Image by Teeejayy
The YPN Team offers general feedback on your poems about stars.
We had another amazing response to this challenge and – as always – the quality was very high, with poems full of fresh and imaginative imagery. Well done to all of you!
We were particularly impressed with the images you came up with to describe the stars:
“bright nips in the night”
“the long awaited/ nursery twinkle”
“noxious nights that/ swallowed suns”
“Ambassadors of Space”
“an oil spill/ punctured by skeins of minnows fleeing”
One star “fell from its perch” and another star has “roots running deep/ Far into the galaxy”. Others are nestled “in the frills of cold night”.
One speaker asks “What do you see from your hot posts?” and another describes a star “Weeping your fire/ Sadly in my chest”.
One speaker sees “a cemetery of stars”, and another watches the night sky only to “smear them away with my weak hands”.
It was also great to see many of you exploring our complex relationship with the stars. They are not just remote twinkling lights – some of you wrote about the stars being involved with human life, others wrote about their frightening lack of involvement. You tackled big themes and drew on myths, science and philosophy.
Five poets were selected for detailed feedback, and we will be writing about their poems in the next couple of posts – we hope that the comments we made on these poems will give you some tips for redrafting your own. There were also some general points that came up with many of the submissions – we’ve outlined some key ones below and given some tips for workshopping your own poems.
Titles are not necessarily just descriptive labels or lines from the poem. They can offer us another way of looking at the poem. They can gently prompt us to look out for certain themes, or throw us off the scent so the real matter of the poem comes as a surprise. Lots of poems didn’t have titles, which is missing an opportunity! Have fun with them!
One poet called the poem ‘I see stars’ – which was clever, because it referred to the stars in the sky but also the stars you see when you hit your head. Another poem was called ‘Gaze’ – a word which did not appear again – which suggested a dreamy tone. The poem then played about with this tone, and included the possibility that it was the stars gazing downwards as much as the speaker gazing upwards.
Workshop your poem: Does your title add something new to your poem? Give it the same care as you would another line of the poem. It might help to think of it like the opening credits of a film. Read Matthew Sweeney’s article on choosing a title for your poem. Experiment!
Lots of poets are using lots of adjectives. Adjectives can really help get your point across – there is a big difference between a “hot star” and a “cold star” – but too many will overcrowd your lines. Instead of bringing your image to life, too many adjectives just reads like a list of descriptions: “hot, bright, fiery star”. In this example, just saying “fiery star” would get the point across.
Workshop your poem: Are there lines where you use lots of adjectives? Read each adjective carefully and think about the work it’s doing – what does it add to the poem? If you are using lots of adjectives to describe one thing, could you choose just one or two of them, or is there a word which suggests all these qualities together? If your poem is full of single adjectives in different places, do you need them all? Sometimes just having a plain noun is very direct and effective.
There were some lovely rhyme schemes in the submissions, including some internal rhymes (where words rhyme within a line of poetry, rather than at the ends of the lines). One poet describes how stars “burn, burn, burn,/ Like an eternal heartbeat”. The sound of “burn” is beautifully picked up in the word “eternal”. Another poem ends powerfully with a series of rhymes and half-rhymes: “Drifting,/ red shifting,/ towards the shore/ on timber torn/ from a blazing galleon’s corpse”.
But sometimes it seemed like words were used just because they rhymed with the line before. There is also the temptation to twist the wording around so the word you want to rhyme is at the end: “all the stars he did see”. This sounds unnatural and trips up the reader.
Workshop your poem: Read your poem out loud. Are there any places where it seems like the rhyme has taken over the poem – like the rhyme is more important than what you are saying?
It can be tempting to use language in a poem which you wouldn’t use in day to day life – and often this works, making us think about themes and images in a new way. One poet describes the starry night as “supersized solitaires on/ slabs of sodalite”. This is lovely, unusual language which gives the sense of a mysterious night sky – even though you probably don’t talk about sodalite every day!
But watch out for words which are unusual or old-fashioned just for the sake of it – words like “unto”, “thou” and “hearken” and swapping words round like “said he”. This might jolt the reader out of the world of the poem.
Workshop your poem: Are there any words in your poem which no one really uses any more? Are you using these for a reason (e.g. because your poem mentions old-fashioned objects or ideas), or just because they sound more poetic? Have confidence in your own voice! You don’t have to put on another one.
We’ve all been there – got so carried away with our poem that we forget other readers might not necessarily understand what’s going on. All the background information is so clear in our own heads, but not to the reader. Of course, you might want to include deliberate ambiguities in your poem – but don’t let the reader get completely lost!
It’s also tempting to write really long sentences which become hard to follow. All the ideas are in there, but it’s hard for the reader to untangle them. Plus the images you use don’t have a chance to stand out, and the reader might well skim over them as they are waiting for the end of the sentence.
Workshop your poem: Work out what you want to say, what you want the reader to understand and what background they might need to know, and what you want to leave ambiguous. Then read through your poem and check that this is clear.
Try writing your poem out as prose – just take the line breaks out. Can you follow the sentences you have created? Do you need to break some up? Having some very short sentences can be effective – they really stand out.
Big and small
Stars are huge. So is the night sky. But they seem even bigger when placed in contrast with something small. Lots of poems captured the vastness of the night sky, but the most successful ones also focused in on something small and specific, to create that contrast. The speaker in one poem is amazed that “For each star I see there is a hair on my head”. Another poet explores the majesty of stars, but the beautiful last line brings us right up close to the body, which is bathed in starlight: “Their lives have peaked/ To burst against your cheek”. Another poem’s speaker describes his “pinked eyelids”, and through this intimate detail we understand how brightly the light shines; the speaker can see the inside of his eyelids, with his eyes shut.
Exploring the specific is one the valuable things about poetry. In this video of Jo Shapcott talking about Elizabeth Bishop, Jo admires Bishop’s incredible eye for detail, for example when she describes the sea as “the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible” (from ‘The Bight’). You can still express huge themes through small details.
Workshop your poem: Read through the images you use. If they seem quite general, pick one and focus in on the little details. Use your five senses. Take a different sheet of paper and write five things about your image. Is there something that can be included in the poem?
The next posts look in detail at the selected poems, showing the original versions, selected feedback, and the final poems after workshopping.
For further tips on redrafting your poem, see Cliff Yates’ article on Rewriting: Getting the best from your poems.
Published October, 2012