How to Write a Real Good Poem
by R. S. Gwano
Reflections on Joseph Salemi's "Hard Edges of a Proem" followed by
commentary by other poets.
A person has asked me to describe in general terms what I think makes poetry good. It was
only a single person, but I shall let them stand for people in general, assuming
that they will spread the word to others who wish to make their poetry good as
well. As there are always plenty of poems that turn out pretty good despite the
best efforts of the poets that write them, I instead wish to discuss real good
poems as an abstract ideal, Platonically speaking. Because there are good poems
of all shapes, sizes, and colors written by poets of all shapes, sizes, and
colors, I am here attempting to distinguish between the poem that is merely good
versus the poem that is real good, poems such as I, myself, write.
Thus, I shall describe the instruction manual (not translated from an Asian language) by which
I write my own real good poems. Other poets, not being myself, may or may not
find this useful, depending on a host of individual traits and considerations.
However, I do think that these simple guidelines will steer a poet away from
writing a bad poem, may indeed steer them toward writing a good poem, and may
insure that, if the poet is as talented as I, myself, am, they can write a real
good poem. Too many contemporary poems suffer from what I call the “3 Ims”; they
are, in alphabetical order, impious, impotent, and imsipid. Thus, I offer the
following correctives to this. Real good poems should be pious, potent, and, finally, sipid.
I think of the body-building inducements that populated the manly magazines of my youth,
those with covers featuring muscular Nordic blondes gleefully and sadistically
torturing American servicemen with curling irons. The Charles Atlas ads, usually
found in the rear sections along with spiels for the Rosicrucians, elevator
shoes, and trusses, featured cartoons. In the first panel a weakling has sand
kicked on him at a beach by a manly specimen. That “victim” (I use the word
advisedly), usually wearing horn-rimmed glasses, represents the contemporary
poet; the poetry they write is as hairless as their chest and armpits, as
spindly as their underdeveloped limbs, and as impeded by uncorrected vision as a
sand crab. The blonde beside him looks on with disdain. By the final panel, the
poet, having taken the Charles Atlas course, is shown on the same beach, the
now-smiling blonde on his arm, kicking sand on another hapless weenie. It is
strongly implied that the poetry they now write, complete with glistening biceps
and well-defined pecs, is now good poetry, perhaps even real good poetry.
In another vein, I think of how a real good poem must look sharp and be sharp—must have an
edge. Consider the keen blade of a K-Bar knife, used to great effect in wartime and elsewhere against all enemies foreign and domestic. It is hard blue steel,
honed to fighting effectiveness by much religious use of an Arkansas stone, a
wide leather strop, and lots of elbow grease. Real good poems are worth dying
for, and a sharp edge, held parallel to the ground, can quickly and silently
dispatch a whole slew of would-be poets. Yes, it is all in the edge, sneaking
quietly into position and placing the free hand over the mouth of an
unsuspecting poet in the act of mouthing a bad poem, then the insertion of the
point of the blade, as sharp as a #4 pencil, between the ribs with a quarter
twist to make sure they flop quick. It goes without saying that the hard, sure
stab of regular iambic meter, unwatered by anapests or pyrrhics, is essential to
a real good poem. The reader must feel the metrical blade as it slips into their
innards, leaving an unmistakable impression. As the blade is withdrawn, the
reader, now accustomed to the metrical impact, prepares for another subcutaneous
insertion, again and again until the real good poem is done, leaving them
feeling as if the top of their aorta has been taken off, to paraphrase Emily
Dickenson, a noted poet of earlier centuries.
Additionally, sentences are important to the real good poem. Poets should diagram the
sentences of their poems in advance of writing them, adding these abstract
patterns to a stack and hiding them away like survival rations and board games—a
stockpile of potential sentences that lack only words to make them flesh. If I
may extend the analogy, the words a poet uses are their bullets. They should be
hand-loaded by the poet who wishes to write a real good poem. The bullets should
be tipped with soft lead, like a #2 pencil, for they have to make a good
impression. These bullet-words should be inscribed with an X on the tip for
maximum impact. Some of these words may be found in a dictionary; others, in a
thesaurus. Still others may be encountered in advertisements, on Fox News, or
from the mouths of politicians and babes. They are all good words if used
correctly. If they are not used in the best sense they may sneak up and bite the
poet on their ass, which will hurt. Words are like the shells in a 30-round
magazine. The poet of the real good poem may waste several rounds in the
preliminary firing, knowing that sooner or later the correct combination of
words, grammar, and syntax will find their mark in the mind of the reader. If
the aim of the poet is true, they will know it to be so. Otherwise, they should
apply for jobs in mid-management with grocery chains.
