Writing Better Poetry – Make it Personal


Decades ago, when a young programmer poet at the University of Toledo, I had the unique honor of taking a writing course taught by Rane Arroyo. He was a fascinating person, and a great teacher. He pushed for us to evolve cliches to make them unique again, to take a strong position within our work and voice, and to write unique personal poems, the type that only we could write.

That last point always stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing a little here. But when teaching and critiquing, he always pushed for the following:

Is this a poem that only you could write?

Make it Personal

He consistently pushed people to be uncomfortable and to share their full selves, to be vulnerable on the page. He encouraged detail and specifics. Why is is your happiness and no one else’s? Your heartbreak and no one else’s? Why is it your darkness? Your fear? Don’t just write about general concepts and boring cliches. Write your unique and personal versions of them. What specifics can help you draw a reader in? What unique voice are you trying to get across?

I’ve been known to have a harsh opinion on much of the poetry I’ve read (particularly on Steemit), and I think this is the root cause. I’ve been taught to seek out personal, passionate prose. I search for the work that only you could write, and I easily dismiss anything less as derivative.

If you can’t be a poet, be the poem. – David Carradine

Adapt Cliches

Another great piece of advice about getting specific was in adapting over-used cliches. Draw power from their imagery while making them your own and making them fit the message you want to get across. Common poetic cliches hold power, but like stereotypes, they need to be updated or tweaked to say something new. Like tropes, they should be subverted from time to time to evoke the proper feelings and stories.

Examples from class

Cliche: My love is like a rose:

  • The rose that feeds on blood’s storm
  • Yeats’ “Rose of the World” …
  • The cliché of it, the roses, the you,

Cliche: You are everything, and more.

  • You are Noah’s Ark, only with aquariums for singing whales and fish grown blind in your mysteries
  • How can there be any doors left in you to open? Who was your architect?

Cliche: I burn for you.

  • I’ll teach Prometheus how to juggle lit matches for you.
  • Let’s wake up inside a volcano’s soul.
  • Help me become fluent in ash.

Speedy González, Again

And I’ll leave you with a poem by Rane. I encourage anyone interested in poetry to checkout his very personal and passionate works. He had some great ideas and always brought himself and his experiences (which were many and varied) into his writing.

Speedy González, Again
Now that he is a hated icon,
I love him even more. I will not

let others take away the straw
that was the basis of my first gold.

I found joy that Speedy wore
a sombrero, lived in a vague

place where Spanish was real,
and turned adrenalin into grace.

Stereotypes have always built up
my immunity system, forcing me

to rewrite them: our Speedy was
a Trickster and a culture smuggler.

Young critics, understand this fact:
Speedy was never eaten. Now, you brag.

Note – In writing this, I found out that Rane passed away in 2010. I can’t help but feel a little bit saddened, but am glad I can share an element of what he taught to me. I’m glad he was able to put up with a smartass engineer and help foster in me a love for poetry and prose. His critiques and voice continue to survive in my Gmail folders. I’m grateful he saw potential in my writings, and I hope it can help others make the type of poems that make them and the world a better place.

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