Fundamentals/Poetry

How Poetry is Different from Other Genres

Hooking the Reader in the First Line

Holly Lyn Walrath
Write Weird
Published in
10 min readOct 8, 2020

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Photo by Wallace Chuck

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” — Emily Dickinson

Poets are often called the dreamers of the writing world. We tend to write close to the heart. Poetry is a complex genre with what seems like many rules, and at the same time, no rules. You may have been taught poetry in terms of type — sonnets, ghazals, acrostics, or haiku. But I am here to tell you, none of this matters if you don’t hit the four fundamentals of poetry in this article. Form does not equal quality.

As an editor, I’ve read thousands of poems from hopeful writers. Reading slush (unsolicited submissions) with a journal or magazine is a great way to learn what about a poem makes it stand out among the crowd. Because it requires reading hundreds and hundreds of poems in a short time, slush reading quickly identifies the poems that are special from the poems that are just fine. Editors and slush readers are looking for submissions that quickly set themselves apart.

But poetry is not fiction. In a previous post, I talked about the fundamentals of hooking a reader in short stories and novels. In a poem, a lot of those guidelines get thrown out the window. In fiction, the character is key, because the reader is going to have to stay with that voice for the entire book. But readers of poetry are much more forgiving and that is something worth celebrating.

So how do you stand out from the crowd as a poet?

In fiction, the key to standing out from the crowd is fulfilling the “First Page Promise.” It’s the idea that you need to tell the reader what to expect from your book on the first page. For poetry, that promise lies in the first line.

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Holly Lyn Walrath
Write Weird

I'm a writer, editor, publisher, and poet. I write about writing. Find me online at www.hlwalrath.com or on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath!