Craft of Poetry Home

When I was growing up in San Francisco in the late Sixties, the everyday talk of my friends and me often transpired in black slang (now called African American Vernacular English by linguists). We would say, for example, "My lady be stylin." Roughly translated, this means something like "My girlfriend consistently dresses in an attractive and fashionable style."

Perhaps this sentence in black English may remind you of an often-quoted sentence, "The style is the man himself" (Comte de Buffon). Or it may not.

In any case, style is an important part of the poet's repertoire. Style refers to the distinctive and idiosyncratic way one expresses oneself. For example, in these lessons I have tried to maintain an easy-going breezy style. This would be different from the style I might use in a scholarly article, or in an intimate letter to an old friend, or in a letter of complaint to a corporation. Style also arises from occasion.

What we're talking about here is personal style. You can develop your own style by making your poetry true to your spoken voice. Learn your characteristic cadences, vocabulary, syntax. Read your poems out loud and see if they sound natural in your voice, in your body. The poet Donald Justice said that after writing a poem, "When I listen to it and it sounds like me, then it's a good poem."

Our topic also refers to collective or public style. In modern and postmodern poetry, poetic styles have continuously diversified. The most significant poetic revolution occurred in the early twentieth century, when modernist poets began writing in free verse as a revolution against formal verse.

In mid-century the Beat poets added to the revolution. Poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac wrote first drafts and called them poems, valorizing the site (both place and time) of creation. Beat poetry reflected not just a literary style but also a lifestyle.

Often such poetic styles are thought of as schools or movements. Craig Raine, for example, led the "Martian School" of poetry in 1980s Britain. Here are the opening and closing stanzas of the poem which started that school, Raine's "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home."

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings --

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves --
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

The poem tries to look at contemporary society through an outsider's eyes, in an anthropological sense, but at the far extreme with an observer who is not even human. An observer who knows the historical fact that the first printed books in England were made by William Caxton, but doesn't know the words cry or laugh or dream. The poets of the Martian School tried to achieve this sort of distant objectivity laced with humor and irony (on personal as well as social levels).

Recent poetic movements in the U.S. include the New Formalists, the New Narrativists, Language Poets, and most recently, Slam Poetry contests and poetry on the Internet.

A counter-revolution against open form or free verse, New Formalism revives and experiments with rhyme, meter, and form. Several of the poets we have been reading in this course are proponents of the New Formalist movement, which began in the early 1980s.

Beginning at about the same time, New Narrative poets emphasize story -- such as Vikram Seth, whose 1986 book The Golden Gate is a novel in sonnets. Seth based his sonnet style on the so-called Onegin stanza, invented by Pushkin for his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. As a sample, here's the first stanza from Seth's novel:

To make a start more swift than weighty,
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon
A time, say, circa 1980,
There lived a man. His name was John.
Successful in his field though only
Twenty-six, respected, lonely,
One evening as he walked across
Golden Gate Park, the ill-judged toss
Of a red frisbee almost brained him.
He thought, "If I died, who'd be sad?
Who'd weep? Who'd gloat? Who would be glad?
Would anybody?" As it pained him.
He turned from his dispiriting theme
To ruminations less extreme.
Thus begins this yuppie novel whose hero is a computer programmer. The narrative continues for 500+ sonnets. Seth gets so used to the Onegin stanza that he writes the contents page, his dedication page, and his own bio in that stanza! Formidable.

Also around that same period, there arose Language Poetry, based on poststructuralist linguistics, which holds that meaning-making is a profoundly slippery process which disallows shared understanding. Language poems intentionally deconstruct themselves, focusing on language itself as subject and bypassing conventional meaning. This untitled poem by P. Inman is a representative example:

thru drees, load dickening, keith
all occliffed, plinther, intos thaggle, instance
ilm deodr, mudxeast, paean ximv,'s
another handsome attack, gline leverage, bsidb,
tuned full simple
A recent development, within the last decade of the recent century, has been the Slam Poetry movement. Slam Poetry competitions are a cross between big-time wrestling and poetry readings. They generally take place in bars (which means a tipsy audience). Poets come up and deliver a poem; often these may be full dramatic performances with costumes and props. Then a panel of judges flashes numerical score cards, like in diving competitions, accompanied with hooting or cheering from the audience. Scores are tallied and one poet wins. Often this poet goes on to a regional Slam and then a state one, until she reaches the National Poetry Slam.

This excerpt from "Game Boy" by Regie Cabico illustrates Slam Poetry's reliance on spoken rhythms and hip street smarts:

he buys me a glass of bass draft & asks if i am japanese/
his remarks/
you are the perfect combination of boy & man

are you the hip, hot, hung 9 inches of fun/ seeking the slim
smooth, smiling, authentically thai-tasting, geish-guy,
on-the-side macho dancer/ looking for his lord-&-master?
Parallel to the Poetry Slam but often without the contest element are the "Spoken Word" performances which are taking place these days across the country, especially in the cities. Check out these websites devoted to youth performance poetry: Less a style than a spontaneous upsurge, poetry on the Internet has been thriving as well. See, for example, <>. There are plenty of bulletin board systems and email discussion lists which give Internet poets a genuine community (for example, the CREative WRiTing List CREWRT-L <>). A growing portion of poetry on the net is interactive, taking advantage of hypertext and graphics. Interactivity means that the reader can change the poem as she reads it on her computer screen. Such cyberpoetry is a true advance of poetic craft, melding poetics with technology. Here are some sample websites: The most empowering factor in Internet Poetry is that poets, even if they are writing non-interactive poems, can have an audience without any need for publishers. A real poetry democracy.

Other factors which cut across both the personal axis and the public one include race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity. As part of the social revolutions in full swing in our day, African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American poets have been enjoying a heyday of late. Feminist poetry continues to be on the ascendancy, with such poets as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich. The Men's Movement also has its poetic gurus, such as Robert Bly. Gay and Lesbian poetry -- as represented perhaps by the Native American poet Chrystos -- is also thriving. As a sample, here is a famous poem by African American poet Lucille Clifton; this poem has become well-known as a feminist statement:


these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them 
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
Whether we are talking about personal style or public style, it's important to consider your own style. Listen to your own voice while speaking as well as while writing. Make your poems true to your own colloquial cadences. But also give some thought (a lot of thought) to where you fit within the enterprise of poetry. Formal verse? Free verse? Language Poetry? Read as much poetry as you can -- as many styles and types as you can locate. Study entire books by the poets whose style and voice you admire. And then write in the style you find you must. Write your poems. Good luck.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/29/01