What Makes a Poem Hot

Photo: © Olga Breydo. All Rights Reserved.

After I’ve finished a draft of a poem, I often ask myself, Is this true? Without truth, there’s no energy. The poem can be well crafted, but stay there, cold on the page. Am I lying in this poem, or posing? Is the language “literary”—borrowed from poets from the past? Did I steal someone else’s energy? I’m thinking about emotional truth, not factual truth. Of course imagination is a great thing—you can pretend you’re a tree in a poem—but you can’t say “Chlorophyll is just so fun.” Uh-uh. If you’re going to be a tree, you have to be a truthful tree. One of my friends once wrote a line, The song of the cormorant. He liked the way it sounded, but I said, “You know, I’ve never heard a cormorant make any noise at all, let’s look it up.” So we looked it up and it said: Cormorant. Silent, except for low grunts and an occasional croak. The truth was, he hadn’t actually heard it, but he wanted a dramatic effect at a certain point, and that can sink a poem. We’ve all heard of purple prose but there’s purple poetry, too, which always involves some kind of fakery.

One way to make sure there’s not much fakery in a poem is to include the opposites. To mention the noise of the freeway in a nature poem or describe a lover’s flaw in a romantic poem—I love him but he keeps leaving those wet towels on the floor—that can make the poem richer. Here are the opposites in Gary Young’s prose poem:

I Last Saw My Mother

I last saw my mother a week after her suicide, in a dream. She was so shy; she was only there a moment. I’d called her stupid. How could you be so stupid? Eight years later she’s back. What do you want, I ask her, what do you really want? I want to sing, she says. And she sings.

The minute innocence and happiness enter and collide with anger and suicide—that’s when the poem catches fire.

Here’s “A Dark Thing Inside the Day” by Linda Gregg.

A Dark Thing Inside the Day

So many want to be lifted by song and dancing,
and this morning it is easy to understand.
I write in the sound of chirping birds hidden
in the almond trees, the almonds still green
and thriving in the foliage. Up the street,
a man is hammering to make a new house as doves
continue their cooing forever. Bees humming
and high above that a brilliant clear sky.
The roses are blooming and I smell the sweetness.
Everything desirable is here already in abundance.
And the sea. The dark thing is hardly visible
in the leaves, under the sheen. We sleep easily.
So I bring no sad stories to warn the heart.
All the flowers are adult this year. The good
world gives and the white doves praise all of it.

And here’s another poem that includes the opposites: “Brown Circle” by Louise Glück.

Brown Circle

My mother wants to know
why, if I hate
family so much,
I went ahead and
had one. I don’t
answer my mother.
What I hated
was being a child,
having no choice about
what people I loved.

I don’t love my son
the way I meant to love him.
I thought I’d be
the lover of orchids who finds
red trillium growing
in the pine shade, and doesn’t
touch it, doesn’t need
to possess it. What I am
is the scientist,
who comes to that flower
with a magnifying glass
and doesn’t leave, though
the sun burns a brown
circle of grass around
the flower. Which is
more or less the way
my mother loved me.

I must learn
to forgive my mother,
now that I am helpless
to spare my son.

Of course, Glück’s short lines are appropriate to the pain she’s feeling, and slow the reader down; it’s almost as if the truth is being forced out of her in painful bursts as she’s groping slowly along. It would not have been truthful to her experience to have written that poem in enthusiastic long lines.

What’s the opposite of truth in a poem? Fakery. We all do this: me, too. Galway Kinnell once said he could tell the places where he was faking it in his poems, because everything went dead: they were the points that fear gripped him and led him to stop: he was close to dropping into the real, true subject of the poem, but it got too scary, so he fluffed it up, and what he had was a fluffy dead place. We all know these places in our poems. Kinnell said he always had to throw away the fake closed-off lines and go back into the scary part, which was holding a lot of energy.

Adrienne Rich has also talked about fear in poetry when she said, “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially what is under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry.” Writing poetry that’s truthful can be scary. Not always, but if you’re really cooking, often. Sometimes I look at my own work and I think, did I just say that? As Dorothy Allison says, “There is no way to be naked, which is what you have to be to be a good writer, and still be safe. What you are most afraid of is where the energy will flow the strongest, and if you write in that direction, it’s like a homing signal. … If you do not break into that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.” Hélène Cixous echoes this when she says: “The only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the strength or courage to write.”

