Learning To Speak: Why good poetry doesn’t equal good poems

By: Hannah Bonanducci

“Poetry is not about making sense but sense-making.” That’s the quote that stuck with me from my two years at Messiah University’s Young Writer’s Workshop. I didn’t understand what it meant at first, and if I’m being honest, I still don’t think I do, but I wrote it down because of the way it sounded. I knew there was something there. And as my own poetic endeavors continued to develop, I began to understand the meaning a bit more, but perhaps the sound of it was really the point to stick with.

I had gone to the writer’s workshops at a time when I was more interested in creative writing. There was something about normal speaking that didn’t express what was in my head. However, despite all my attempts, I never seemed to share ideas in the way I was looking to explain them. When normal words failed me, I turned to poetry. I didn’t know the terminology or the structure behind any of it, and I spent a lot of time looking for the right thing to do to make my writing better.

Perhaps my creative writing or English major friends are laughing at me. If you didn’t catch on yet, that was the problem: I was looking for too much structure in creative writing, looking for “the right thing to do” or “the right way to say it.” My writing needed to become more creative, not more structured.

This is the same formula that most of us tend to have when we read poetry. We approach poetry as something that needs to have a certain structure or express ideas in a certain, reliable way, completely missing the point that poetry is meant for things that don’t have words. There are certain elements that can make one poem better or more refined. There are certainly techniques that can be used to help with expression. But beyond the poems, poetry, in its purest form, is the endeavor one takes to learn how to speak.

When we think of poetry like this, perhaps it makes more sense that certain poems are awful while still being good in the process of poetry. When we first write, we grab onto words and feelings that don’t quite make sense to us, we just know that we like it and want to learn how to use it. Eventually, we’ll figure out what certain words and metaphors mean to us and learn how to use them in the right way. I found that my more advanced poetry often pulled some of the same words, ideas and metaphors from my first poems. It took me a while, but I finally learned how to express the feelings attached to them in the way I always wanted. 

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of poetry to me was how much I could make it mine. The way that I use words and metaphors to portray feelings of loss and betrayal can also be used by someone else to describe overwhelming joy. Throughout my process of poetry, I learned how to use the sound and feeling I always felt in certain words and wanted to use. It was no longer about what the word meant but what the word meant to me.

And so I return now to that quote I was told years ago. “Poetry is not about making sense but sense-making.” Perhaps when writing down that quote for the way it sounded to me, I finally began to understand how to write poetry, even though I didn’t know it yet. I was given permission to use words for how they felt to me and build a world around it, not to explain the word for its textbook definition with rhyme and meter. The best poetry comes from taking what doesn’t have words and changing the meaning of the words that do exist to describe it. It’s a beautiful art, learning how we want to speak, and our view of poetry should be more gentle and encompassing because of it.

Leave a Reply