Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Homework Helper: How to Write a Green Poem

Every week, I get a few visitors searching for things like, “summer holiday homework help” or “Clean Delhi Green Delhi poems.”  This is not, technically speaking, a site set up to teach creative writing or study skills.  If you want a site like that, go somewhere like this.

However, once in a while, I don’t mind helping out a little bit with the homework--holiday or otherwise. A few weeks back, I explained how to do an interesting science project here and here.  Given that students all over Delhi are preparing to return to school, this week seemed like as good a time to run another academic post.

Today, I'm going to help those of you who are interested in writing green poetry, either because you care about the earth, or because your teacher is forcing you to.  And if you are a student (or a teacher) who’s just happened on this site, let me tell you two things up front: first, I’m a bit long winded.  Second, I promise you some very good advice and resources if you are patient.

Before we start, let’s get one thing straight: a poem is not the same thing as a slogan or a chant to use at a rally, just as a short story is not the same thing as a political manifesto. (By the way, I have nothing against creative slogans and chants; they can be a true joy, and their power should not be underestimated.  If you are looking to write one of these things, feel free to use predictable rhymes and rhythms; that seems to work for chants and slogans.  And if the issue is something you are passionate about, consider using humour or rage; there is always a place for calling a shameful thing shameful and for making fun of bad guys.)

But this post is about writing green poems, not green slogans. While it is true that some great political slogans and speeches sound poetic, and some great poems may sound a little like slogans, as a rule,  good literature tends to be more subtle than sloganeering.  However, this does not mean literature can't deal with political or environmental issues.  That may seem obvious, but I’ve seen brilliant writers miss this point completely as they maintained that environmental issues has no place in contemporary fictionConcerns about our environment, like concerns about race, caste, class, and gender can inform good literature, and it is silly to argue otherwise.  After all, good literature explores the issues that matter to us in ways that help us better understand the confusing and sometimes terrifying world we find ourselves in.  In fact, some argue that good literature and art play an important role in any movement for change.  As the poet  K. Satchidanandan said on the 35th anniversary of the Emergency, "Without poetry, how will people know truth, and without truth, how will they ever wake up?" 

That’s partly why Dhaba runs green poetry from time to time: it throws light from a new angle on the issues that confront those of us who are struggling to remake the world into a sustainable, just place. And more light makes it more difficult to keep sleeping.

Well, if you are a student who wants to know how to write a green poem--or a teacher who wants to learn how to teach writing in a new way--remember I warned you I can be long winded.  But you’ve been patient, and so now you will get the easy to use, first-rate homework help that I promised at the top of this post!  Let's get right down to it.  

If you are a beginner who wants to write a poem, my first advice is to avoid rhyming.  Yes, I know that many people think it’s not a poem if it doesn’t rhyme.  Those people are wrong.  Poetry is hard to define, but it does not have to rhyme, and a large share of contemporary poetry written in English does not rhyme and hasn’t for a long time. There are a lot of reasons for that; one of them is that it's harder to rhyme in English than in many other languages.  This is not to say the rhyming is bad.  I love many poems that rhyme.  It’s just that rhyming is very difficult to do well!  A good rhyme is not predictable, but neither is it awkward—in fact, it may sound so natural that you don't notice it on your first reading. (For unexpected rhymes, and other verbal music like alliteration, read this poem by Nitoo Das out loud to yourself a few times.)  

A rhyme that sounds like it is forced or unnatural is probably a bad rhyme.  And if a rhyme sounds very predictable or familiar, it’s probably because it is—and predictable, overused rhymes are nearly as bad as forced, unnatural ones. Your parents and teachers do not want to tell you this, for fear of destroying your creative drive or self esteem, but I am going to be very clear, even if it means using an over-used simile to do so: a bad rhyme is a lot like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard—it’s not just bad manners, it’s very nearly unbearable to those with sensitive ears! 

So if you are not going to rhyme, what will you do?  Well, if you feel compelled to use some sort of verbal music, consider alliteration.  But even more important is to choose a subject that you care about; if you don't care, why should your reader?!   

Now start looking for images: close your eyes and think about the sights, sounds and smells that you associate with your subject. Make a LIST.  Write whatever comes into your head for 15 minutes!  (By the way, images are like rhymes in one way: if they sound very familiar, then you are better off not using them, because they are tired and need a rest!  "The grass is always greener...two hearts beating as one...calm before the storm"-- avoid these kind of phrases! The French have a great word for them: cliches.  You can read more about them here and here.)

Take a look at how Sridala Swami's evokes thirst in "Malhar" or impossible heat in "Red Chillies."  See what a just a few striking images can do?  Anjum Hasan's "Mawlai" on the other hand, is much longer--you could almost call it a personal narrative.  What makes it a poem?  To a great degree, I would say, it's the images! 

While you are reading (all good poets read poetry, by the way), read a few of the green poems that we've run at the dhaba-- they are full of images. Some are challenging, but don't let that bother you.  I love to read poetry, and I've been doing it for a long time, but I still find many poems confusing!   That doesn't mean I'm stupid and it doesn't mean the poem is bad.  We're just not a good match.  Reading just for images, by the way, is a good way to appreciate many complex poems.

