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Speaking the Truth  |  Avoiding cliché   |  Free-verse Poetry  |  Poet-Poetry-Poem

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Poets are athletes of the mind... Excerpt from the Introduction of: The Old Formalism – Character in Contemporary American Poetry -- by Jonathan Holden -- The University of Arkansas Press; Fayetteville, 1999 


Poets are athletes of the mind; but the performances they put on do not take place in stadiums or on television. The performances take place in books, and the quality of the performance depends almost wholly upon the existence of an educated and willing reader; for the art of poetry is pre­eminently an art of reading.


A lovely little poem about the contract between writer and reader is the poem "This Book," by William Stafford. "This Book" is the prefatory poem for his most political collection, Allegiances, published by Harper and Row at the height of the Vietnam War. Although the poem does not say so explicitly, it presents reading as a political act. The speaker is a book.


Late, at the beginning of cold,

you push your breath toward home.
Silence waits at the door.

You stamp, go in, start the fire­

from any part of the room I suddenly say
"Hello," but do not get in your way.


Quiet as all books, I wait, and promise

we'll watch the night: you turn a page;

winter misses a stride. You see

the reason for time, for everything in the sky.
And into your eyes I climb, on the strongest
thread in the world, weaving the dark and the cold.


The poem envisions what I think of as both the ideal reading situation for poetry and the ideal use for it-as a source of sustenance for an alien­ated citizen who finds himself like a foreign traveler in his own country. He returns home to a book. It is like finding a bottle of fresh milk left in the refrigerator.  Gratefully, he drinks.  But what he imbibes is something less palpable than milk: words.

...courage is tied with speaking a truth... -- Excerpt from a talk on poetics given at Goddard College January, 2004 by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., award-winning writer, professor, and the author of five books, including three collections of poetry.  Read Samples of Goldberg's Poetry

To take ourselves, in the words we inhale or exhale, to new places where we don’t know our way, where we have to learn new ways of riding our minds and lifting the wings of our heart is always an act of courage.  That courage is tied with speaking a truth beneath the realities of our culture or the myths we hold to in defining ourselves or being defined by others.  That’s why it’s so effective as explains Audre Lorde in her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in breaking silences, in speaking for the unheard or marginalized or invisible. That courage to dwell in the wild of shaped language, of language made of careful attention to sound and image and movement, takes us beyond compasses and maps that reinforce what we already know, where we’ve already traveled.  Yet it can lead us toward a kind of verbally-launched ecstasy, a place we can dwell if we’re lucky enough in: a poem. 

Avoiding cliché -- Common Knowledge

A cliché is a phrase that has been repeated so often it no longer communicates anything fresh.  A cliché may be false or true, but it is so familiar to a writer's or reader's ear that they simply don't think about it.  Clichés fool writers into thinking they are saying something meaningful.  AVOID the trap of Clichés! Clichés take away from any form of writing.  Some examples follow:

White as snow...
Dark as night...
Soft as a feather...
Red as an apple...
Hard as a rock...
Icy blue eyes...
Sparkled like diamonds...
the big picture...

Buried in thought...
Silky-like hair...
Board flat
Slimy as worms...
Hotter than fire...
Ruby red lips...
Heavy heart
A chill in my bones...

               View a lists of clichés as long as your arm!


  1. Is the title of the poem working to draw readers into the poem?

  2. Does the 1st line of the poem grab the reader's attention?

  3. What is literally happening in the poem?

  4. What images and scenes are being developed?

  5. Are the images and metaphors working for the poem?  How?  Why?

  6. Are the line breaks working? (line end-words / line first words) How?

  7. If anything, what else is the poem trying to say metaphorically?

  8. Does the poem have a successful rhythm and flow?

  9. What is the tone or attitude of the speaker?  Poem?

  10. Is the last line of the poem strong? Does it leave the reader awed?


  •  A poet writes that he might better understand himself and the world surrounding him.

  •  A poet, like a taxidermist, catches and then preserves physical and mental emotion.

  •  Poetry is the writer's insight to that small piece world others have been too busy to experience    or have not noticed.

  •  Poetry is a means of extracting "the special" from anything.

  •  Poetry is a means of learning more about ourselves.

  •  Poetry is a means of touching personal emotions.

  •  Poetry is the writer's insight.

  •  A poem is the "magnifying glass" to those pieces of life that people are too busy to see.

  •  A poem is the "reducing machine" for those things that seem to huge to comprehend.

  •  A poem, through metaphor, often surprises us into seeing things afresh, as if with new eyes.

  •  A poem offers us the chance to see things in a new or different light.

  •   A poem is an emotion or feeling that has been etched in stone.

  •  A poem is a painting of words.

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