Then there is courage. If the poet hates women, people of color, so-called LGBTQ&c types,
steamed okra, and small, yapping dogs, they should be brave enough to say so.
The mouth of the poet who writes the real good poem needs no muzzle-brake. The
real good poet should be unafraid to wreck marriages, spoil family dinners,
incite race riots, or assault the friend who insists on watching The Golf Chanel
for hours on end. The remote control of the poet belongs to the victor, and
victory must be won by any means necessary. If the poet offends, they can always
say they’re sorry the next morning.
Finally, there is grit. The poet must possess grit. Grit may be as minor as an unpurged
fleck of sand from a plate of steamed clams or a concrete floor smack in the
kisser like something on NCIS. Grit is impatient, it envies and enters
competitions, it boasts of awards on Facebook, it is proud, it dishonors all who
have not written a real good poem, it seeks itself in the locked water closets
of the soul, it rises to wrath, it keeps a long, long list of grievances. Grit
sees a dancing red balloon in the hand of a happy child and punctures it with a
K-Bar knife. It has to maintain its essential grittiness in the face of those
who have no grit at all. It’s a tough row to hoe. Divinity will instruct you
directly if you just listen to Them, even if Their voice comes from a small,
What more? Of course, there is more, much more. If a poet has a shred of intelligence they can
infer the rest by reading as many real good poems as possible. Start with my own
poems, then branch out into other poems by me and my fellow good poets. You will
quickly get the idea, for you need not be as stupid as you are. As Victor Hugo,
a French author, once said, “Will you join in our crusade?”
Women and wimps need not apply.
—R. S. Gwano
Some of our readers have chimed in about the two Gwanos—the authentic one and the
fake one—and their comments appear below.
Salemi & Co. are really saboteurs of poetry, not its champions as they
pretend. Their aim is to trick the uninitiate into supposing that people
like themselves, specialists in slur and belittlement and hatefulness, are
poetry's legitimate spokesmen. Their hope is that some will fall for that
falsehood, and react by holding their noses and smartly re-locating to more
Don't be fooled by their ruse. They do not represent poetry. They are its enemies.
It is only possible to speculate about what accounts for their hatred (not only
of poetry but of many other things as well). Some have suggested it's
because they've been sidelined, denied the notice they believe they deserve.
It could well be revenge. But whatever the explanation, they're intent
on poetry being perceived as stinking to high heaven, as it indeed would be if
such as they were its real representatives.
These are people who anybody with a little savvy and sense could never mistake
for heirs of any great tradition. They are charlatans with a destructive
agenda. Far from being models of "how-to," as they proclaim, they are prime
examples of "how-not-to."
Read them only to discover the wrong way to do it. No one who writes as
they do will ever inspire admiration in a person with a good mind, good taste,
and a large spirit. They are anti-poets hellbent on ruining poetry's
reputation. It could well be revenge; but whatever it is, you can be sure
that poetry is not a species they're out to protect.
Please forgive if I bore with the obvious.
"I'd say Gwano nailed Salemi: 'Me Tarzan, teach weakling Janes how write poetry
like Tarzan, beat chest like Tarzan.'"
I suspect Gwano's onto something in his opening sentence. How many poets care to
know how Salemi goes about writing poems that no one bothers to read? And isn't
that the real source of Salemi's incessant ire? Apparently no one is reading his
journal. No one is reading the "Pennsylvania Review," which has as much to do
with Pennsylvania as the "London Review" (or whatever it was called) had to do
with London. No one is taking Salemi seriously,
except perhaps a few fellow mutineers who haven't abandoned the leaky, listing
barge. But they can be counted on one hand and
a few toes. If this is a "movement," there may be a bowel involved.
It was fun reading the authentic Gwano, but reading that fake Gwano had this
Southerner dragging ass all the way from Texas to West Virginny. It was a real
long haul, and took a whole lot of manly perseverance, plodding through all that
mockery of how some of us down South talk.
It seemed pretty strange that the fake Gwano took to mocking the very people who
deserve so much of the credit for making one of his biggest dreams come true.
Who more than we helped make one of his idols president? You'd think he'd be
thanking, not mocking us. He should be joining us in a hootenanny, kicking off
his army boots and tossing his green beret in the air, treating all us
downhomers to a resounding Palermo-style rendition of "Macho Man." Instead
he puts us down. What an ingrate
some of us are thinking he is. We've started wondering whose side he's really
on. Maybe the new war on Dream kids should widen its net?
