Crank Out a Few, Please

by Joseph S. Salemi

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, I attended a seminar on Vergil’s Eclogues. These are the lovely bucolic verses that Vergil modeled on the earlier Greek pastoral poets who were prestigious in his day: Bion, Moschus, and Theocritus. The seminar was run by a world-famous scholar, well known for his work in Vergilian studies.

The Eclogues are wonderful: they are limpid Latin hexameters celebrating an idyllic world of shepherds, flocks, and rural song. But the world-famous scholar was a pain. Rather than just helping us read the text intelligently, he kept harping on some bizarre theory about the “process of composition” that Vergil went through in writing the Eclogues. We seminar students had humbler goals—we wanted to parse the Latin sentences, understand the syntax, scan the meter, and enjoy the beauty of Vergil’s poetry. He, on the other hand, was obsessed with nebulous postmodernist notions about “authorship” and “subversive readings” and “challenges to received tradition”—all the blithering jargon that substitutes for real scholarship in academia nowadays. On several occasions during the term we had to call his attention back to the Latin text, which he had left far behind in his enthusiasm for vapid theorizing.

It’s a curious fact of life in colleges today that students are sometimes the voices of sanity and substance, while professors are in the grip of a corrupting, cant-filled betrayal of their subject. In any case, one afternoon in class this professor was droning on, ad nauseam, about the complexity and nuanced convolutions of Vergil’s motives as a writer. It was all speculative and hypothetical at best, but he hammered away at us. What was Vergil’s agenda? What relationship did he have with his literary predecessors? What were his authorial intentions? On and on it went—pointless questions to which there were no definitive answers.

Suddenly I decided that I had had enough. I raised my hand to be recognized. The professor acknowledged me. I cleared my throat and said the following: “Look—isn’t it just possible that Vergil merely decided, after reading all the various models of pastoral eclogue available in his day, to try his hand at cranking out a few of them himself? Maybe it was as simple as that.”

You should have seen the professor’s face. Shock, pain, consternation, and rage fluttered all over it in various hues, like the ionization effect in a mushroom cloud. For several seconds he couldn’t speak. Then he sputtered this reply: “Great poets like Vergil don’t crank out verses! It’s never like that!” He was infuriated by my suggestion that there need not be any abstruse rationale behind Vergil’s Eclogues—or worse, that they might have been produced as a mere exercise.

The professor, of course, was quite wrong. Competent poets can and do crank out poetry all the time. And if they are really good poets, the stuff they crank out will very likely be good as well. Does anyone imagine that Shakespeare, who had a family to feed in Stratford, sat around waiting for sublime inspiration in order to write a play? No—he grabbed his Plutarch or Holinshed, found a promising subject, and cranked out drama on deadline for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. And those cranked-out works are now as precious and canonical to us as the plays of Sophocles were to the Greeks. Samuel Johnson cranked out Rasselas in one week to pay for his mother’s funeral. Byron’s only problem with Don Juan was that he couldn’t crank out the cantos fast enough to meet popular demand.

All of which directly relates to the problems of poetic composition today. I’m impatient with young poets who come to me and complain about “lack of inspiration.” This is pure Romantic twaddle. If you can’t write without inspiration, then you are a bumbling amateur. Professional writers do their work on command, because the skills requisite for writing are at their immediate disposal. In short, professionals can crank stuff out. Let me give an example.

Just recently, an old friend and teacher of mine named John Collins died. John Collins (we called him “Jack”) was the most learned man I ever had the honor of knowing. His knowledge of Latin and Greek was phenomenal; there wasn’t an ancient text he hadn’t read, or a thing he couldn’t translate. His understanding of classical Greek was so profound that the Pontifical Institute of Biblical Studies in Rome consulted him on corrections to the Greek Scriptures. He wrote the definitive textbook on ecclesiastical Latin, and he edited Erasmus. I should also mention that, since Jack was a white male and a devout Roman Catholic, he was never even considered for full-time employment by any university.

Jack Collins could compose Latin and Greek verse on a moment’s notice, and on any subject. You just had to ask him, and he’d crank out fifty perfect elegiac couplets or dactylic hexameters on anything. If you requested Greek verse, he’d ask “Which dialect—Attic, Ionic, Doric, Cyprian, Aeolic, or Homeric?” And Jack would have the verses (damned good ones, too) done in an hour at most. He died in late middle age—burned out, perhaps, by the sheer incandescent power of his intellect.

