How to write like John Keats

Does this John Keats thing have your attention? I didn’t think so. But this facile approach still gets my attention. Even my students can sell me on the idea of the silver poetic bullet.

M., a former student, recommended Michael J. Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry. Back when he was in my class, M. would ask me to critique his story writing, but I never knew until this year that he also likes to write poetry. M. says this of Bugeja’s book: “It teaches all kinds of stuff about poetry I never learned in your class.” High school kids are wonderfully tactless, generally. (I’ll take them tactless. Because they are also artless, it’s worse when they’re tactful. You feel like an object of pity. And you are.)

“Look. Here’s what stanza breaks are for.” M. points to one of Bugeja’s own poems. M. shows me how some of the breaks indicate a time lapse, while others indicate a change in perspective or tone.

Like M., I want to write better poetry, but a poetry manual is quite an oxymoron to swallow. Though I’ve never read a writing manual just for poetry, I am a sucker for books on writing, and I buy it.

The book is ridiculous, but it’s a keeper. Bugeja offers a lot of good advice, but most of his “steps” to writing certain kinds of poetry seem incongruous with what I might experience while writing poetry. Kind of the left brain describing what the right brain is doing, and don’t the Gospels inveigh against that? Bugeja is fine when he speaks in generalities about what goes into the making of different kinds of poems, though.

The book is well organized with short, manageable chapters and a good index. His chapters on the forms of poetry and on some aspects of poetry writing are pretty good. Consider a used, hardcover edition for next to nothing on Alibris or Amazon. I got the library binding and plastic dust jacket cover. “Garden City Public Library.” “Discarded.”

The steps that lead up to the poetry samples he gives remind me of the steps in those books that are supposed to teach you how to draw. Figure one: a circle. Figure two: a second circle and three lines. Figure three: something on the verge of Picasso. Bugeja’s suggestion that his steps, and his steps alone, can create fine poetry is silly. But his description of how he planned and came up with his own poetry is worthwhile. The poetry he writes is more than worthwhile. Seeing his rough drafts would have been even more worthwhile.

But he does tell worthwhile stories on himself, and one that I need to hear. Poet Bruce Weigl visits his college poetry writing course right before Bugeja’s work is up for critique. Weigl finds Bugeja’s writing too stilted, and he asks him to tell the story he is trying to relate in the poem. After two sentence fragments, Weigl stops him.

“Stop,” he said, putting my words on the board. “You just wrote your first line.”

Thus Weigl helps Bugeja “rediscover” his voice. The finished poem (with the first two lines from the chalkboard) is quite good.

Weigl’s work is well represented in the book, as you might expect. In fact, this writing instruction book amounts to one of the best poetry anthologies I’ve picked up. Bugeja has great taste in poetry. Weigl’s “The Harp” made me bawl for some time. (Anything by Weigl seems to get me right now.) Then I tried unlocking it to see why it touched me. I went back and read the information preceding the poem. No keys anywhere.

There never are, exactly, though it’s worth seeing how the locks are made. You can buy books on writing all you want. I have. You can follow all of the steps. You can arrange the deck chairs with precision, I guess, but it won’t always invoke the iceberg.

Posted June 20, 2007.