The Poem is Not a Memoir; An Overview of Stephen Dobyns’ Poetry Craft Book Next Word, Better Word.

Stephen Dobyns’ book Next Word, Better Word; The Craft of Writing Poetry is dense but practical. Read more from Adina Kopinsky's interview.

““Next Word, Better Word” is a comprehensive guide to the practical and philosophical ways to approach writing poetry. It includes practical tips on revision, straightforward ways to understand syllables and meter, as well as the ways in which poets can manipulate grammar, tension, surprise, and meaning to write successful and resonant poetry.” — Adina Kopinsky

Stephen Dobyns’ book Next Word, Better Word; The Craft of Writing Poetry is dense but practical. Much of the book feels proscriptive. Dobyns is writing as an expert and he is not afraid to know his material expertly. He throws out valuable advice in an astonishing stream and you’ll want a notebook handy as you go through these chapters. In the Introduction, he states “no matter how complicated, exact, true, and beautiful the language may become, it is always a diminishment of the reality described.” Language as a diminishment becomes a thesis statement of this craft book, filled with fourteen chapters that range in topic from syllables to revision, line breaks to etymology. Dobyns, the author of more than thirty novels and poetry collections, multiple award winner, and longstanding creative writing teacher, has a lot to tell us about the practical tools that we as writers must use in order to craft our best work. The title, Next Word, Better Word, references Allan Ginsburg’s axiom “first word, best word.” Dobyns’ stands at the opposite pole of this philosophical distinction; he does not believe that writers are people who can produce art at first blush, instead he asks us to learn the craft of writing, the gritty details of grammar and language, to tune our ears to the music of words, and create poems within a painstaking process of vision and revision. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that “poetry is the best words in the best order” and Dobyns’ is pushing even further than this. The “next word” and the next and the next and the next—keep pushing this art, he says, until you find the balance between meaning and music.

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” — Henry James

A poem, in Dobyns’ opinion, is a conversation the writer allows the reader to overhear. One wonders what he would say about contemporary sensibilities; how we tread backwards in hopes of not offending other people. He wants us to extend beyond the polite into a realm of emotional honesty and clarity that leaves no room for hesitancy. In order for a relationship to take place between the speaker and the listener, clarity must exist. In an amusing dig at lyrical language, Dobyns talks about a made-up phrase “and the geese fly north into memory,” filled with the veneer of emotion but lacking sense. He argues that you can put a phrase like that into almost any poem for almost any purpose, because it has no meaning. It’s nonsense, he says, but some writers build their literary careers on such poetic-sounding phrases. Dobyns wants none of that for us, he is asking us to marry sound and sense and not to consider our jobs done until both carry equal weight in the relationship.

“The sounds of a poem are mostly processed by the right brain, while meaning and a poem’s discursive elements are processed by the left. The potential for an equal engagement by the left and right sides of the brain in working out the poem’s total experience is what can make poetry so powerful as an art form.” — Stephen Dobyns

The poet must ask themself: do I want my reader to be a witness to my poem, or a participant? In order for a reader to become a participant, they must understand the inner logic of the poem, the context of events or emotions that resulted in the poem’s urgency. In order for the reader to participate in the enactment of the poem, the poem must be accessible; it must make sense within the world of the poem. An obscure poem turns the reader into a witness, says Dobyns, rather than a participant.

“A line will take us hours maybe; / yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / our stitching and unstitching has been naught” — W. B. Yeats

Despite his high standards for poetry, Dobyns opens his chapter on revision with his first rule for writers: forgive yourself for writing badly. It’s inevitable. And almost every author will have a terrible or nonsensical or boring first draft. He references Yeats’ revision process and notices that for the first ten years of Yeats’ published poetry the image of the rose appears frequently. Then the rose disappears from Yeats’ poems, but in drafts the rose continues to appear for the rest of his life. This rose is every author’s: it’s the repetitive, dull image we can’t shake and no one expects it to be eradicated from our initial drafts. Yet, it’s our job as authors to cut that image before we hit our tenth or twentieth version. This chapter is saturated with helpful advice for revision and is a workshop all of its own. Here are some highlights of Dobyns’ tips and reminders for poetry revision:

  • Try rewriting the poem using the last line as the first line.

  • Write out a prose description of your intention; compare the results to the draft of the poem.

  • What if your poem started with its third line, or tenth line, or at any other point? How would that change the meaning or evolution of the poem?

  • The poet needs to wonder: what do I know? What do I not know? What do I need to know? Why am I saying this? Do I need to say it? Do I need to say it here?

  • What is the emotional center of the poem? Why is it important? How does it indicate its importance?

  • Ask yourself: why does this poem have this shape rather than another? All aspects of a poem, whether you intended it or not, give information to the reader. Did you use long lines, short lines, a mixture? No stanzas, equal length stanzas, irregular stanzas?

  • Dobyns reminds us that stanzas of equal length create a sense of orderliness, while unequal length indicates a natural unfolding of events; a long and unbroken stanza makes the reader feel a sense of progression, the never-ending march of time.