The same practice is possible for those of us who write formalist poetry. Poetic composition should be like any other skill: if you know how to do it, then just do it. If you don’t know how to do it, then learn. It’s easy enough to grasp the basics of English meter, and with steady reading of the pre-Whitmanesque masters you’ll pick up the standard tricks of the trade fairly quickly. There’s no reason why writing reams of good iambic pentameter should be any more difficult than learning to play the piano. It’s true that while many people can play the piano adequately, very few persons actually play it superbly. But no one plays it superbly who didn’t start out by playing it adequately.

Consider Esther Cameron, who once edited the journal Neovictorian Cochlea. Her long epic poem The Consciousness of Earth (serially reprinted in Bellowing Ark a few years ago) is totally in iambic pentameter. Cameron is now so fluent in this meter that she has come to prefer it to prose. Her letters are frequently in pure iambic fives, even when dealing with complex subjects. She encourages her correspondents to use iambic pentameter in reply to her missives. Such fluency would be more common if we all just began cranking out iambic fives in bulk.

Another good example of my point is Ben Jonson. His preferred method of composition was to write out the gist of a proposed poem in prose first, and then “versify,” or translate it into metrical units. Anyone who dared to suggest that to a workshop of poets today would be excoriated for insensitivity and philistinism. And yet Ben Jonson’s poetry is excellent—certainly a lot better than the spontaneous drivel that emerges from modern workshops. Do I recommend Jonson’s method? No, not necessarily. But it does go to show that good poetry—even great poetry—can be cranked out in a mundane, workaday manner.

Look at Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s hardly likely that he was in rapture on Mount Helicon (or Sinai) when composing every single line of the thing. Much of the epic was just cranked out, as was the case with Vergil’s Aeneid, and Homer’s Iliad, and probably the Epic of Gilgamesh as well. It’s simple logic: people don’t do their best creative work while they’re having a seizure. They do it when they are in conscious control of their faculties.

Anyway, in addition to my exhortation to young poets to start cranking out verse, I offer below some negative rules concerning poetic composition. I’ve formulated these rules after listening to innumerable narcissistic poetasters whine about their difficulties. These rules, if followed, should help to develop a poet’s fluency—that is, the ability to crank out stuff. Here goes:

1. Don’t mystify poetry. Poetry is an art like any other, with rules, procedures, and traditions. Its rudiments are available to anyone who makes the effort to study them. If you take the attitude that poetic composition is like some secret initiation into a gnostic mystery cult, you’re only creating difficulties for yourself. You’re also just a poseur.

2. Don’t talk so damned much about your poetry. One of the curses of modern life is its endless, pointless chatter. Talking about your poetry is like talking about your sex life—something is very wrong if you have to gab about it incessantly. As we say in Brooklyn, skip the chin-music.

3. Don’t get hung up on abstract theories. I’m always baffled when young poets respond to a specific suggestion of mine by saying “Yes—that did occur to me as the best solution, but I thought there was this idea that…” (and here they will mention a prissy little stricture they picked up in a workshop). Don’t let some damned idea kill your poetry while it is aborning. Remember that great poetry was being written long before any prating theorist came along.

4. Don’t join a workshop unless you are a complete novice, and get out of it as soon as possible. Workshops are horrible, counter-creative places. They are conformist little cells where groupthink and consensual response and stereotypical poses dominate. Remember that, in the ultimate analysis, no one is going to write your poems except you. Workshops are not interested in helping you to write poems. They are much more interested in stopping you from writing the sort of poems that the workshop director dislikes.

5. In general, don’t ask other poets for advice. Nothing will cripple you more than the habit of taking to your contemporaries. Talk with the dead, via reading. The dead have no vested interest in hurting you. Many of your contemporaries do.

6. Don’t ever say that you can’t write on a certain subject. In the old British public schools, if you dared to tell the Latin master that you couldn’t compose verses on some subject, you’d get a good hiding with a birch rod until you did compose them. Show the pluck of a British schoolboy. Crank out those verses!

