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A Slightly Skewed Class In Poetry Writing

cheshire cat


On Writing Poetry

by Ken Lehnig

This article, by the vagabond rambling poet, will take us on a journey, one in which we will examine the art of writing poetry in a different, abstracted, and assuredly skewed manner. (That may wander back into the normal and mundane.) In fact that is the only way the writer (me) can do anything. In and then out best describes the way my brain works. I can’t promise that anything I write will be found in a textbook, because it has been many decades since I have opened a textbook, and I didn’t retain anything then – so I doubt there is little in my memory to retrieve. What I will write I hold as true, based on my journey, but if I have put some established truism, on writing poetry, to memory (and write it here), it is totally by accident, and I apologize in advance – and bow to those remarkably intelligent others. (Readers and Teachers)

Yep, Dear readers, the vagabond poet is going to write a how-to on writing poetry. It won’t be a class for Dummies, because I know that not a single one of my readers are dummies. Let us call it On Writing Poetry 23

Read the directions and directly you will be directed in the right direction.’

Doorknob – Lewis Carrol

Class begins:

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’

Lewis Carrol

Structure or form:

First, go here to be totally confused, but enlightened.

Here is the thing, and you may not like it, you have to study and work with poetic form and structure to be a good poet. It does not mean that you have to adopt any one form as your own, but it may well happen.

We will start with some tuff love. If you take or have taken a formal writing poetry class – you will get this next point made on the C or D on your writing assignment. (Yikes! I have already wandered back into the Normal.)

Writing rambling love, or hate verbiage, is not poetry; it is rambling love, or hate, verbiage and probably should stay in your journal.

(Please, go read ‘Elizabeth Barrette Browning’, Lord Byron, or Emily Dickinson)

Writing bouncy, simplistic rhyming, unintelligible, self-indulgent, in two or three word bursts, may well speak more to your spoken word performance than the poem itself.

(Please read the beat, hippy, street, and jazz poets – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Richard Brautigan. Allen Watt, Bob Kaufman Drew, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carolyn Rodgers, and note all the forms and structures.)

If you have just started writing what you call poetic ART, it’s not. It is certainly artistic expression and you should be commended for the doing of it. I am for any type of artistic expression, including: Journal writing, for the courage to self-examine emotions; Spoken word writing, for the courage it takes to perform it. But if you are to be an Accomplished Poet then it takes a bit of work, and doing the work will have you write even better. (Do take the time to read the work of other poets, you will be surprised at how relevant poetry is throughout human history, and it will affect your work.)

I know a young man with a real talent, his bent was spoken word, because he was exposed to it, and was moved. In my opinion his work was far superior to the works I have heard, but when he wrote it down, it was difficult to read. I attempted to show him some simple structures. I broke his poem down into stanzas and cut out his emphasized words into single word lines. He still resisted and claimed I was wrecking his ART. Art is not accidental it is intentional. I soothed his ruffled feathers and told him his spoken word was performance art, his effort in that medium was clearly there, not what I read. Form does not wreck your ART, it tells the reader how you want the piece read. Stanzas group thoughts and allow readers to rest and ponder before the next stanza. Art should be a  consistent expression, learn your mediums, then do the best you can to create within the medium. You will discover what works best for you. (To spoken word artists: good form and structure allows for your work to be printed correctly and read by a wider audience.) In the man’s journey he discovered himself as a Poet, who brilliantly writes and speaks poetry. He came to compare poetic form to sheet music, allowing the reader to read it just as it is spoken – an apt comparison.

Love the language:

Read the dictionary. Looking up words is not truly effective, because you don’t know what you don’t know. In my long years on the planet I have noted that common usage words are boring, unless it is parodied. So Dude, that begs a bitchen question: When you write, are you looking for agreement, or are you looking to enlighten the reader? If you just want agreement, or understanding, for your particular feeling, or emotion, text your friends, or write a journal. Trust me here, I wrote journals as a young man, a valuable and necessary start, but now the content seems shallow and trite. Now I write down random thoughts, or ideas, as they come, for poems, stories, and songs. It also is a lot easier on the muse. 😉 Take the time to just peruse the dictionary and write down words that get your attention. Stick them up on your wall or write them on postits, and stick them on your computer.

