Poetry: writing about what you know – blessing or curse?

It’s an old adage: write what you know about. And for very many poets, doing so forms the heart of their oeuvre.

And why not? In addition to known subject matter providing a solid foundation for ‘authentic’ work, poetry can act as a kind of confidante when it comes to ‘working stuff out’: you only have to try and imagine the almost infinite volume of poems on the subject of love & loss to understand how many people turn to poetry for ‘therapy’. We all do it.

Yet there is a trap awaiting in writing poetry about what you know, or have seen, or have experienced: the depth of your knowledge and understanding gets in the way; it encourages you to take ‘short-cuts’. Because you know what you mean when you wrote a particular word or phrase, doesn’t mean your readers will.

How often might a poet have to explain to a reader or listener what they saw / felt / meant about a particular experience because the poem left something out or was ‘implied’? “It was dark”; “my friend had not been well”; “I had been there many years before”, “we used to…” etc. etc.

Once you have to resort to explaining a poem because it was not understood or something was missed, the poem has failed. Simple as. Often the poet will ‘blame’ the reader for ‘not getting it’ – but how can they if the reader starts from a position of profound ignorance? Which by definition they must do if the poet is writing about what they know, personally, intimately… And therein lies the challenge for the poet when writing about what they know.

There is an argument to suggest that a poet should regularly force themselves to write something which is not based on intimate personal experience i.e. it isn’t about a holiday / visit / friend / relationship and so forth. Doing so exposes the poet to a different kind of discipline, invalidates all those ‘short-cuts’.

To my mind there are few merits to using writing prompts (beyond the somewhat dubious argument to use them to get around writer’s block). In the main, they seem more like an abdication of the responsibility for thinking than anything else. And using ‘topics’ is unlikely to result in any improvement in a poet’s style or quality. If all you write are sonnets and someone tells you to write about ‘clouds’, you’re still likely to write a sonnet…

But if you are asked to write about something that isn’t based on actual experience – sonnet or not – that might just force you to ensure that everything you need to say will actually be in the poem, rather than left out as a result of your intimate knowledge and assumptions.

So don’t dismiss prompts out of hand. They can be useful to force you out of your comfort zone – ‘please write a Villanelle’, ‘please write about pebbles’ – and/or force you to rely more on only the words you use rather than those that are hidden between the lines…