Can anyone write poetry?

TS Eliot said that the greatest difficulty for a poet is to distinguish between “what one really feels and what one would like to feel”...

How to write poetry: Poet Wendy Cope explains what makes a really superb poem

The best poets read widely, says Wendy Cope. Of course this will influence their work – but how else are they going to find out what makes a really superb poem?

He was an elderly man and he had queued up with the people who were waiting for me to sign their books. When his turn came, he announced unapologetically, “I don’t read poetry. I write it. I’ve brought you a copy of my book.”

If he had been younger, I might not have been so polite. I smiled, took the book and thanked him. Later on a quick glance through the self-published volume confirmed what I already knew: the poems were no good. People who never read poetry don’t write poems that are worth reading.

It’s a free country, of course, and anyone can write whatever they like. However, if you are interested in writing well, in working at being a better poet, then the most important piece of advice that anyone can give you is that you have to read both recent poetry and the poetry of past centuries. That’s how you learn. The elderly gentleman must have come across some poems at some point in order to have a concept of what a poem is. But vague memories of a few things you read at school are not enough.

It seems odd to me that anyone who hates reading poetry should want to write it at all. Are there amateur painters who never go to an art gallery? Or amateur musicians who never listen to music? Sometimes non-reading poets explain that they are afraid of being influenced. They don’t understand that being influenced is part of the learning process. Some of my earliest (and unpublished) poems read like poor imitations of Sylvia Plath. Others read like poor imitations of TS Eliot.

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