11/04/2014 08:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's Wrong With Your Poem (It Has No Mischief!)


Photo by L.L. Barkat. Used with permission.

Because I believe in making poetry more accessible, I recently traveled to Basking Ridge, New Jersey, with black feathers in my bag. I also toted a box that contained a ladybug teapot, a collection of poetry with poems that include topics like "sexy pie," and a bundle of golden demitasse spoons (one of which I would leave with the host as a thank you). It goes down in history as the first of many such "mischief café" gatherings that Tweetspeak Poetry hopes to sponsor (coming up soon: a café tour from Seattle all the way to Nebraska, that will include tea and toast with Ted Kooser).

Ted Kooser is the perfect poet to tell you what's wrong with your poem -- though he will do it nicely. This is a man who made mischief for years, writing Valentine poems for over 2,000 women across the United States. His wife kindly allowed it. And the most mischievous poem of the whole collection (he did eventually gather all the poems into a collection), is the final one, dedicated to his patient, I'm assuming good-humored woman:

The Hog-Nosed Snake

The hog-nosed snake, when playing dead,
Lets its tongue loll out of its ugly head.

It lies on its back as stiff as a stick;
If you flip it over it'll flip back quick.

If I seem dead when you awake,
Just flip me once, like the hog-nosed snake.

-- Ted Kooser

In perhaps one of the best books on how to write poetry, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser remarks:

A lot of...resistance to poetry is to be blamed on poets. Some go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging. That may be because difficult poems are what they think they're expected to write to advance their careers. They know it's the professional interpreters of poetry--book reviewers and literary critics--who often establish a poet's reputation, and that those interpreters are attracted to poems that offer opportunities to show off their skills at interpretation...But a clear and accessible poem can be of use to an everyday reader.

It may be possible to do both: write a poem that has complexity enough to garner the attention of The Best American Poetry on the one hand and, on the other hand, have accessibility enough to entertain a gathering of ordinary people, when one witty participant puts his mischief voice to the task. In Basking Ridge, for instance, we were treated to this, from The Novelist (notably, the poem was initiated by a very mischievous dare from poet James Cummins, who provided the repeating end words--"teleutons"--for the sestina, and declared it to me as a "mission impossible"):

The Proposal

"Perhaps, let's go to Delft,"
he said, taking the silver tea caddy
gingerly off the shelf. It was Betjeman and Barton--
not the shelf, which was of rosewood,
but the caddy painted slight with numbers, avoirdupois,
the weight of tea I steep to pour in porcelain.

"Why should we?" I lifted porcelain.
Not the kind they make in Delft--
copied from the Chinese, high-resistance, unlike the measure avoirdupois
adopted through a confluence of words... Latin, French as the tea caddy
I opened for the promise, that petaled-rose would
spread its fragrance with Darjeeling; Betjeman and Barton

sell it so. I wonder if it's Betjeman or Barton
who dreamed of almonds, grapes and peonies to drift in porcelain.
Who bare-suggested in a whisper that a hint of rose would
be a better choice than, let's just say, a tulip, yellow, plucked from Delft?
I mused on Netherland's canals and stretched towards the tea caddy.
What if he could weigh my thoughts in dark avoirdupois?

A measure partly from the Latin, avoirdupois
came over from to have, to hold, possess, like the Betjeman and Barton
I hold this very moment, twisting cover of a tight-sealed tea caddy
which, had it come from long ago, might rather be of bone-ash porcelain
hand-painted blue with scenes of domesticity from Delft.
Milk maids, windmills, a tulip-- not a rose-- would

play across it like the Madagascar sun on rosewood
stolen from the tropics, shipped through China, measured in avoirdupois--
all multiples of which are based on pounds, like stones of city walls in Delft.
You cannot find this in the catalog from Betjeman and Barton,
the knowledge that the British added stones as hard as fired porcelain,
or that the city once exploded like the fragrance from this silver tea caddy,

assaulting air and narrow streets with powder they don't sell in tea caddies,
brass-mounted, inlaid carefully, satin-wood or rosewood,
the larger ones called tea chests, often seated near the porcelain
in dining rooms where merchandise bears not the paint of bold avoirdupois
but is quite fragrant with rare teas of fine purveyors. Betjeman and Barton
is my favorite, see, residing in the heart of passion--Paris--not in Delft.

I place the silver tea caddy directly on the shelf, unpainted with the weight
        of ebony avoirdupois,
silver tipped with fresh-spilled leaves scattered on the rosewood,
        lined with Betjeman and Barton
rarities to pour into my porcelain, which would, I tell him,
        never come from Delft.

-- L.L. Barkat

People don't often think of "mischief" as being a necessary quality for a poem, but I think it's essential. At Every Day Poems, we will not acquire poems that are void of it, and it's okay if the mischief is dark versus humorous.

Why Does a Poem Need Mischief?

The heart of mischief is play and surprise, and this is why every poem should have it. Again, the play can be dark. Or it can be humorous. Through play and surprise, the poem creates an "aha" moment for the reader. And it is the "aha" that causes us to take poems with us rather than, as Kooser puts it, leave them behind post-haste:

No poem has ever entered a reader's life without an invitation; no poem has the power to force the door open. No one is going to read your poem just because it's there. In other words, you have to get the reader's attention.

Kooser gives many excellent tips for how to make your poems mischievous, though he doesn't frame it in that language. Here are just 5 practices or attitudes he recommends:

1. Don't weigh your poem down with spare parts
2. See the poem as a houseguest
3. Make your title do the work of exposition
4. Mimic contemporary speech
5. Shake off generalizations and go for specifics

You could can also, if you like, use the power of pie (or mushrooms!). I've been known to do that in my own poems:

Is there such a thing
as disposable sexy pie?
Does it come in aluminum, flimsy?


Just you and I,
let's truffle
let's shiitake
let's button (and unbutton).

Word play, surprise, repurposing nouns as verbs, there are so many ways to make mischief in your poems, so you can tuck them secretly into your readers' hearts. And, this, admits Kooser, in "Pocket Poem" is what every poet really wants:

If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I'd opened it a thousand times
to see if what I'd written here was right,
it's all because I looked too long for you
to put in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me.