The work of a poet is to examine his or her own emotions, and thought, and write in such a way as to elevate the reader into I higher understanding, or different point of view. Everything you feel has been written about a million times over human history, and words have been invented along the way that will say in a few words what you may have rambled on for in twenty pages of poetic scribblings. Find the words, to say it better and with economy.

An economic and meaning packed stanza of mine, on gold miners, as an example:

troll’s kin
world tossed
digging gritty earth

Play with words:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll

I love words and what words you choose should be extra-ordinary. When choosing words look for sounds and syllabic bouncing, as well as the best meaning, to improve your poem. I found the word ‘jongleur’, a French minstrel, the sound of the word intrigued me. ‘Sozzel’ was another word that intrigued me.  I wrote ‘Sozzel The Jongluer’ last year. The  poem and variations became the genisis for two books of poetry and short stories.

I picked proper strings
and let the rim shot fire
against the cracked plaster’s
calloused ear
so many loud drunken tales and stories told
some haunt,
lingering still,
in smoky shadows

Bereft of kindness
this shelter offers little
but a tune and spirit
down some sad memory
and whatever webs I deem to spin and ply
really only lies about other uneasy worlds
so sozzel the jongleur

The old sot smiles
and his filthy cohort dance
a jiggle of old bones
and graceless promenades
rough hewed, true to the gravel tones I entrain
no eminence grise
no gift
could I yet endue

But through parlance
it behooves me to find comfort
where my tongue’s
lilt has gained some  merit
My kin,
the rag tag and bobtail
fuddle and frolic
let go this day’s nettle and lift your saddened heart
and sozzel the jongleur

Carroll’s famous piece ‘Jabberwocky’ makes the point well. Here he uses nonsense words, the meanings of which the reader has no idea. But the mind ‘Matrixes’, it looks for meaning, just as faces seem to appear in tiles, wall texture, and random print patterns. Having an awareness of this human trait gives the poet a tool, for the reader to find a broader personal meaning to a poem.

Here is excerpt of apoetic exercise I wrote:

Priddle and passel perning on a peer
Saddle up a seaner , brigged and get
Tattle in a tangle, teater and tear
Better a bounder than a booring bet

I dinked this all lost in faddled rhyme
Cast asea only the moon embrates me now
Dark writ in candled awe, besown in time
You and life a pleasant versuasive vow

Ya’all determine whether I succeeded.

Certainly more could be written, the class could go on, and we would all fall into irreversible boredom. I am capable of going on about not much, in a confusing way, for a very long time! So let’s wind it down and just break it down to the rambling vagabonds poetic writing essentials.

A poetic works check list:

1. Read other poets

2. Expand your vocabulary

3. Look at structure and form

4. Work with word sounds

5. Say it in a fresh new way.

6. Look from a new perspective

7. Condense your thoughts

8. Write economically.

9. Seek lucidity

10. Feel the cadence

11. Artistically transform your emotions

12. Elevate your language usage

13. Twist meaning

14. Enlarge meaning

15. Minimalize while expanding


Enjoy yourself , even when you are in the darkest moods. Mood , good or bad, is the grist of what it is to be a poet.

You have been given a gift – you are a Poet.

See, how easy that was.

cheshire cat

’We’re all mad here.’

Cheshire Cat  – Lewis Caroll

Content and Context:

This point will be the last for this article, and I think it’s a good one. When you write, read what you have written, and see if it is as you intended. If it has, due to the muse’s contribution, expanded, is it still within the context you intended? From this position begin to edit and improve. I will put a piece down for a day or two and come back to it, not as an editor, but as a reader. When I am satisfied that it is as I intended, then I will look at editing and improving the piece.

The test on this material will be announced.

On every artistic endeavor I have undertaken I started out pretty crude, with work and attention to the craft, I have improved. Every artist is on a journey. I trust that wherever you are in your journey, you will take what I have offered in the supportive spirit I intended.

Keep writing!


