by Shaun Perkins
There is a wonderful French police drama called Capitaine Marleau, in which the title character solves crimes in a unique way, without “thinking” or “believing.” Her response to her colleagues who ask her, “What do you think?” is “I don’t think. I observe.” And her response to the question, “What do you believe?” is “I don’t believe. I’m not even baptized.”
Why I love this character so much is because she is poetry in action. There are two rules to writing poetry: 1. Observe something. 2. Write about it.
This is Marleau’s modus operandi. She comes to the scene of the crime, observes the situation, and then “writes” about it by putting the details of that observation together, without emotion, in a way that makes sense for understanding the crime.
Poetry is not about emotion. When Wordsworth said that a poem was “emotion recollected in tranquility,” he meant that the poetry came from remembering and writing about the experience that caused the emotion.
A poem is designed to evoke emotion in the reader and listener. The way to evoke emotion, to pull strongly at someone’s soul in the most powerful way, is to deliver the detail of an experience that shows you truly observed and witnessed it.
This is also the way you solve a crime such as murder. Objectively investigate the facts of the case and put them together without artifice to reveal the truth—the killer’s identity.
“Without artifice” is a key here, as a clever DA or lawyer can always twist the facts to make them fit a certain scenario. A poet will not twist facts or inaccurately use language in order to deceive, unless we are talking about satire and the like.
So, this is not a traditional explanation of how to write poetry, but it is the easiest way to explain something that is actually quite difficult. Many people are not that observant or understand that poetry demands this quality. Tons of bad poetry exists because too many people think that a poem is about how they think or feel about what they observed, not the actual observation.
It is much easier to describe how we think or feel than it is to describe a thing with effective nouns and verbs. That’s another way of defining what a poem is: A description of something with effective nouns and verbs. I mean, it’s not a lovely description, but it is apt.
Some might fear that using this advice would lead to a boring poem. The opposite is true. Be honest: Aren’t other people’s thoughts and feelings boring most of the time? What is interesting is the stories they tell, the observations, the details they have observed and share in conversation.
And also, be honest: Do you want someone giving you unsolicited advice, or even worse, feeding you propaganda? That is what happens when you forego the detail and go straight to the message. This is why Capitaine Marleau said she did not think or believe because in those things, mistakes are made if they take precedence over the event, the result of the processes of actual physical life.
Of course, a poem can have a message or theme and should definitely have some sort of emotional effect on the reader, but that theme and effect both derive from the poem’s effectiveness in creating a picture through sensory detail.
So here is how you write a poem: 1. Observe something. 2. Describe what you observed.
Try it and see what happens.