Some thoughts on Christian Bök’s 10 rules for writing lyric poetry

Christian acknowledges that his ten rules discussed in the podcast build on centuries of knowledge about writing, and he notes the particular contribution of Ezra Pound to this kind of schematic for poetry. Christian’s rules are concise, illuminating and full of great examples, some of them from his own students. It’s best not to take the word ‘rules’ too seriously – there are really only guidelines for poetry – and to focus on what’s useful about them. I’d long been aware, for example, that using the verb ‘to be’ tends to flatten expressions and take the energy out of them – I’ve been writing, at this point, for 38 years, but it’s easy to forget, and I badly needed the reminder that Christian’s guidance offered. Christian talked in our first podcast with him on his process about formulating a set of principles that amount to a ‘periodic table’ of activities for writing poetry, and the scientific analogy is especially apt for his approach. Here is a summary of the rules with examples from his account of them:

1. Nouns: Choose concrete nouns, rather than abstract nouns.

2. Nouns: Choose the most specific concrete noun available.

In the noun phrase ‘the forest of evil’, the noun ‘forest’ is concrete, and ‘evil’ is abstract. The abstract noun might replaced, almost at random, with any concrete noun for a superior phrase, e.g. ‘forest of chandeliers’. These can be compared and evaluated and the first made more specific, giving ‘the rainforest of chandeliers’ – a strong lyric line.

3. Verbs: Use active verbs, rather than being reliant on the verb ‘to be’.

4. Verbs: Choose verbs which make a noun do something it doesn’t normally do.

Christian suggests that we don’t tell the reader what something is but what it does (this is ‘show don’t tell’ in practice). The verb ‘to be’ is the least dynamic verb and characteristic of passive voice. An example of a verb making a noun do something it doesn’t normally do is the phrase ‘the chainsaw stencils the silence’ (from Canadian poet Al Purdy), where the verb ‘stencils’ is more effective than something like ‘chops’.

5. Adjectives: What does modifying the noun say about the noun you’ve chosen? You may have simply picked the wrong noun and don’t need an adjective at all.

6. Adjectives: Choose an adjective that adds an attribute to the noun that it doesn’t normally have.

An uncanny example for #6 is ‘the peppermint sun’.

7. Adverbs: Have you chosen the right verb? Even more than with adjectives, adverbs can be avoided and may not need to be used at all.

8. Adverbs: Choose an adverb that adds a feature of the verb that’s uncanny.

A simple example for #7 lies in the phrase ‘walked quickly’, where the modifier ‘quickly’ attempts to compensate for a verb that could be far more pointed and active.

9. Arrangements of words: Instead of using similes and metaphors, simply juxtapose two things and let the implied comparison do the work.

10. Arrangements of words: Make the juxtapositions as disparate as possible, so that the connection is like a spark jumping across electrodes, but not so disparate as to lose the spark completely.

Examples from Christian’s students include the description of a rose as being ‘a red megaphone that drools’ – an enviable and complex image. Though Christian’s rules are designed for the new writer, they are a great reminder to all of us. After I first talked about them with Christian, I went home and checked over a group of poems I’d been working on for use of the verb to be, alone. Out of a dozen poems, almost half contained a use of the verb to be, one poem had five such usages. In each case it was relatively easy to re-write the line to use a more active verb and each revision resulted in stronger lines and a better poem. As Christian points out, these rules are also generative. I wrote a poem using the ‘forest of evil’ example, changing the nouns in the stages described and was delighted with the result. Re-reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel a short while later, I came across her phrase ‘a forest of frost’ in the poem ‘Poppies in October’ and was intrigued all over again by the symbols around extremes of temperature in the poem (1965, 29).  

It’s interesting to track specific antecedents to some of these rules from other critics and traditions. Pound was mentioned, of course, and Christian’s first rule echoes Pound’s ‘go in fear of abstractions’ (2005 [1913]), but the suggestion that even a randomly selected concrete noun is likely to be superior to an abstract one takes the idea further. The ideas in his ninth and tenth rules about creating an effect similar to metaphor but less overt and more suggestive resembles the way such effects are built in haiku poetry, where two contrasting images are often placed alongside and allowed to ‘talk’ to each other, creating a new insight. The analogy of the spark jumping from one electrode to another also recalls similar language from Robert Bly: “In a great poem, the considerable distance between the associations, that is, the distance the spark has to leap, gives the lines their bottomless feeling, their space, and the speed (of the association) increases the excitement of the poetry (1996 [1972], 794-795). This is what Christian wants to achieve, and to teach others to write exciting poetry.

References

Bly, R 1996 [1972] ‘Looking for dragon smoke’, in G Geddes, ed. 20th Century Poetry and Poetics, 4th edn, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 794-799

Plath, S 1965 Ariel, London: Faber & Faber

Pound, E 2005 [1913] ‘A few don’ts by an Imagiste’, The Poetry Foundation

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