It is always what is under pressure in us, especially what is under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry.Adrienne Rich

One of the ways many of us express fear is to continue to write the same kind of competent poems we always write. One of my friends said to a teacher once “I think I’ve lost my voice, and my confidence.” And the teacher said, “Good.” That’s when something new can come forward. It’s helpful to expand one’s range and write poems that are different: the risk is then that they will be bad, because you don’t know how to do that new thing well. The poems will be bad, and that’s okay. One has to tolerate that for a while. “It’s more valuable to write badly than to write well,” says Marvin Bell, “for writing well always involves some imitation of the routine, while writing badly always involves something original and raw.” There could be a period when you feel like the new thing doesn’t work, and everything is wooly in your work, and it can be depressing.

Think of that voice: Good. Something new is coming. Rilke has great advice about times like this. “Perhaps,” he says, “we could bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new enters us, something unknown. … Sadness is the way the future enters us in order to be transformed in us.” I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a new direction in my work without experiencing some kind of wooly transitional period, and that can be depressing.

One way to get to something new, and think outside the box, is to read poets who are opposite from you both in subject matter and craft. I usually write about nature, and so I read Philip Levine and his nitty-gritty Detroit poems to keep me honest. On the other hand, a city person can feel that nature poems are silly—someone I know once spoofed them as The creek is choked with socks—but for that kind of urban person, nature poems could be just the right corrective.

There’s one other surefire way of expanding your range, especially if you like short lines, which most poets do. I was taught to write like William Carlos Williams, as many of us were—“poetry is succinct, intense.” But it’s important to read a lot of Whitman and C.K. Williams and try their long expansive line. Writing exclusively in short lines can cut one’s range in half. There’s something about a long line that can bring up a different emotional state. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm you can get if you try something I call “blather”—something poets are encouraged to avoid. Blather is extreme freewriting, extreme wordiness, repeating yourself, using phrases like on the other hand, of course, going on and on, being unbearably chatty, the way a person on a bus will bend your ear and never stop talking. You know these people: “On other hand, my Aunt Rose used to put the roast beef in at 350,” and you’re going, “Stop, stop, I’m an introvert, I’m a poet, please,” but she won’t stop. That’s what blather is, and it produces an incredibly long line. It’s a terrific thing to try, especially if you’re used to a short line.

Listen to the energy in this Carolyn Kizer prose poem. It’s a totally different kind of heat than the contained inferno in the Glück poem; this is heat that is being released and throwing sparks all over. Kizer uses a lot of run-on sentences and she’s racing as fast as she can:

Threatening Letter

I understand youre writing your autobiography youd better be careful remember Im a published author & can strike back I can get printed here for example & you cant anyway the children tell me I dont figure in it they dont either but if you omit your wife & children what can you possibly have to say of any interest nothing absolutely nothing has happened to you except us.

I suppose you will use the excuse I am writing this for my children even though they don’t figure in it you will have chapter headings such as my reading in which you will discuss montaigne & stendhal no poetry philosophy or fiction since 1940 you said once i formed all my ideas in school now i dont have to think about them any more its just confusing & deflects me from my purpose that was one of the moments when I realized I have married a nut.

Other chapters will deal with your interest in politics & outdoor sports the latter including your career as a middleweight in college to falling off a mountain at age fifty-nine really at your age no one can say youve been inconsistent Ill bet you still carry that wornout clipping of kiplings if in your wallet.

The unifying principle behind all this is pain if it hurts it must be good for you everything from getting your teeth knocked out at twenty to freezing your balls at 12000 feet I have a great title for you mr negative incapability why not call it my non-life.

Just remember dont go back & put in anything about me I have refrained from writing about you for twenty years mainly from boredom but also because of our years together have faded like an old kodachrome in sunlight remember me in the blue bikini on the bear rug with the baby you stretched out at my feet but if you should want to get nasty I feel sure I could resurrect some details & where memory fails invent so just hold down the old paranoia which would contaminate everything you said anyway & keep on including me out & I promise to ignore you when I write mine.

That’s a true blather poem because I’m out of breath when I read it and because it’s so chatty—she repeats herself—nothing absolutely nothing—this is what we’ve all been taught to avoid. But it works. It can bring a kind of wacky energy, and it’s a fun thing to try: it gets you out of your head and into a trance place of chanting.

Here’s another chatty, expansive blather poem by C. K. Williams called “Hog Heaven.” His use of repetition is the engine the poem runs on.

Hog Heaven

It stinks. It stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.
It stinks in the mansions and it stinks in the shacks and the carpeted offices,
in the beds and the classrooms and out in the fields where there’s no one.
It just stinks. Sniff and feel it come up: it’s like death coming up.
Take one foot, ignore it long enough, leave it on the ground long enough
because you’re afraid to stop, even to love, even to be loved
it’ll stink worse than you can imagine, as though the whole air was meat pressing your eyelids,
as though you’d been caught, hung up from the earth
and all the stinks of the fear drain down and your toes are the valves dripping
the giant stinks of the pain and the death and the radiance.
Old people stink, with their teeth and their hot rooms, and the kiss,
the age-kiss, the death-kiss, it comes like a wave and you want to fall down and be over.
And money stinks: the little threads that go through it like veins through an eye,
each stinks—if you hold it onto your lip it goes bad, it stinks like a vein going bad.
And Christ stank: he knew how the slaves would be stacked into the holds and he took it—
the stink of the vomit and shit and of somebody just rolling over and plunging in with his miserable seed.
And the seed stinks. And the fish carrying it upstream and the bird eating the fish
and you the bird’s egg, the dribbles of yolk, the cycle: the whole thing stinks.
The intellect stinks and the moral faculty, like things burning, like the cave under justice,
and the good quiet men, like oceans of tears squeezed into one handful, they stink,
and the whole consciousness, like something plugged up, stinks, like something cut off.
Life stinks and death stinks and god and your hand touching your face
and every breath, daring to turn, daring to come back from the stop: the turn stinks
and the last breath, the real one, the one where everyone troops into your bed
and piles on—oh, that one stinks best! It stays on your mouth
and who you kiss now knows life and knows death, knows how it would be to fume in a nostril
and the thousand desires that stink like the stars and the voice heard through the stars
and each time—milk sour, egg sour, sperm sour—each time—dirt, friend, father—
each time—mother, tree, breath—each time—breath and breath and breath—
each time the same stink, the amazement, the wonder to do this and it flares,
this, and it stinks, this: it stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.

Wow! When I first read C. K. Williams and Whitman, I felt so liberated as a poet: I realized I didn’t have to have all my lines tied up in a neat parcel; I could just rant to get energy.

“Perfection,” as Kenneth Rexroth said, “is not the goal. Energy is.” If you look at Whitman, you’ll notice bad stretches in Song of Myself, but who cares? His heat has often inspired me to stop pushing around tepid fragments and instead to forge ahead and throw myself into another free write with a sense of play and freedom.

One of my teachers, William Stafford, told me, “Lower your standards.” This is freeing: if junk is everybody’s goal, then everybody can make that goal, and if anything good comes, it’s all gravy. It’s a fact of revision that often the only way through the poem is to go forward, to get more stuff, to keep writing. As Stafford said, “Most of the poems I write I don’t send out at all. You can run across a log pond—you know, where they’re floating the logs at a sawmill—by stepping on one log at a time….you can go hopping clear across the pond on these logs. But if you stop on one, it’ll sink. Sometimes I feel a writer should be like this—that you need your bad poems. You shouldn’t inhibit yourself. You have to learn how to say, Welcome…welcome, poems. If somebody else says, ‘I don’t like that poem,’ you can say, ‘Well, it’s my life. That poem was in the way, so I wrote it.’”

Good poems come from bad poems, lots of them. I myself get about one out of forty poems, often one out of a hundred, that have true heat and energy, and that’s fine with me. Sometimes I’ll be looking at fifty pages of free writes, and say, “Nope, nope, nope, ahh.” After lots of pages, there’s finally a line with some heat and energy. I’ve learned to be a “heat detector” of my own work. William Carlos Williams said that if he wrote a poem with only one line that had energy, and the rest wasn’t making it, he tossed everything except for that one line, put it on the top of his page, and went forward from there. I’m talking about a large quantity of junk. Eavan Boland says, “I always think of myself as working on a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal. … Unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you’re doing as a poet.”

I always think of myself as working on a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal. … Unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you’re doing as a poet.Eavan Boland

I enjoy my failures, since they’re so much of what I write. I try to cultivate an attitude of play, and trick myself into writing through play, doing silly exercises. I often start my writing day with a mistranslation, especially from the Swedish of Tomas Tranströmer, one of my favorite poets. I don’t speak Swedish, and this is not a translation, but sheer nonsense: I free associate English words that sound like the Swedish words, even though they make no sense most of the time. I’ll give you an example:

framunter det som ska komma: A fragment of an oar falls out of the sky like a comma

This is nonsense, right? But what’s great about this is it gets you into the right brain and breaks down blocks. It also drives the left-brain critic-editor crazy, that guy we all know with the sarcastic voice and the green eyeshade, the one who tells us we can’t write. Everybody has this creature, and it’s a good thing to drive this person crazy before you start writing, because he throws up his hands and let you be as wild and crazy and playful as you need to be. A few minutes of nonsense can do wonders.

There’s one other way I’ve found useful to charge a poem with energy and undermine that nasty voice of the inner critic at the same time: lists and repetition. To start a free-write with a repeated phrase, technically called anaphora, distracts that guy with the green eyeshade—“Oh, well, she’s just filling in the blanks.” I’ve written a number of poems starting with I can still remember, That was the year, That was the summer, In the middle of the night, I used to believe, Whatever happened to

I don’t necessarily keep any of those repeated phrases in the finished poem, it’s just an engine to keep me writing fast, and like blather, it sets up a chant rhythm. Of course, if you do use repetition and keep it in the poem, there is a trick to using a repeated phrase until it gets expected then dropping it.

Listen to W.S. Merwin’s masterful use of repeated words in “Chord”:


While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests
while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes
echoing through the forests
while he sat in the walled garden on the hill outside the city they
thought of their gardens dying far away on the mountain
while the sound of the words clawed at him they thought of their wives
while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was
hateful to them
while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers
while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees
while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick
while the song broke over him they were in a secret place and they
were cutting it forever
while he coughed they carried the trunks to the hole in the forest
the size of a foreign ship
while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and
were broken
when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons
when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down
and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

What a great poem! And just when you’re getting tired of While, he switches to When.

It’s so liberating to hear how repetition can keep you filling up the page with energy. Of course, Merwin varies his list, with a few long lines and then short ones so the reader doesn’t go, “Yeah, yeah, I know what’s coming.”

Here’s one more use of repetition by Machado, translated by Robert Bly:

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

There’s a lot of truth in this poem; and I think that’s why he can get away with using the word tears, an almost impossible task for a poet.

We all know about using the senses in poetry—smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing—as a shortcut to getting heat in our work. And we all know that verbs drive a line, and the best way to stoke a poem with heat is to include strong Anglo-Saxon verbs and nouns. All I have to do is include a few of those verbs—drop, hang, spill, pitch—and energy slams into the poem, even though it’s just a list of verbs. Donne used this to his advantage in his “Holy Sonnet 14.” Here are the opening lines:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Fourteen verbs in four lines. He knew what he was doing. Latinate verbs like distribute and recapitulate don’t cut it terms of energy unless they’re being used for a specific reason. Latinate language in general doesn’t have a lot of pictures or heat—I’ve always thought lugubrious sounds like something you’d put in your car during an oil change.

There are poets like Emily Dickinson who had the most amazing brain for strong verbs and nouns. She could come up with a line like zero at the bone just by dipping into her mind, and lifting out those two strong nouns.

I don’t have genius like that. I have to get language for my poetry systematically. For years—and I wish I’d known about this as a young poet, it would have saved me a lot of time—I’ve kept a list of strong verbs and nouns. I steal from every poet I read. I read first for pleasure, and then for theft. “Oh, my God,” I’m always saying, “I’ve never used blaze in a poem—or stain—where have I been?” When I sit down to write I get out this list—and I keep adding to the list—string ten verbs and nouns at the top of my page and drop them into my free write. Sleeve, pail, strap, bend, shatter: sometimes just looking at a list like this will give me a direction for the cloud of feeling that’s drifting through me at the moment.

