Poetry Is Play

  • By Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes
  • June 7, 2021

Your poems aren’t bad or good. They just are.


“I feel really stuck and like I only write crappy poems,” Auden, my poetry mentee, tells me. We’re talking about their writing, and I’m encouraging them to write outside of their normal habits and just play around. They insist the real problem is that they only write bad poems now, and I want to scream.

Of course we want our writing to be good. Maybe we want to be published or to receive praise or to just finally say exactly what we feel so everyone else can understand. Sure, we also have deadlines and pieces that must be good so we keep our jobs and live.

But if you’re just writing a poem? Just living and letting language exit your body and exist on the page?

We are so invested in binaries, so comfortable with them. Yet, I know we do ourselves a disservice when we look at something we’ve just written and name it “good” or “bad.” Poetry (and feel free to throw in whatever your writing endeavor is, too) is play. Poetry is taking language and knotting it, knitting it, painting it, cutting it up, throwing it in the air like confetti. Yes, there’s craft and artistry. And, yes, people will write devastating poems that start by cutting you in half and end by sewing you back up!

But why must we expect this ourselves in our first draft? Or our second or third?

Part of the answer is capitalism. Capitalism demands we be efficient and productive to be successful, so writing 17 drafts of a poem, like Elizabeth Bishop did writing “One Art” (a perfect poem, by the way), is antithetical to the whole system. If we don’t vomit forth a publishable poem on the first go, it feels as though we have failed, as if the act of writing itself wasn’t the success.

I’ll say it again: Poetry is play. That’s the reason so many of us are drawn to it in the first place. It’s the whole reason my 4.5-year-old kid delights in realizing “Grandma Laura Lee” and “ravioli” rhyme. It’s why someone at some point invented the sestina, a complicated poetic form that repeats end words in a specific pattern, a form my husband is obsessed with because “someone had to imagine it and then someone else had to think it was good enough to try again.”

So much of our experience of language can hurt. People use it against us to do harm; it can shape and impede the ways we try to love ourselves. If we can stop seeing our writing as good or bad and see it as play, we admit that poetry is joy. The value is inherent, not earned.

I recently Zoomed into a high school poetry club and walked them through a writing exercise. I had them pick a topic and spend a minute listing every word they associated with that topic before giving them five minutes to write a poem using none of those words.

As I expected, they all groaned when I revealed the twist but immediately took the task to heart. One student wrote about the Goldfish crackers they were eating, one about the color purple, one about their left hand. We shared at the end and all marveled at the acrobatics they were able to achieve in just five minutes.

I pointed out the ways they had manipulated and elevated language, mentioning to keep this in mind for the next poem. Were those poems bad or good? Neither! They existed; the joy was in their existence itself.

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher.]

Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes was born in Harrisburg, PA, and has a B.A. in creative writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Rumpus, Cartridge Lit, Gulf Stream Lit, Crab Fat Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Her book, Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, is now out from Mason Jar Press.

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