If you catch the general drift of these rules, you’ll see that they are really about freedom—the freedom to write your poetry without hesitation, stalling, fear, or worry about what other people think. Poetic fluency, like fluency in a foreign language, only comes when you are not inhibited.

Today, one of the biggest problems among poets is precisely such inhibition. Despite all the formulaic cant about freedom and aleatory structures and multicultural openness and avant-garde daring, the plain fact is that most beginning poets are severely repressed. Just look at their website chatrooms and on-line workshops. They are frequented by timorous little lemmings desperate to be accepted, successful, and mainstream. They don’t want to offend anyone. They don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be idiosyncratic. They don’t want to be caught in any impropriety. They don’t want to make enemies. They don’t want to lose potential friends. They don’t want to get into arguments, or even criticize each other too harshly. Make no mistake: a pile-up of concerns like this has a numbing effect on fluency of composition. How can you crank out fifty lines if you’re constantly networking, and looking over your shoulder?

The loudest objection to the idea of cranking out verses comes from the “fine frenzy” types—the ones who believe that some sort of divine madness seizes a poet and drives him to produce works of genius. It’s a pretty little narrative, but at this point in history it’s somewhat shopworn. Plato was its most famous exponent, and we all know what he thought about poets. No—the “fine frenzy” myth is itself a poetic fiction, useful and interesting as a metaphor of poetic composition, but hardly significant as a clinical description of how poets operate most of the time. For every one instance where a poet is blessed by the Muse’s favor, there are ninety-nine other occasions when he simply has his way with her by force. Or to paraphrase Edison, genius is mostly perspiration, not inspiration.

I’ll end with a personal anecdote. A few months ago a friend of mine retired after thirty-four years of teaching. I was invited to his retirement party, and was asked by his wife to compose some verses appropriate to the occasion. I agreed, but a series of obligations intervened, and when I awoke on the morning of the party date I suddenly realized that I had not composed a single line. The party was at noon, and I had a scant three hours in which to shave, shower, dress, and make the long trip to my friend’s home.

I made some hot coffee. I lit up a good cigar. I sat down before a legal pad and picked up a ballpoint pen. In half an hour I had composed fifty iambic tetrameter rhymed couplets (one hundred lines in all) on my friend’s life, job, and retirement. They were comic-satirical, and when I read them that afternoon at the party everyone enjoyed them immensely.

Afterwards one of the guests approached me and said “Those lines were so appropriate, and really funny! How do you manage to write stuff like that?”

“It was nothing,” I replied. “I just cranked them out.”



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22 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Amen! Amen! Amen!

    One of my adult daughters is visiting this weekend. She knows I write poetry and found the word “pulchritudinous” in a library book my wife had lying on the coffee table. “That would be a challenge to rhyme,” she suggested.

    So I cranked out a poem and gave it to her at breakfast before she left this morning..

    The Way It Seems To Me

    Through peer-reviewed objective arbitrariness
    I’ve found amidst a world of ordinariness
    A tragic dearth of extraordinariness.
    At least that is the way it seems to me.

    But though my thesis may seem platitudinous
    Among the seething masses multitudinous,
    Should you and me be rated pulchritudinous
    Then far be it from me to disagree!

    Any time, anywhere, on any subject that you’re not completely ignorant of, go ahead and crank out a poem. For good or ill it should be as easy as putting a dollar in a vending machine and watching a poem fall out.


  2. Paul Freeman

    Ditto on the’Amen’ from James.

    Twelve years ago I had a deadline with an indie publisher for a novella of around 18,000 words. In this case, a ‘Lost’ Canterbury Tale in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets based on the tales and myth fragments of Robin Hood.

    After outlining the story, I cranked out 500+ words a day over a 6 week period. Sometimes the words just came. Sometimes I sat for an hour looking at the computer screen until the cranking started – but I did it!

    And where would the world be today without ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, Zombie Killers’, aka ‘The Monk’s Second Tale – A Lost Canterbury Tale by Paul A. Freeman’, which you’ll be sad to hear is currently out of print (though it did sell 1000 copies in its day and get an interesting one-star review on Amazon)?

    Anyhow, back to Joseph’s essay – ignore it at your peril!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      One thousand copies sold of a novella in rhyming couplets! Wow. I’m sure that beats anything by any of us here. Poets usually count their sold books in double digits. Sincerest congratulations!

      • Paul Freeman

        The stars did sort of align on this one, Joseph.

        Even though the book wasn’t a mash up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had just come out), it got labelled as such which raised its profile – hence the one-star review.

        The book also came out at the end of 2009, a few months before the then newest Robin Hood film (starring Russell Crowe) was released. Alas, the film was no ‘Gladiator’.

        This was also a time when all things zombie were in vogue, though the market was becoming saturated. The publisher, Coscom Entertainment (now sadly defunct), published nothing but zombie fiction. The owner/publisher suggested I write a novella after publishing my thousand-word zombie story Payback Time (also in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter) which book-ended an anthology of zombie poetry entitled ‘Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes – Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head’ (yes, really!).

        So since I’d been mulling over writing one of my ‘Lost’ Canterbury Tales featuring Robin of the Hood, I bit the bullet and cranked out the necessary.

        Heady days!

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    A great piece of work, James!

    I think the last time I heard the word “pulchritudinous” used was in a W.C. Fields film. He may have employed it to describe Mae West.

    • Sally Cook

      Joe — Just recently I have been looking at some of my
      earliest poetic influences, and find myself falling in love with most of them all over again.
      Shakespeare, – Campion,Stevenson and more l All of them seemed to take a fresh approach to the words they use.
      Joe you are so right !

  4. C.B. Anderson

    Once again, Joseph, you have nailed down the essentials. The only problem is that we weaklings tend to bite our fingernails and are hesitant to say what we really think. Just try it, and you might find that people love it. At my sister’s wedding I recited a verse that I composed, and everyone laughed, which was the intention. Any thought you ever have is a possible foundation for a decent poem.

  5. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is great advice as usual, Joseph. For too long I fussed over my own work, waiting for inspiration to strike before I set about writing. It used to make me quite miserable because I really just enjoyed writing verse for its own sake but I’d been indoctrinated into believing poetry was Serious Business which demanded more lofty themes than my midwit intellect could grasp. I’m glad I got past that, even if I still find the writing process painfully slow at times.

  6. Cheryl Corey

    I’m taking your advice to heart. Between yesterday and this morning, I’ve written what I think is a decent sonnet draft. I cranked it out.

  7. Cynthia Erlandson

    Your comments about going to workshops made me laugh out loud! I have always been skeptical of them; however, the only two I’ve attended (or recall attending, anyway) were conducted by actual excellent poets, who both kindly and truthfully promoted the discerning of good poetic technique from mediocre. What I am still completely uninterested in attending, though, are open mic “poetry” readings.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, there certainly are some exceptions. The workshop with the poet Alfred Dorn that I attended back in the 1980s was a wonderful experience. Dorn provided us with copies of a huge amount of excellent traditional poetry, and he spent much time lecturing and answering questions. And it had a specific focus — traditional metrical verse. A workshop collapses when it is open to all kinds of poetry without distinctions.

  8. Brian Yapko

    This essay is chock full of strong, solid, practical advice. I draft briefs and other documents as part of my work. Waiting for “inspiration” when you practice law is an invitation to malpractice. A deadline with practical consequences means you learn how to write even when you don’t feel like it. I don’t think that poetry is necessarily all that different nor do I understand why it needs to be considered so ephemeral that it can only be written when the muse strikes. I’m also reminded of composers and lyricists who bring shows to Broadway and how they may have to churn out a new song or write brand new lyrics on the road with only hours to spare as they try to fix a show before some grand opening.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Exactly. Think of great song writers like Cole Porter or Noel Coward. They couldn’t just sit around waiting for “inspiration.” Lawyers must compose quickly at times, and in their case the precision and fine-tuning of their prose must follow exacting standards, because judicial decisions are at stake. A friend of mine recently lost an appeal because of a slovenly and ill-considered brief

  9. Margaret Coats

    I am impressed, Joseph, that under pressure, and with the help of hot coffee and a good cigar, you wrote a long poem at the rate of one line in 20 seconds. Among your suggestions on the means of achieving fluency, I think the most fundamental is to read a great deal of pre-modernist poetry. It also seems the most difficult to follow, because it takes time.

