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Editor’s Note: Frequent RJ commenter and poet Jack Ridl recently sent this letter to a young woman interested in poetry. We felt it was too good not to share with a wider audience.

Dear Tessa,

I understand from your loving grandfather that you are interested in poetry and in writing poems. I’m always happy to hear such news. 

I started out as a songwriter and then switched to poetry, thinking it was the same thing only without the music. What I didn’t realize back then was that a poet was trying to make a kind of music out of the sounds of words. I like to call it “writing in a musical phrase.” And it’s fun, especially when you begin to hear the sounds the various word combinations make, not music as we know it, but still a kind of musical sound.

No one has ever been able to find or define poetry. No one. So don’t let anyone tell you that they know what poetry is. Some think it has to rhyme. But as far back as David there wasn’t rhyme. He didn’t rhyme. He didn’t write:

“Yea though I walk through the valley of death,
by the end I hope I still have my breath.”

Nuh-uh. No; No way did he even think of that!  

Emily Dickinson said that something, anything is a poem for her if it takes the top of her head off. Poet Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is what poets write”!!!!!

The neat thing about poetry is that you usually write in line. (There are prose poems, but we need not go there!) Line is where you really get to play, have fun, because you can do so many things with it and make it make a difference. Lines can be short like Dickinson’s or long like Walt Whitman’s. Or you can mix ’em. Or you can even make a single word a line. Or you can treat the page like a stage the way E. E. Cummings choreographed many of his poems, putting the words at different parts of the page.

Sometimes he even ran words together: “puddlewonderful,” “mudluscious.”

Did you know that there are 14 ways to end a line? See, that’s why I always tell my students that we have more fun than prose writers because they have to write margin to margin. Not us. Some of the more delightful ways to use the end of a line are for

added meaning
flow into the next line
to create something that adds an impact to the following line
a combination

“I went outside to shoot
my sister

And the beginning of a line can matter too:
my sister

Always try to avoid reporting or stating. Instead write so we experience. For example, there is a difference between
“I am really angry”
“I picked up the vase of lilies and hurled it against the living room wall.”

Whew. This is starting to sound like one of those lectures that make you never want to write something ever again. If that’s the case, tear this up immediately. The most important thing in the whole world of all the arts is what happens WHEN you do it.

It’s like anything you love: you do it because you love it and if you love it, even if you’re not the best in the world at it–like your grandpa and golf–you still do it. Never believe anyone who says, “It’s only worth doing if you do it well.” The truth is that it’s only worth doing if you love it. My teacher, influence, and mentor William Stafford said that only one out of ten of his poems were effective, but every single one of them was worth doing because of what went on when he was writing.

So write for what happens for you when you write and because you love it. And always make sure that your poem is YOUR poem.

I sure hope that your days are dappled with joys, little joys. Big deals are seldom big deals and never last.

I’m happy to hear from you if you ever have poem subjects you would like my take on. Oh and tell your beloved mom that I cherish her. Same, of course goes for your grandmother and grandfather.

Love, peace of heart, admiration, and care always. I hope we meet up. Well, we do in our poems. That’s as close as any two people can be.


Jack Ridl

Jack Ridl is the author of eight collections of poetry, two of which have won national poetry book-of-the-year awards. His newest collection, All at Once, will be published by CavanKerry Press in the autumn of 2024. More than 100 of his students are published.


  • Doug says:

    Thanks for this, Jack. Will keep this in mind: “write for what happens for you when you write and because you love it.”

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    What a beautiful letter to start the week with. It captures the heart of what you’ve always taught your students: write for the sheer pleasure of what happens when you play with words–whether you are Mary Oliver or a private poet whose poems will forever be hidden within her journal. And, please, don’t worry if it’s “good” or not. Was it good for you to write? Keep doing it then.

    The students of mine you visited all those years will never forget the golf comparison: “If we only kept doing what we’re good at, there’d be no golfers.”

    As one of thousands who have benefited from your teaching and friendship, I know the power and value of your wise, graceful influence. William Stafford’s generous spirit lives on in you. Thank you!

  • Steven Tryon says:

    Sounds like me and my photography.

  • David Walsh says:

    The strongest writing incentive I ever received was when my RCA pastor read my poem as part of her sermon. I had never heard my words shared aloud in such a spiritual context.

    That was over 20 years ago. Naturally, she shared this blog with me. Still an encourager.

  • These marvelous and heartfelt words are a soothing encouragement to anyone who finds that words can reach farther and hold on longer than our human arms and hands. Letting a poem breathe for us, sing for us, hold our silences, shout our joys; even incinerate itself with our rage, places us where we can stand back and see ourselves – all the while knowing we are not alone. Poetry brings the outside in and the inside out, giving us the gift of community. Thank you, Jack, for sharing poetry’s gifts with us all, for opening our eyes, hearts, and experiences to the expansion that comes through poetry!


    Thank you, Jack, for sharing these insights with a young one, connecting poetry and love—about how loving the process of poeming matters; and how “meeting up” in poems matters—in that it can generate a closeness akin to love. I also appreciate your playful approach to the punctuation of line break. With respect, I offer you these lines from Colorado-based poet Wendy Videlock, which I keep posted on my desk: “Poetry is not a line/ in the sand but/ a kind/ of circulation,/ not a call/ to commiserate, but/ a conversation,/ not a star/ in the dark, but more/ a constellation.”

    • Jack Ridl says:

      Aaaamen. And as pal Naomi Shihab Nye offers: “Poetry is a conversation: you talk on the page; it talks back to you; you to it and on; and maybe to another. A form of love because of attentiveness and connection to what matters.”
      Thank YOU. We have connected.

  • Of course, I love, love, love everything about this. You are the teacher who first made poetry accessible to me — that it wasn’t above me or below me, but beside me. Who taught me, showed me, and modeled that (like Natalie Goldberg says) “Writing is an act of discovery.”

    A million thank yous, Jack.

  • Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer says:

    Oh, Jack. thank you. I love you, poet.

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    Jack, you’ve made many a musical masterpiece from the sounds of your words. May the muse remain perched near your ear for years more.

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