I've heard that the fake Gwano can't get ahead in his profession. Never a single
promotion. Always low man on the totem pole. Seems to me that being held back so much in his chosen career could
help explain why he goes off randomly shooting at everyone in sight, even if in
the process he cuts down lots of those good souls who stood up for his man in
the election. It must be some kind of compensation mechanism at work: he must
become a raging bull at the keyboard because he's denied his fair share of clout
in the hallowed halls. When they can't get ahead they can sometimes take it out
on everybody, as blind to their targets as a self-firing automatic weapon on a
steroid binge. Texas doesn't cotton to terrorist ingrate losers. It might be
payback time. Biden's lookin' pretty temptin' to some of us at the moment.
I think the fake Gwano needs to study the style of the authentic Gwano more.
The master dissected a big sorehead piece by piece, depicting in a pretty
convincing way how muscle envy brought about the condition. I'm guessing that
all those bulging mental muscles he thinks he's developed and all that
scattershot verbal gunfire he's been mowing down everyone with are just his way
of getting even for always being treated as a second stringer. He should
learn to accept his neglected status like the rest of us—and just be grateful
they haven't fired him yet.
I liked how the authentic Gwano took the time to show how a sad case with no
career prospects can go whacko like Waco and start up his own Charles Atlas
Cult Anonymous (CACA for short). I re-read it a few times with
undiminished savor—tasty as a bucket of Southern fried chicken.
A redstatesman with second thoughts
"Salemi seems to specialize in bragging and boring readers to death. Gwano, on
the other hand, has a real talent for satire. I suspect he's not as batshit crazy as his name (or nom de plume)
suggests. Whoever Gwano is, he has Salemi pegged like a poisonous toad wriggling
on the edge of a K-Bar knife."
"Watching Salemi take on Gwano is like watching a French poodle yapping its fool
head off at a grizzly just before it gets swiped aside, then eaten alive."
"Salemi has the impression that other poets are impressed by his work and
therefore must be hanging on to his every word. Salemi takes himself very
seriously. Gwano knows better. Salemi is a surrealist, Gwano a realist. Therein
lies the essential difference. Thus, Gwano comes across as hilarious, Salemi as
pompous and pretentious."
Gwano vs. Salemi
by Michael R. Burch
With his essay "The Hard Edges of a Proem," Dr. Joseph S. Salemi staked
his claim to the mantle of the manliest of the he-man poets. But
fortunately R. S. Gwano,
as his name suggests, is not afraid to get "down and dirty," and he quickly laid
counter-claim to the same mantle with his brash, bullish and much more believable
essay "How to Write a Real Good Poem."
It seems clear that one poet is a real "contenduh" while the other is merely a
foppish pretender. Let us quickly consider the evidence on a ten-point must
First, there is Salemi's effeminate beret, which according to his students
he even wears to class. Ten points immediately go to Gwano,
no explanations needed. The beret earns nada.
Second, there is the highly effeminate name of Salemi’s literary journal,
Trinket-this-or-that-or-whatever. Once again, no discussion needed. Ten points
to Gwano, none to Salemi.
Then there is the matter of the poets' names. Clearly, real machismo
equates with being batshit crazy, while a name that reminds us of an
overprocessed deli meat is "pointless." Ten to zip.
Not to mention that Gwano has a K-Bar knife, while Salemi has only a
manicurist's nail file. Ten more points to Gwano, zero to Salemi.
Then there is Gwano's Harley Davidson, versus Salemi's subway token. Gwano
wins again in another shutout.
Or how about Gwano's impressive career in the trenches as an interior lineman for Lame
University, versus Salemi's multitudinous losses at tiddlywinks? Perhaps give
Salemi a point for trying (or perhaps not, for being so very trying).
I could go on and on, but the score would just keep getting more and more lopsided and
wouldn't make the dead horse any deader, rottener, or reekier.
It's easy to imagine the victor lurking on a swamp bottom, breathing
a reed, with a K-Bar knife clenched tightly between his teeth, ready to rise up
and take out a daintily tiptoeing Salemi with one quick, bloody, death-dealing
thrust. On the other hand, no one can possibly imagine Salemi doing anything but
whining pitifully about liberals being mean to him and keeping him from ever
becoming a full professor, an associate professor, or even an assistant
professor. But at least they haven't given him the bum's rush—yet. Perhaps out of
kindness to the intellectually challenged?
Hell, all Salemi seems capable of doing in response to Gwano's brazen
provocation is to poke fun at southerners by
mimicking the way some of them talk. But they'd jest see another dandified NY
hotshot thinkin' he's better'n evry'un else. An' they'd
undoubt'dly be right.
See? Anyone can do that.