Finding your poetic voice

As a poet, a question I’m often asked is “when did you discover you could write poetry?”

When I was at school, all I could write was pretty hopeless humorous rhyme so maybe the discovery was all those years ago. I remember thinking I had a talent for rhyme – but when I look back, the journey to finding my unique voice had in fact only just begun. I had decades of writing, reading, workshopping and learning ahead of me.

The truth is, a unique poetic voice can only develop over time. Very few poets are genious standard from day one. Like babies learning to crawl before they can walk, poets need to work at developing some poetic muscle. Little kids don’t worry about whether they will walk – they just eventually do it. But between crawling and walking, there’s been a lot of physical effort and repeated attempts.

Developing poetic muscle is like body building…lots of exercise and discipline. Reading is mandatory, as is experimentation. Regardless of whether your thing is Haiku, Traditional rhyming Bush poetry, Sonnets or Free verse, try new forms and ways of writing. It’s important too to be patient and receptive to critique. Above all, be absolutely fearless. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re good enough…just dive in and write.

Whatever we write, all we have are our words to communicate what we want to say, what we want to share. The printed poetic voice doesn’t involve body language, intonation or even eye contact. A printed poetic voice is text on paper and a strong poetic voice is text that’s carefully edited; it’s concise, sensory, poignant, powerful, humorous or emotional. It connects with the reader; it speaks the language of the reader, especially if you’ve written in language the reader understands.

Readers need to feel our words and poetry gives us the opportunity to paint vivid pictures, soft images, make use of metaphors, alliteration, rhyme and assonance…which all help to contribute to the music of a poem. Poetry needs to sing, it needs to take us to another place, to stir the reader to respond and sing along with us.

Immerse yourself in poetry. Take time to read the poetry greats. Commit to reading a poem a day or subscribe to poetry sites to receive a poem every day in your in box…wake up to a poem. Like all writing, poetry is for sharing – everything from experience and knowledge to sentiment, truth and honesty.

Good poetry is concise. There are no wasted words. Too many words can hide the message and disguise your unique voice. A strong poetic voice requires clarity of thought. When you’ve completed your poem, ask yourself : “is this what I really wanted to say or have I somehow gone off track.” Read through again, and check for spelling glitches or that grammar and tense are consistent. No matter how good your poem, if grammar or spelling are dodgy, you’ve lost the reader. How have you used syntax – the order in which words and phrases are arranged? What about punctuation – too much or too little or none at all? In other words, will your intended audience pause or reflect where you’d like them to? Are they going to get the subtle nuances in what you’ve written?

Some poets like to write in isolation. Others prefer writing groups. I love the process of critique and editing and have found workshopping with trusted colleagues has taught me more than any internet article or course in writing has ever done. Within a supportive group, my poetry is read by people new to the work. They’re my readership and if they don’t get it, they say so. Constructive critique is gold and suggested improvements by fellow poets can be extremely encouraging.

Your poetic voice is distinct because it’s yours and yours alone. Your voice has much to say in your own unique way. If you haven’t already started, get serious about developing some poetic muscle. Put your stamp on your poetry so that people can say “oh I know who wrote that poem!…I love their stuff…it just resonates with me.” The day you hear that comment, is the day you know your poetic voice has been recognised.