100 Words of Advice from Ellen Elder, Poetry Editor
I always advise students to be wary of workshopping a poem like a checklist. Still, there are keys to a successful poem: arresting images, attention to metaphorical and sensual language, a wariness of abstraction, an awareness of sound and form, effective line breaks and an unpredictable ending. But what writers of poetry often overlook is the unique place of argument in poetic craft. (Note: an argument is not inherently negative; it can be a monologue about one’s feelings, or the weather.) A poem is the speaker’s argument with the self, or the world. Argument creates tension, and tension — whether ambivalence, mystery, wonder, doubt, or irony — drives a poem.
Ellen Elder was born in New York City, raised in Cincinnati, and educated at The University of Chicago, Miami University of Ohio and The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in About Place Journal, Banshee Lit, Bird’s Thumb, DMQ Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tampa Review and elsewhere. Recently, she taught at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and in Charleston, South Carolina.
3 replies on “100 Words of Advice from Ellen Elder, Poetry Editor”
This is so helpful. I’ve never heard the idea of an “argument” in a poem but it makes so much sense. I mentor talented teen writers and I think this advice will help take their poetry to another level.
@Evelyn, thank you. Have you tried sonnets? In teaching poetry writing I always remind students–whether high school, college or grad students–that one of poetry’s most popular forms–the sonnet–is essentially a “conversation with oneself,” which is also an argument. And by sonnets, I don’t mean only Shakespeare. Many contemporary poets write sonnets, even loose sonnets, and students tend to like them because it’s 14-lines of not overwhelming poetry. The argument, as I see it, comes in the change in tone and worldview in the sonnet’s “volta”, or turn, about halfway through. The speaker says or sees something one way, but then something happens or some outside element is brought in, and the poem changes. Some people might call that tension (in fiction, it’s conflict). But it’s also argument. Students can then try to identify the argument in each poem, whether a sonnet or not, and whether it’s resolved, or not. This can also be done by identifying moments of belief and persuasion, which they tend to like.
I love this advice, Ellen. Thank you for sharing your insights with such eloquence.