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Boredom Is Not Permitted
Copyright©2002 by Nathan Harms

Imagine yourself at Salt Lake City where the Olympic pairs champions, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, are skating for the gold medal. At the climax of their performance, they launch themselves into the air for simultaneous triple toe loops. Imagine the groans of disappointment that rumble through the crowd as Sale and Pelletier tangle and crumple in a heap on the ice.

But wait—the judges’ scores are posted. A row of perfect sixes appears on the scoreboard. How can that be?

The answer is simple. Pairs skating is an art form—and art, if free of standards, rules and expectations, may be judged subjectively. Under these circumstances, good and bad are matters of opinion. The French skating judge is just as correct as the Canadian judge.

Of course we know this is wrong. There are measures of excellence. Everyone knows that a skater falling flat on her face has failed.

Is Poetry a Free-for-All?

At a recent poetry reading, a member of the audience postulated that poetry is totally subjective. She felt it was impossible to compare one poem to another or judge the quality of poetry. Is this true? Does poetry have fewer standards than ice skating?A belief that poetry is all in the eye of the beholder may provide a consolation until we enter our poetry in a competition. Then our creations are culled and laid on a stack of discards. Other entries are judged more worthy. Dejected, we ask why certain poems were chosen as winners.As with ice skating, poetry has rules by which it is judged. Some standards are highly subjective, for instance, is the poem “interesting?” Other standards are more objective, for instance, are the images consistent?In this article, we’ll examine some rules by which poetry is evaluated. Not all of us will mount the Olympic platform to receive a gold medal for our poetry, but if we improve our performances we might each have confidence that our poems provide sighs of satisfaction to readers.

Poetry Rule #1: Boredom is Not Permitted

From talking to many readers of poetry, I’ve discovered that few poems are read past the first four lines. Readers decide in fewer than ten seconds that a poem has little to offer, whether it’s worth reading or boring.A poet might assume that to avoid this fate he should provide subject matter that caters to the reader’s area of interest. This is not true. A boring poem about gardening will not interest a gardener, no matter how avid his love of the garden. But a gripping poem about fishing may lead the same gardener to read the entire work with pleasure.What makes a poem boring? What is the real secret to catching the reader’s interest?

The Doorway to Your Poem

Imagine you are standing at the entrance to a dimly lit room. You’ve been invited to enter the room, in fact, you have come out of your way to be at this very doorway. The “room” before you is the poem you are about to read. What will draw you into the room?Perhaps you see a bit of movement. Perhaps you hear a familiar voice. Is there a flash of light? Does something in this room belong to you? Will you enter the room to retrieve it? If nothing captures your attention, you will likely turn away.

A poet may mistakenly try to lure the reader into the room by describing it in general terms, “It’s green, it’s large, it’s empty.” The poet might provide a clever rhyme. She might layer adjectives and adverbs, like a desperate used car salesman, pleading for a purchase.But in the end, she fails if she does not entice.

Seducing the Reader

In the stillness of the forest
leaves cascading to the mossy carpet
rustle like angel whispers
sent from my Heavenly Father.

This is a beautiful image, but it lacks seduction. The poet describes what she sees and hears, but doesn’t answer the reader’s question, “Why should I keep reading?”No matter what a poet’s individual style and voice, she must ask, “Will the reader be interested?”

My Father’s angels whisper,
weaving prayers from flaming leaves
into a carpet worn and crumpled.
I must make this journey on my knees.

This second selection has a better possibility of teasing a reader into the poem. The poet’s need to forge ahead on her knees stirs a sympathetic response from the reader. This is when the reader feels that something that belongs to him will be found in the poem. Another reader may ask, “Why must the poet journey on her knees?” There are other reasons why this selection is more inviting. There is more action. The simile, "like angel whispers," in the first selection becomes real angel whispers in the second selection. Don’t you want to know what they’re whispering?

Don't Substitute Style for Content

Enticing a reader does not mean substituting style for content. If we have a message or emotion we want to communicate we cannot abandon our purpose and spend our poetic energy titillating readers to keep them amused. But it’s good to remember that we have less than ten seconds in which capture the reader. If we fail, our message will never arrive.Avoiding boredom in our poetry requires us to be expert communicators, cleverly constructing authentic poetry while remembering that the reader must always feel involved—right from the first few lines of a poem.Following are the titles and opening lines from six different poems. Please remember that these poems are about different subjects. Don't try to associate them. Just read each selection and be aware of your response to it.

Poem Excerpts (attributions)

Sample 1:
I walked to the art gallery,
Saw the paintings on display.
I saw the artists' expert renderings
Of life in another day.

Sample 2:
mama never knew why the birds came every day
to flock inside her head
why thunder rolled from the tips of their wings
syllables loud behind the eye

Sample 3:
He owes others too much
and does not have enough left for himself.
The poet declares himself bankrupt.

He gives up his three filing cabinets

Sample 4:
Be still when the storm is raging.
Be still when hope is dim,
For God in all His Glory,

Wants you to trust in Him.

Sample 5:
We've been told you sleep
with a pair of cold bullets for ear plugs.
We've heard how much you enjoy
stifling the sunshine songs

Sample 6:
White winter snowflakes

wooly as lambs
fall in a January drift

Your Reaction

Your reaction to each of these poetic beginnings is unpredictable. But most readers would be bored (or repelled) by a number of clichés, stimulated by a few fresh images, and intrigued by several of the titles.

Bored by Cliché

Learning to recognize cliché—and eradicate it—is one of the poet's most challenging tasks. A cliché is a phrase, comparison, simile or any combination of words so common that it loses its power, perhaps even its ability to communicate. Let's look at "Sample 4" above.

Be still when the storm is raging.
Be still when hope is dim,
For God in all His Glory,

Wants you to trust in Him.

Have you heard of a "raging storm?" Of course you have. The expression is so common that the poet might just as well have written, "Be still when the storm is storming." Which of us has not heard of a time when "hope was dim?" We know God is a "God of Glory." It's a throw-away line, a cliché. "Trust in Him," is a powerful idea, and it's something we ought to do every day, but when we come to poetry we come to literature. A firm faith or sound doctrine do not guarantee good literature.What if this poet had written:

Never fear when the lightning crackles
and the blue bolt singes the trees,
for God has charged the
to draw us to our knees.

This is not a masterpiece by any means, but it is more enticing than the original version. The crackling lightning shows us the storm is raging, instead of telling us. The trees singed by lightning help us feel the fear. Instead of wasting that third line with a cliché, we lead the reader forward with extra content. In the final line, instead of being told God wants us to trust Him, we are shown how he leads us to trust him. The poem now contains a fresh idea and a Biblical message which can be elaborated in further stanzas. The difference between mediocre poetry and dynamic poetry can often be attributed to hard work and determination, in this case, about two hours of work for one stanza. How about "Sample 6?"

White winter snowflakes

wooly as lambs
fall into a January drift

The idea that snow is as white and fluffy as sheep's wool is not nearly unique. Not only is the image time-worn, but the poet has been lazy with his words. We know snow falls in winter—we don't have to be told. We also know snow is white. To be fair to the poet, he has attempted liberal alliteration, but it's not enough to obliterate those terrible clichés.How about:

Awkward snowflakes

stumble like yearling lambs
into January's fold.

Stimulated by Fresh Imagery

When we are new poets, finding fresh imagery in a crate crammed with withered clichés seems impossible. But as we discipline ourselves to shun cliché, our poetic taste becomes refined. This is one of the reasons we must expose ourselves to a wealth of proven poetry. Let's look at "Sample 2" above.

mama never knew why the birds came every day
to flock inside her head
why thunder rolled from the tips of their wings
syllables loud behind the eye

This is a great example of the power of a title. The poet's images are almost surreal, and without the direction provided by the title a reader might quickly lose her way. Imagine birds flocking inside a person's head, or thunder rolling off the tips of birds' wings. We've never heard of such things, of course, but the title tells us that we are reading about Alzheimer disease, so we can put the images into a context.On to "Sample 5."

We've been told you sleep
with a pair of cold bullets for ear plugs.
We've heard how much you enjoy
stifling the sunshine songs

We only need read the second line of this political poem, and we're hooked. What sort of person sleeps with bullets in his ears? And why?

Intrigued by Titles

Most of us have seen poems titled, "Untitled" or "Poem 155." Perhaps a very gifted poet (such as the Biblical Psalmist) can get away with such tactics, but those of us who are still working hard to improve our craft cannot afford to surrender a powerful tool like a title.While we are writing a poem, its title is like a workbench that stabilizes the creation. Later, when we reveal the poem to readers, its title is the environment in which the poem is hung. Leaving our poem untitled is like leading the reader into a darkened room, then throwing on the floodlights. We may surprise and astound the reader, or we may alienate him. Worst of all, the reader may not bother to enter a room without light.Let's look at a few of the titles from the samples above. In my opinion, the title of "Sample 5" is weak. "The Tyrant Next Door" gives away too much information before the poem has begun. As this poem continues, the reader is shown the nastiness of the person next door—but the fact that we've been told by the poet that the subject is a tyrant releases us from reaching that conclusion on our own. Prompting a reader towards her own feelings is much more engaging than immediately declaring our conclusion.

Playing Fair with the Reader

When we choose titles for our poems we want to avoid giving away the punch line or conclusion. Although it's appropriate, in certain poems, to declare a bias, as a rule we ought not be "explaining" our point of view to the reader.When you tell the reader how he is supposed to think, you are abusing the medium—and the reader too. Why should the reader continue into your work if the outcome, or your point of view, is already clear?

Boredom is Not Permitted: Assignments

1. Take a book of poetry with which you are not too familiar (borrow one from the library, if necessary) and spend five minutes perusing poems randomly. Do not read past the first 6 lines of any poem. Drop markers into pages where you find the poems’ beginnings tempt you to read further. When you are done, compare the poems that welcomed you to those that were boring and try to understand the differences. Take special note of poems where the poet used the first lines to establish an immediate emotional connection with you.

2. Analyze one of your current works-in-progress to determine if the first four lines offer an enticement or temptation to a reader—or if they are boring.

Let me Know

If you read this article, please let me know.