Thoughts on writing poetry.

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(These still photos of Adam Donaldson Powell are from Marina Abramovic’s film “The Scream”, republished with permission from Ekebergparken’s Scream Prosjekt / Marina Abramovic)


I am often asked what I look for in poetry books that I review, or consider reviewing. There are many poetic forms being used today, with many hybridisations. There exists both a sense that there are “no rules” anymore and, at the same time, there are some unspoken literary guidelines that determine the probability for successful literary communication – beyond the subjective, and questions of personal taste. I believe that it is important for me as a reviewer to restate what I look for from time to time. As I have written elsewhere, I look for many qualities including: evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art – beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – enabling the reader’s ‘inner artist’ to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process.

I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in – or ignoring – traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.

So writing is not a static process … and neither is literary criticism. While much criticism for first-time authors can be similar, it must be kept in mind that 1) there is no definitive “correct way” of writing, 2) criticism is personal and subjective to a large degree, and 3) there has never been a “perfect” book (and never will). I do not personally believe that writing a perfect book is an all important goal. Constant experimentation with technique, style, form and language is the real key to self-development and literary development. A not so well received book can be preceded by one or more very well received ones – who is to judge what is “good or not”? And the perhaps “not-as-good” book could teach author and reader much more than the “good” ones.

– Adam Donaldson Powell

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