  • Make sure your title can carry its own weight. The words of the title, when and if they appear in the poem itself, take on extra significance.

  • Labels (“Happiness” or “Death,” for example) make weak titles. Dobyns calls them “lazy.” I am reminded of a teacher of mine, the poet Marge Piercy, who also used the word “lazy” to describe one-word titles. Piercy and Dobyns are in agreement. Let a title root a poem in time, space, and emotion rather than existing as a placeholder.

  • Are important words revealed too early in the sentence or line? Details should move from weaker to stronger as the poem moves forward. Still, start with action; take the reader’s attention by force.

  • Burying an important word in the middle of a sentence dilutes its meaning. The most resonant place in a poem is the beginning or end of a line.

  • Read your poem out loud to hear the effects of its sound and the beat of its music. A new aspect to this oft-repeated tip is his advice to read your poem in a “robot voice,” with as little expression as possible. This allows the poem, uninflected, to tell you where it flows and where it trips. We impose meaning with our voice and unintentionally alter the music of a poem’s sound by declaiming it rather than speaking. A monotone helps us pinpoint where the poem is working and where it needs smoothing.

  • Specificity creates visual clarity for a reader. Think of “two trees” rather than “a group of trees.”

  • Intensifiers create emphasis where no emphasis is needed. Words like still, even, some, yet, very, just, clearly, only, finally, quite, somewhat, etc. become chaff in the poem, they indicate that the poet hasn’t actually found the right word to fully convey their meaning and are hiding behind an intensifier in hopes that the reader won’t notice.

  • Similarly, adjectives tend to be unnecessary. When we’ve hit on the right word or image, modifying it becomes unnecessary. If we feel we must modify it, we likely need a different word or image to do the work of the poem.

“The poem . . . is a private conversation that the reader is allowed to overhear with the hope that it might touch his or her life. Consequently, the poet needs to make room for the reader’s presence, to help the reader overhear and to make understanding possible.” — Stephen Dobyns

Over and over again Dobyns tells us that ignorance is a great loss for poets. The more we know about the technicalities of our craft, the more our poems can carry, the more they can mean, the deeper they can penetrate, the longer the reverberations of their resonance in the hearts and minds of our readers. And what is a poem anyways but a poet’s desire to link their words inexorably with the reader on a level deeper than intellect and grander than emotion.

“To have something to say; to say it under pretty strict limits of form and very strict ones of space; to say it forcibly; to say it beautifully: these are the four great requirements of the poet in general.” — George Saintsbury

Although the book is about the craft of writing poetry, Chapter 7, “A Sense of Space,” spends considerable time breaking down prose writer Henry James’ sentence structure and uses him as an example of how both prose and poetry writers must manipulate their tools to create text that innovates and intrigues. Dobyns wants us to use grammar to our advantage; he stresses how understanding the underlying grammar of the English language, as well as how syllables and rhythm can be manipulated, are basic authorial tools. Without them, writers are impoverished.

The chapter “Aspects of the Syllable” is one of the most revelatory and most difficult in the collection; in it Dobyns breaks down a part of poetry that was once common knowledge but is now generally foreign to contemporary readers as well as poets; the effect of meter on the music and meaning of a poem. I admit I still don’t fully understand how to scan a poem, but this chapter could be the key. Dobyns’ takes 19th century poet William Barnes’ poem “The Hill-Shade” and dissects it into its formal elements.

One of the most striking things that Dobyns points is how the last line of the poem, a meditation on the passing of pastoral life, “But, oh, our people; where are they?” enacts the meaning of the line. The “oh,” that open-mouthed sound, recalls elements of lamentation, it becomes a cry of sadness that continues with its open-ended syllable that sounds as long as we have breath to express it. Even the concluding “they” is an open syllable, again the resonance of the poem can move beyond the physical constraints of the poem itself, to reverberate emotionally in the reader’s heart and physically in the reader’s ears and mouth. This effect of sounds and syllables on meaning is a crucial tool, and if we don’t understand what it does in our poem, meanings inevitably emerge that we didn’t intend, unexpectedly changing the way our readers perceive the poetry we offer. An easy point to grasp is something Dobyns calls the “shudder vowel;” words like ugh, mud, clumsy, runt, repugnant all have an “uh” sound that creates a visceral shudder in the reader’s subconscious; we can use that sound wisely, now that Dobyns has pointed it out for us, in places where we want our readers to shudder and not in places where a shudder is amiss. Dobyns has seen a lot of mistakes and he is free with his warnings. He wants us to know that “the impulse to speak and the impulse to speak about something in particular are not the same. Many have the first without having the second.” Sharing memories is a delicate business, because if the poet is focused on sharing personal, accurate details they risk making the poem inaccessible to the reader, so true-to-life that the only person who can find their life therein is the poet themself. “The significance of any poem, story, or novel lies in its discrepancy between our sense of our personal world and what we think the world should be,” he says. Rather than getting lost in the trap of truth, we can remember that we are poets, not historians, and that the key to a good poem is leaving room for the reader and the poet to meet in empathy, to experience one another’s emotions. The poem is a metaphor for the world that lies between the actual and the ideal. The subject matter of a poem is the vehicle for the symbiotic relationship that lets poet and reader connect on an emotional level. The speaker of the poem is the reader’s representative, not their gatekeeper. Likewise, it is not our place to impose moral constraints on the reader; poetry can have a moral effect but should not have a moral purpose.

