May 17, 2021

What Is It Really That We Want Poetry to Say?

Sara Robinson

In post past I’ve discussed how poetry can lead us to a great understanding, can be a call to witness, and can lead us to appreciation of nature and humanity. But that is not all poetry needs to say. The poet Stanley Moss describes poetry as “a carnival of word play.” I ask, how does poetry really come together and say something? We believe we have lots to say. We study forms, words, metrical patterns (or not), other poets, newspapers, and even other genres to give us help.

Here are some thoughts to improve our skills:

1. Slow down, and “smell the roses.” If we rush through our writing, we may miss words and lines that require closer inspection. My work-out trainer constantly has to remind me to slow my movements, let my muscles feel the work. If we speed out the door, we could miss that charming bluebird.

2. Manage effectively your expectations. Start writing without thinking about winning a contest. Get it down. Then get it good.

3. Don’t like what you’ve written? Before you throw it away, look through it and find at least one word or line that you do like. Put it down on a 3 x 5 card, save it for something else.

4. Manage distractions in your writing space. Set aside time. If you can’t write, then at least read. Maybe read a poem you don’t understand. Exercise your brain to dissect it until you find a meaning that satisfies you.

5. Free up your writing to find its own form. Truth be told, there is an organic process to what you write. It may show itself as a natural form to your poem. And if it comes together more like prose, then fine. You are seeking energy here.

We say what we say. We write what we write. Simple, yet complex. What we feel within us can stir us so magnificently that our writing becomes this unified strength. Here is something I am working on in a forthcoming manuscript:

Life and Death

“My feet stay cold

in black water

like some blood’s trickling

in hard rock veins

I’ll die too young

to see my age”

What will your poetry say to you, that you can say to your readers?

Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).


  1. Thank you for this post Sara. I did as you suggested and sat down and tried to write things about feelings and projections. Very interesting, when I let myself, let go and just wrote what I was thinking.

  2. I really needed that first point! I go through everything much too fast. If you ever teach a class on how to read and poetry, I'd love to take it. :-)

    1. Maybe I can do a Zoom class soon! Thanks much for your response.

  3. You are very welcome, Susan. I have to remind myself to simply sit and write. I also look for interesting phrases or lines in books and magazines that I am reading. Here is one I found today:"If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency..." I don't know what I will do with this, but I am keeping it.