First appeared in ‘Majestic’     The Ramblings Of A Vagabond Poet

ken lehnig(c)2011

Visit Ken Lehnig’s Book Shelf

Sozzel the Jongluer Halloween Tales by Ken Lehnig

Hi my friends,

For the next 7 Days I am making Sozzel the Jongleur Holloween Tales a collection of ghostly and dark poetry and short stories available for download on all reader devices. It is my way of introducing myself as an author and hopefully make some new fans to my work. I trust you will find this the perfect spooky holiday read.

Best to you all,

Ken Lehnig

Writer’s Computers Do Crash


The computer screen lit up and my rebuilt computer whirred into life. The poor beast, overworked and laden, gave up the ghost two weeks ago. It’s little brother, my trusty laptop, did not hold up the task of taking its place. It too coughed – hicupped – and sadly died. I sat in my black leather chair, in my office, and began to weep. The realization that I had been cut off from the world, severed most cruelly from ghostly relationships, tended so carefully across the ether. No more was I connected to my vaguely artistic works peppered hither and thither on the ethereal strands of the world wide web. I was overcome with a deep dread – I had been slowly cyberized, over the years, by trying to master these devices. How was I connected to the world? Not by handshakes and hugs, but by directed bytes, e-mails, and URL addresses.

I steeled myself up, pressing down the fearful flutters in my stomach. I was going to be strong. I would take my devices – for that is all they are – down to a computer shop where would sit a maven, an expert, who will take my broken wings and once again make them to fly. Soon all would be well. The magical diagnosis was performed and the worst was revealed. They were both old and worn, just like me. The rush of empathy nearly overwhelmed me. Then that which must be asked – was asked, “What do you want to do with them?” I was shocked dumbfounded. ‘Had he no heart?’ I thought. These have been my partners, my companions in arms. We have taken every battle with stout hearts and drives. We have, together, written over a million words. They sat there patiently while I sweat and ached to nudge some morsel from an unresponsive muse. They assisted me in writing all those query letters and felt, I’m sure, sympathy when the rejection letters and emails came rolling in. Do I just cast them in the garbage heap? They deserve more.

Then the brilliant and blessed A+ certified genius said, “Why don’t we drop a new, larger, hard drive and double up your RAM. Then you just reload your operating system and your software and your good to go – won’t cost you near as much as new computer. Your laptop just needs a couple of larger sticks – more memory. Easy! Buit you will lose your data when we re-format.”

"I have everything backed up on a remoter hard drive." Says I.

The light of heaven opened up and I heard the  Muse’ singing in a combined chorus of Alleluia. My friends could be resurrected. I could see the clouds breaking and all those past writers, who struggled with mere pen and paper, all were giving me a ‘thumbs up’. So generous are those previous others, who made their way without spell-checker and the Internet. We computer literate writers, of today, give a nod to those who loved their fine quill and expensive inks, who toiled away pounding the mechanical keys of an old Remington, tossing mistyped pages of incoherent thoughts into the trash.

“So, what do you want to do?”

I blinked as the vision passed and looked, watery eyed, at the techno maven. “Fix it! My food man, my techno savior, boost the power – boost the memory – get me up and on line as soon as you are able. We have work to do”

“Come and get them at five!”

The shakes began. “Five? That would be six hours.”

“Yeah! About that.”

“What will I do?”

“There’s a Mc Donald’s across the street. They have chairs and a big screen TV. Have one or two of those iced-coffees – they are good. I’ll have two or three every day.”

“I turned, thanked him, and found my way to the place he suggested. The iced-coffee was pretty good, as were the four cheeseburgers and three supersized fries. I watched Fox News and was brought up to date on the state of the delusional and evil Democratic Party, all of Obama’s failures, and how the Republican’s have and have always had the answers, thinking that it was good but found it odd that the Good Old Party neglects to enlighten we public, especially when they are in power. Since I was the only McPatron I was allowed to switch to CNN and learned that Republicans are also delusional and evil, and Democrats have and had always had the answers – that being that it is all the fault of the previous administration. I said 'amen' aloud, somewhat sarcastically, having heard it all through the last 10 adminisrations I have enjoyed, wondering how anything ever gets done. I turned on a soccer match and watched just as confused but spellbound by the constant movement and the astonishing enthusiastic screams of 'GOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAL!' when the ball got by the fellow gaurding the netted goal. After a bit when I realized that getting that ball in the net was a tiring, exhausting, and nye impossible thing to do – I soon was singing 'Gooaaal' as well, just pleased to see some result come from all the running around and the handless skill it took to play this game.