“The poet often begins with a vagueness in the brain, and then writes to discover why he or she is writing.” — Stephen Dobyns

Dobyns gives us useful tips like that symmetrical stanzas reassure readers with a sense of steadiness and control, or that a stitchic (or stanza-less) poem suggests narrative while stanzaic poems suggest lyric. The idea that contrast begets tension for the reader, whether between stressed and unstressed syllables or between comedy and tragedy or lyric or between the surreal and the prosaic puts practical tools in our hands. We learn how to mold the poem to draw the reader in. Every line must include within it a reason for the reader to continue reading. Suspense and surprise create the energy that keeps our audience listening and the tension between these contrasting elements intrigue the reader enough to allow themself deeper into our strange world. Yet it is not just these contrasting elements that create the surprise that holds a poem together; to say anything that the reader didn’t know, to say it in a new way, creates surprise, whether an idea, a word, a sound, or a line break. “Each line has to contain within it a reason to read the next line.” Any departure from a reader’s expectations, whether in meaning or rhythm, creates tension; ways to surprise a reader include using enjambment, syntax, narrative, or the speed and energy of a line.

“It might be said that every poem contains an argument or is structured like an argument. It seeks to convince us of something.” — Stephen Dobyns

Any movement in the poem creates tension by cultivating uncertainty on the part of the reader. By being moved to question where the poem is going the reader is invited more deeply into the poem, to become a part of the poem as it moves forward in its inner world. This tension can be built even through a simple manipulation of grammar, such as by putting a word or phrase between the subject and predicate of the line, thus extending the period of time where the reader wonders where the sentence is going. Commas, caesuras, and line breaks can all create a sense that there is more to be known, which in turn creates space in the poem. Space is the opposite of closure and, ideally, when a poem reaches closure, rather than closing it opens into further possibilities of meaning. A “successful” poem, as Dobyns puts it, invokes what will come. “The poem doesn’t end; rather it gives back meaning with each rereading.” With this ability to return to the beginning of the poem, to understand it anew, the reader becomes participant.

“We read by anticipating what will happen next. If everything we anticipate turns out to be true, we grow bored. If nothing turns out true, we grow frustrated.” — Stephen Dobyns

He asks us not to ignore the canon. “It is easy to avoid the burden of the past when one has read none of the great poets,” Dobyns says. Reading only contemporary poetry limits the possibilities of what poetry can be, he argues, and being a limited poet is to be a poet without the vast toolbox that Dobyns is offering. The free verse of the twentieth and twenty-first century reflects the world we live in, filled with rushing contradictions and deeply committed to self-expression. Yet, it also risks expression without communication. He doesn’t like that the modern poet is at peace with readers coming up with alternate interpretations for our poems and thinks that if we fully manipulate all aspects of sound and sense within the poem, we will bring our readers perfectly into the epicenter of the poem’s intentional meaning. When our reading experience is limited, we limit our understanding of what words and expression can do. We are more likely to be impressed with superficiality and we are more likely to write superficially, focusing on telling stories rather than scrutinizing the self. “The writing of a poem requires the dispassionate dissection of the self” Dobyns says, and we can’t know how to dissect ourselves if we aren’t reading authors who have already mastered this art.

“No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time.” — Martha Graham

In his closing chapter, Dobyns’ deep-dives into etymology. This chapter is no longer about poetry so much as it is about the evolution of language itself, how metaphor became meaning became words. This is obviously a passion of his and the chapter is scholarly and fascinating. My primary understanding from this exploration of the evolution of language is that when humans first began to turn grunts into meaning, they described things through metaphor.

The Proto-Indo-European word “anger,” for example, means “a strangling.” This is a metaphor for the feeling of anger in the body. As language became normalized, we forgot the inherent metaphors embedded in words and instead needed to surround the word with descriptors, such as “anger constricts” to return it to its native metaphor. This chapter made me realize that when people say “words are insufficient” to describe something, they mean that they are searching for a symbol that once existed in words but has been lost. Are words inherently cliché because their meaning has become standardized? Is the nature of metaphor the nature of language itself? Is the work of poetry to return language to its original defamiliarization?

“If you imagine a stream of sound coming from a person’s mouth, then syllables are junctures within that stream. The stream becomes segmented. Our word “word” derives from the Proto-Indo-European for breaking off or biting off something. It goes back to the idea that we have a steady stream of preexisting sound, and we bite chunks out of it to make individual words. . . The word “speak” derives from the proto-Indo-European for “strew,” “sprinkle,” “scatter,” which have the same root. We scatter words as we might scatter straw or sparks. To speak, then, is to bite off pieces of sound from a stream of sound and scatter them in front of other people.”

— Stephen Dobyns

Did you hear that? To speak is to bite off pieces of sound and scatter them in front of other people. Now go write a poem.


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