    I’m glad you point to Romanticism as the source of hype about inspiration. Giving credit to inspiration is (as you also say) an ancient and useful fiction about the process of composition–which some Romantics distorted with a call for originality. That was a new requirement, unknown to poets who had been satisfied to work within a tradition. As time passed, the frantic wish to be original discouraged reading of past masters, lest one be influenced by them. Any works within a tradition became foes to originality. It’s another aspect of the paralyzing inhibitions in poets who cannot crank poems out. And a more troublesome one than mere sloth.

    By the way, I pulled my 1988 Collins “Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin” down from the Latin textbook shelf. I did use it with one adult student who had purchased it as his desired text. Rather disappointing that a primer is addressed to post-baccalaureate students as the only ones who can be expected to study the language at the present time. But that attitude may derive from Catholic University of America as the publisher. Thanks for your sketch of Collins and his admirable talents.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Margaret. It’s easy to compose quickly if you have the rhymes already at hand. This is why I find writing limericks to be a breeze — you just get the two rhymes (three words for one and two for the other), and the limerick practically writes itself. The pressure also was a stimulus — after all, if we are to believe Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac composed an ex tempore ballade while in the midst of a swordfight.

      Your point about the intrusion of a false notion of “originality” is quite correct, and is an important theme in the first novel of William Gaddis (The Recognitions), which is concerned with the imitation, copying, and forgery of Old-Master paintings. One of the characters says “Originality means that you can’t do it the right way, so you have to do it your way.” And yes, the false notion of originality has its roots in Romanticism.

      When we had altar boys learning Latin from childhood, and Catholic high schools teaching four years of the language to students, the primer of Jack Collins would not have been necessary. Catholic education was a major feeder-source for students entering the Classics. By 1988, after the depredations of Vatican 2, all that was finished.

  10. Paul Freeman

    Churned out two poems today – a sonnet titled ‘On Mammon’, for a competition whose title was announced this morning, and a poem called ‘Worst Poem Ever’ whose first stanza I wrote on my grocery list while I did the shopping.

    Joseph, you might be interested in ‘Worst Poem Ever’ as an example of how not to write a poem (though I couldn’t quite go the whole hog and allowed myself an internal rhyme and a bit of alliteration).

    Worst Poem Ever

    Today the weather’s very nice,
    The sun is in the sky.
    The birds are singing merrily,
    Oh, why, oh, why aren’t I?

    While all around me flowers and trees
    Are coming out in bloom
    And lambs and sheep are gambolling,
    It doesn’t lift my gloom.

    Though lovers meet, and in the street
    Their love-struck hearts entwine,
    Alas, it seems I’ll always be
    A moody, mopey swine.


    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Man, that really is bad. But the ability to write a parody of certain types of verse is a sign that you are skilled enough to distinguish between the worthwhile and the lousy. Look at the rotten verse that Shakespeare puts into the mouths of the peasants who are putting on the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet.

  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thank you, Joe. I cannot help but “crank out a few” every week and have enjoyed reading all the comments from fine fellow poets on this site. I believe that composing an abundance of poetry enhances one’s communication skills in every area… I believe I’m beginning to think in rhyming couplets… is there a cure?

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    Susan, the way that you generate excellent poems steadily, week after week, is a sign that you have been especially gifted by the Muses.

    Thinking in rhyming couplets needs no cure! Be grateful for the skill. When you start thinking and dreaming in a foreign language, it’s an indication that you are becoming truly fluent in it.

    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Thank you, Joe. I am grateful, most grateful. I do believe reading the poems and engaging with the poets on this site has helped me immensely. I’m thrilled to be a part of the SCP family.

  13. Joshua C. Frank

    Thank you so much for this, Joseph. To demonstrate your point about being able to compose verse on the fly:

    I was debating with myself:
    Should I go take a class?
    But given what you said on that,
    I think, instead, I’ll pass!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The worth of a class is always dependent on the quality of the man teaching it. If he’s a sensible, down-to-earth, no-nonsense type who has a solid command of his professed subject, it will probably be worth taking.

      If he’s a freaky ideologized crackpot blithering on about postmodernism and Critical Race Theory, save your money. The unfortunate fact of life is that today, in most of American academia, this latter type of professor is the norm.


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