I stopped watching and pulled out a real writing pad and started this article, wrote the bones of a song or two, a couple of poems, and some sketches of a McCustomer or two. Five o’clock slowly came, my mind no wiser in the political arena, a bit more appreciative of the most popular game in the world, and I, fast food badly fed, and caffeine charged  found my way back to the shop, trying to think of the last time I had taken that much time just sitting with my thoughts and allowing a creative steam to just flow. I made a promise to do it more often. I thanked the techno- wizard, took my now healed and recovered electronic patients home, spent the rest of the night, TV off, loading programs, connecting modems, setting up e-mail accounts, and having a wonderful time.

Even though life has its ups and downs – it’s all still pretty good. Isn’t it?

Ken Lehnig(c)2010 all rights reserved.


On Songwriting ‘Red Bone’

This is one of those songs that was seeded by just hearing something that made the Muse ring. I was half-watching a movie and in the film one of the characters had a Blue Tick Hound named Red Bone. The idea that percolated in my head that night while I slept was of a bad man with the surname Redbone – with a dog Redbone tracking him down. I loved that irony. That's it. I wanted an old time feel and a repetitive hook. A friend first hearing the song said 'Don't tell me the name of the song is Redbone.'  Maybe too repetitive, but that's the hook.. The first verse was just to set the scene – poetically descriptive with the fifth line tag telegraphing the outcome.


My Red Bone riding on the warm wind
Red Bone howling at the moon beams

Red Bone sniffin' out the bad man
Sam Red Bone soon hanging from an old oak tree

The second verse I wanted to tell the reason for chasing him down. The trick was to do it with solid imagery, but being as clear as I could as to how bad the men was.

A nightmare came out the darkness
The willows weeping cause the witness
That deed surely evil with the madness
Leave behind a life full of sadness

The next was to soften the song a bit by painting with words the feeling of the hound running and baying in the moonlight. I was really happy with the feel of this verse. The fifth line  tag bringing back what it was all about.

My Red Bone running on the warm night
Red Bone howling in the moonlight
My Red Bone nosing out that bad man
Sam Red Bone soon hanging from an old oak tree

The third verse threw me a bit. I suppose I am making a statement here about the affect of murder and whether a person should be allowed to live after tearing an innocent from life and loved ones. The damage is horrendous and unforgivable to me. I do present here that he almost gets away and I imply that he could murders others in trying to get away.

The story hidden in the blood stains
Lost dreams they never gonna gain again
Sam Red Bone climbed on a freight train
The track laid for a man gone insane

I wanted this verse to resolve the story.

But my Red Bone is one with the warm wind
Red Bone howling up at the moon beams
Red Bone done chased down that bad man
Sam Red Bone got his neck stretched, yeah

in an old oak tree

I wanted to put a twist in the story – what if you were involved in such a way that you knew the victims, perhaps saw what the monster had done. Redbone does corner him and you have him in your grasp – it's dark  – it's out in a lonely wood. Would you deliver justice for fear that some Judge may let him go because you didn't give him his rights properly?  I suppose the question I wanted the listener to wrestle with is that it is easy to be an observer and be lenient  when this evil is removed from you. Justice to often isn't served – and some times justice is misguided and just gets it wrong by convicted an innocent person. But here Redbone's nose can't lie.

Justice here done in the darkness
Sam judged swinging from a oak tree
No more bad deeds in the midnight
Red Bone We chased him down in the midnight
Red Bone We chased him down and made it all right

Simple Americana Lyrics, a clear story, a field call arrangement made this song work for me as a songwriter. The rest is up to the listener.

