You can learn poetic craft. That’s my biggest take-away from Diane Lockward’s new book, The Strategic Poet. This shouldn’t be such a big reveal, but I made it through an entire Master’s in Creative Writing without an in-depth and systematic approach to craft. I’ve been cobbling one together ever since, including spending time with Lockward’s three previous craft books. The Strategic Poet is a great addition. I had already seen some of the prompts because I subscribe to her newsletter. These prompts would arrive in my in-box. I’d tuck them away, and then lose them. (Folders are not my forté.) Now with this book in hand, and of course much expanded, I can have poetic analysis, examples, and prompts ready to go.
Lockward focuses on thirteen different poetic tools—some standard fare like imagery, others less often discussed like apostrophe and hyperbole. Guest essays start each chapter. Until Dion O’Reilly’s analysis of apostrophe, I never understand how the “O” as in “O chestnut tree”—focuses attention and turns the emotional intensity up, how apostrophe moves us to the mythic. Meg Kearney gives examples of personification from a range of poets and discusses why it matters for a good poem and for world peace. (I know you are dying to know how personification leads to world peace. She argues that “personification humanizes abstract concepts and seemingly foreign objects, customs and ideas, thus cultivating understanding and empathy.”)
In each section, Lockward provides model poems, an analysis of how that poem works, a prompt usually consisting of 4-5 steps or stages, and sample poems from those who have tried the prompts. If you are relatively new to writing poems, the models Lockward picked are not going to make you think “Heck no, I have no idea what that poet’s doing and furthermore, I have no desire to do anything like it.” In these poems, a grandfather walks down the road. Spring sends out lots of tendrils. A child missed a day of school and is catching up. When the poems use surrealism, it is with a light touch.
I really appreciate Lockward’s analysis of the model poems. She starts with the facts: who is doing what, like a girl hangs out at the railroad tracks with her sister wishing to be more grown-up. This kind of paraphrasing is reductive—a good poem carries more layers of meaning than its basic plot—but it helps ground we who are trying to learn from the poem. In this analysis section, Lockward immediately offers places to go in your own poems. Have you ever gone somewhere dangerous as a child? Have you ever fantasized about what your life will be like when you are just a bit older? The prompts have already started coming.
Lockward’s prompts are prescriptive. If you love a prompt like “write about something green,” her steps that include not just jumping off points but also revision strategies probably aren’t a good fit for you. One friend called these prompts “highly scaffolded.” I feel very safe and happy with a strong scaffold.
Lockward always starts with a really concrete first step like “select a scene of decay or destruction.” You don’t have to know at this point why the setting matters to you or what revelation will occur there. Don’t worry about it. Just do step one. Steps like this break the barrier of the blank page.
She then follows with a few more generating directions and then moves to how to organize the words on the page. She might tell you to “alternate a variety of complex sentence structures with simple declaratives ones and some fragments” or “make this a single sentence poem.” I do better with her very specific challenges like this as opposed to when she says add in “rhyme, alliteration, and assonance.” In either case, I appreciate how she’s teaching the poet to differentiate between generating and revising.
You might be thinking, all these steps feel like a formula; won’t my poem end up sounding formulaic? Well, first, you can decide for yourself because for each sample poem and craft exercise, Lockward shares several samples by poets who tried the exercise. And, having now done many of the prompts, I certainly feel the poems I generated have their own independent heartbeat. Second, following a formula is nothing new in poetry. No one would accuse the sonnet of creating cookie cutter poems. You are still bringing your unique vision, but Lockward’s steps give you a place to put it. Third, even if you don’t love every poem you write from these steps, you will be learning the steps possible. I think that’s the greatest gift of Lockward’s book. She’s teaching us how to let every poem we read teach us the thematic, rhetorical, and musical moves a poet can make.
The Strategic Poet: Honing the Craft, edited by Diane Lockward. West Caldwell, New Jersey: Terrapin Books, October 2021. 326 pages. $20.99, paper.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake and Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She has been published in Vallum, Poet Lore, and The Southampton Review among many other journals. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.