After reading, close your eyes, think about your subject, and try to find a few more great images--ones that seem new and interesting to you.  Now that you have original images to work with, you can easily avoid abstract, boring statements like, "Global warming/litter/cruelty toward animals is bad."  If you think it's bad to kick street dogs, shoot tigers, or litter, don't tell us directly; show us an image that will lead us to that understanding. Much more powerful!

After you've got lots and lots of images, try to boil your poem down to the fewest possible words. Unlike most of the prose here at the dhaba, good poetry is rarely long winded; more often it is compressed.  You can cut some of the images you wrote; only use the very best.  And no matter what your teachers tell you, reduce the number of adjectives you use; a good verb or noun almost always works better. For example, say, "punches" instead of "hits forcefully"; "rushed" instead of "ran hurriedly." 

If you are having difficulty getting started, you might try writing a poem that follows a pattern or uses an "invented form".  There are many, many interesting forms you can use that don't require 14 lines and a mastery of iambic pentameter. Try, for example, a "How to" poem. Jeet Thayil has a series of these in his collection, English. You can read "How to be a Leaf" here.  And you can read his "How to be a toad" here.  Take a look also at Nitoo Das' "how to cut a fish".  (All of these poems, by the way, bring us unexpected perspective or insight, which is part of what makes them different from a "how to" essay!)

If you don't care to write a "How to" poem, try putting yourself in the shoes of another kind of living thing.  For an example of this, read K. Satchidanandan's poem, "Cactus."  Or try a completely different form: read Vivek Narayanan's collaborative "I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities" poem, and see if that sparks anything.  Copying a form or a technique, by the way, is not the same thing as copying a poem (or a part of a poem).  Being inspired by a poem is great; copying words directly from it is called plagiarism; not only is it in bad taste, but it's illegal and wrong!  Besides, teachers who have internet access and a bit of common sense may well catch you if you do it and that would be embarrassing at best. 

One word about line breaks for those serious students who have gotten this far: they can be very complicated, but they can also be simple; don't worry to much about them in the beginning.  Read your poem out loud to yourself and place the line breaks where they sound and look natural to you.  In general, it is best to break your lines on important words, and to avoid breaking on "little" words like "and" or "of". But there are exceptions to that "rule." Speaking of "rules", do use proper punctuation etc., unless you have a good reason for not doing so. 

Finally, have fun, take risks, be willing to learn.  And throw in a simile now and then to make things more interesting.  Good similes are like the chillies in an egg omelet--they don't take up a lot of room, but you'd miss them if they weren't there. Bad similes, like the one I'm about to use, are like worn-out shoes; they might be easy to slip on, but at best they will be unattractive; at worst uncomfortable and smelly.

Of course poets are a contrary lot.  It is a good bet that not one of them will agree with everything in this post.  And in their own ways they will be right--and wrong.  There is no limit to the ways poems are birthed.  But I'm standing by this advice, and I don't think it will hurt you to try some of it once.  Good luck, and have a great year at school!


  1. what a fun piece! and i got to read a lot of good poetry :)

  2. Thanks, Janice. It was more work--and more fun--to write than I expected.

  3. Also recommended: Elizabeth Bishop, Lisel Mueller and oh - lots and lots of others!

    And in return, thanks for the heads up!

  4. and philip larkin ~ technically flawless, and a rhyme scheme so subtle you won't even know it's there!

  5. @Space Bar and janice--yes, there are many, many, too many good poets to read! Thanks for these suggestions. And interested readers can find things by all these poets and more via google.

  6. Loved reading this, HB! You tell it so well: easily, with a light tread, and without scaring off the kids with too much sane and "correct' advice or prosodic jargon. I know one teacher who'll be giving this cool green homework! ;-)

  7. And, depressing though it is, Gieve Patel's 'On Killing A Tree':

    It takes much time to kill a tree,
    Not a simple jab of the knife
    Will do it.
    It has grown
    Slowly consuming the earth,
    Rising out if it, feeding
    Upon its crust, absorbing
    Years of sunlight, air, water,
    And out of its leprous hide
    Sprouting leaves.
    So hack and chop
    But this alone won't do it.
    Not so much pain will do it.
    The bleeding bark will heal
    And from close to the ground
    Will rise curled green twigs,
    Miniature boughs
    Which if unchecked will expand again
    To former size.
    The root is to be pulled out
    Out of the anchoring earth;
    It is to be roped, tied,
    And pulled out-snapped out
    Or pulled out entirely,
    Out from the earth-cave,
    And the strength of the tree exposed,
    The source, white and wet,
    The most sensitive, hidden
    For years inside the earth.
    Then the matter
    Of scorching and choking
    In sun and air,
    Browning, hardening,
    Twisting, withering,
    And then it is done.

  8. @Sabitha--thank you for the kind words.

    @Space Bar--Very nice; thanks for passing it on.


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