A poet can start with a vague feeling—I just got divorced and I’m depressed—but no language for that feeling. Looking at a word like bolt from the list can give the writer some language that has energy—he bolted out the door—and even a picture.

I also keep a list of names in this book: the names of clouds, parts of the body, rocks—chert, basalt. Names have energy and crispness. There are great sources for names. One is a visual dictionary, called What’s What, which has the names of almost everything in the world: did you know that the name of that small v-shape you can see on twigs is called a leaf scar? It’s where the old leaf fell off. Or that the stem of a mushroom is called a stipe? There are two other great sources for names: one is the Golden Guide series, which are small books like the Golden Guide to Weeds, to Birds, etc. The Synonym Finder is an excellent thesaurus that can help a writer find names.

Whatever your passion is, I would encourage you to keep a list of verbs and names for that passion. Say you love gardening—there are terrific verbs involved—lop, shuck, rake—and all those great names of plants like witchgrass and heart-leaved begonia.

Why is this list so important? It gives you options. Say you want to write an angry poem about coal mining, but you’re stuck because the word coal is such a melancholy word. All those long “o” sounds in every language—bone, stone, alone—carry sadness. But you have your list with the names of types of coal, and you find anthracite and lignite, two words that have sharpness and sound angry. (This is a case where Latinate language can be a help, not a hindrance.)

There are—and I’m simplifying here—two opposing schools of poetry. The first I would call the pure clear word school: the language is as clear as a pane of glass, and uninteresting. There’s no naming, no strong verbs or nouns. It depends for its energy on truth. Listen to the plain language in this Muriel Rukeyser poem:

A Little Stone in the Middle of the Road, in Florida

My son as a child saying
Is anything, even a little stone in the middle of the road, in
Nancy, my friend, after long illness:
You know what can lift me up, take me right out of despair?
No, what?

Had she named the type of stone, she would have ruined the poem. So it’s possible to write wonderful, energetic poems that are plain. Here’s a great poem by Lucille Clifton:

won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

I love that poem, and the language is quite plain except for one line—starshine and clay—and I think the use of that one crisp name, clay, enriches the poem tremendously.

So to get energy, it’s not crucial to be a namer or use strong verbs and nouns; but many poets get stuck in the pure clear word school and never try the other school of poetry, which I call the lush palette school, which involves names, strong verbs, and crisp language. I’m always saying to my friends in my writing group, “I love this poem, but the second line needs crisping up a little.” They know what I mean—more verbs, more names, more crisp language.

Listen to the names and verbs in this Roethke poem:

Child on Top of a Greenhouse

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

When I first read this poem, I stole flash and streak and toss: I thought, how is it possible I’ve never used those words in a poem? Since then, I’ve used them more than once, and they’ve always added heat to my poems.

Much of the time, unfortunately, my work is tepid. I keep on writing, though, even though I know a lot of what I write is practice; often it’s just plain bad. But as the novelist Jean Rhys said, “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”


Gary Young, Days, Silverfish Review Press, 1997

Linda Gregg, All of It Singing, Graywolf Press, 2011

Louise Glück, Ararat, The Ecco Press, 1990

Carolyn Kizer, Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

C.K. Williams, Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994

W.S. Merwin, The Rain in the Trees, Knopf, 1988

Antonio Machado, Times Alone, translated by Robert Bly, Wesleyan, 1983

Muriel Rukyeser, Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006

Lucille Clifton, Book of Light, Copper Canyon Press, 1993

Theodore Roethke, Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Anchor, 1974

About the Author

Ellery Akers’s most recent book of poems is Swerve: Environmentalism, Feminism, and Resistance. She is also the author of two previous award-winning poetry collections, Practicing the Truth and Knocking on the Earth, as well as a children’s novel, Sarah’s Waterfall. She is the winner of thirteen writing awards, and her poetry has been featured on NPR and American Life in Poetry and published in many journals, including Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and The New York Times Magazine. Also a naturalist and landscape artist, she lives in Marin County, California. www.elleryakers.com

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