'Redbone' by Ken Lehnig © 2003 Desert Windsong Pub. BMI

Copyright Ken Lehnig © 2011  previously published  All rights reserved

On Being An Artist

On being an Artist

Photobucket It would seem that I am about to veer off road and careen wildly across strange landscapes; far away from the terrain I usually travel.  Not so, dear reader, I am going to go deeper into the artistic soul, and heart, that is the underpinning of writers and poets. I travel that same road we are all on; no matter the level of our competence we share this journey. To this point I have offered my thoughts, on writing poetry, and lyrics, not as an expert – but as a working artist and an observer, perhaps casting a light into shadowy places in our understanding of what it is to be a Poet or Songwriter. I am going to connect some dots – I will do this with no more authority than the fact that I am an Artist – I sculpt, I draw and paint, and I write poetry, prose and songs, all these disciplines come from the same wellhead.  I do hope you are entertained, maybe enlightened, and do forgive the fact that I lack the ability to be mundanely linear and coherent. (If I do – it is a lucky accident, and the connective activity of rouge neurons attempting to conservatize my thinking.)

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self- conscious, and everything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”

Ray Bradbury

This article is going to be about the starting point on our journey as poetic writers – the off-road of being a Poet, an Artist. This is for those that feel they have the tools, but not the spark to write well – this will be for those that think the Muse ignores them – this will be for the frustrated and self-critical – this will be for those aching to get  on paper, or a computer screen the language of their souls – those words that never seem to shine, or have the richness that they feel is there – those joyous fountains, sorrowful wails, brilliant illuminations, deep emotive wellings, and lucid clarities, not translated and, alas, stay un-delivered to the world.

My normal process for coming up with this column is, usually, spurred on by some poetry I have read or the lyrics, to a song, I have heard. How that comes about is what may be interesting – it isn’t always the poem or song’s content, but often how I perceive the piece to have come into being.  The mechanics are important to me and I trust that I have, in my vagabond and odd way, delivered some cogent points in that regard. I will address that more later in the article.

I want to explore the very starting point, even before there is a twinkle in the Artist’s eye. I want to write about the seed of artistry, the genesis of that good effort and human outlay we call Art.  The definition of the word ‘Art’ I leave to you to look up. I will not debate Art’s value – I believe that is mote and refuse any attempt at diminishing the need for all Artistic expression in a balanced and healthy society. A person that sees Poetry, and indeed any form of writing, as important as any artistic endeavor, writes this article.

Recognition of self as Artist

I don’t remember when I declared myself an artist. It happened in the midst of doing art. In other words, I was compelled to create and in the process found the artist. There is no right way to become an Artist. I suggest the Artist existed before the recognition, that same recognition being unimportant. A poet begins to write and in the process the Poet emerges. Trust the process. ‘Tis Like taking your first baby steps the, poetic muscles become stronger and more defined.

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

George Bernard Shaw

From darkness to light

This is esoteric – I believe it is in the human soul/mind/body matrix that we are designed as creators. That inherent ability can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Every thing we, as humans, create is a form of artistic expression. Politics, mathematics, architecture, finance, business, military arts, sciences, all have a creative core – we as humans have created distinctions that aren’t real. and may well hurt us as a society. What we perceive as Art now has become separate and of less intrinsic value – music, painting, crafts, dance, sculpture, and all, have become lumped into ‘Entertainment’. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an industry to promote and exploit these arts. It is that the worth of the Artist is not comparable to the worth of a Banker. (Well, I may have to rethink that comparison!) The darkness is the void in us and from that void will emerge a person’s human expression. This is separate from and distinct from the evil of trying to quantify a person’s aptitude and intelligence. I wrote the provocative word evil, because it is in the individual to be responsible for their own life, to find that expression. If such quantification helps the person solidify what they already know – fine. But I believe it not to be so, in most cases, being told by an authority, or the score of a one size fits all test, that you have no aptitude for something is irresponsible, damaging, and a recipe for misery. That system was, and is, designed to put people into the existing work force and down plays those abilities that are not considered valuable to society – as arbitrary and transitory as the latest story in the Media.

(The e-mails will now come pouring in. