’s advice applies generally to creative writing.
This straight-forward instructional guide gives us insight into
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This really IS a coffee grinder

  • how to choose and use a title
  • how to get rid of what Kooser calls the “warm up” (I call it scaffolding) – the stuff you needed to write to set up the poem, but that the reader doesn’t need to see (this is one example of something that’s really useful for fiction-writers)
  • how to keep from ruining a piece with “gush” or “sentiment”
  • your relationship with your readers
  • how to make sure you’re happy with the places that your work is published
  • when and how to use metaphor and simile and how to use them without jarring the reader out of the world you’re creating
  • the uses and limits of form

I was flattered to find out that some of this stuff I do by instinct (and amazed that there are formal ways to talk about it). I was appalled to find that a significant number of poems I’ve written that I love but that don’t work are victims of a really bad habit that, per Kooser, is something that underlies a lot of poetry that doesn’t work . And no, I’m not telling what that mistake is – it’s too embarrassing *blush*

But of course, being a “professional philosopher,” I can never leave something uncritiqued, and I’m going to point out those two places where I think he’s mistaken:

1) Kooser says that if you send something out four or five times, and it’s not accepted, there’s probably something wrong with the poem. He does qualify this by noting that you should make sure to send your work to appropriate places (I agree – otherwise it’s like not making sure the day care center you’ve chosen is for humans and not doggies).

But…there’s something about agents and editors: they’re all Homo sapiens. Like everyone else in our species, they let their tastes, dreams, and even their lives get in the way of appreciating good work. I sometimes amuse myself thinking of the number of ways 27 different slush pile readers probably kicked themselves when the first Harry Potter book sales figures were announced. An editor I know went through a crummy break-up, and during that time, woe betide the female poet who submitted to the journal he managed!  I suggest: make it the best poem you can, and then assume that you’re looking at 7 to 14 rejections before it’s accepted . After the 7th, or 10th, or 14 rejection take a serious look at whether the piece really has what it takes, needs a serious rework, or just needs to be put aside for awhile. If you critique it after every rejection, it’s hard to get the piece back out the door – and who needs to add to writer’s block that way?

2) Kooser treats using form as good exercise but (for the most part) something that distracts from the poem. While I do agree with him that form needs to be organically connected with the poem (as I’ve said before), I think he gives forms (and formal poetry) less credit than they deserve – much of the world’s most beautiful poetry is written within some form, and that says something.

Critique over, so now I’ll tell you that The Poetry Home Repair Manual has taken place next to the only other writing book I keep on my desk (Nathalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones). Go out and buy a copy, and if you’re a broke writer (you know, like all of us) go out and make your local library buy a copy if they don’t have one already. Or if you’re local, come hit me up – I might even let it off my desk for you to borrow for a while.


7 thoughts on “Monday coffee: Ted Kooser on repairing your poem

  1. A writing teacher once told me to leave the sentimentality out of poetry–the gush. Great advice. I’m going to have to find me a copy of The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Thanks for sharing.

  2. It’s a short book and just lovely. I think might have some inexpensive copies still listed if you’re looking for a good deal.

  3. Great! This book has been on my must-get list a long time; now I really must go ahead! And if it’s up there with Writing Down the Bones, that’s high praise indeed.

    • Rosemary, are you another Nathalie Goldberg fan?? Yay! Isn’t it a wonderful book? As far as Kooser’s manual, it is less about motivation and more about the later stages of creation, so they’re a nice pair of books. And he writes in this way that…well, it kinda feels like he’s in your livingroom looking over your work and talking to you about it.

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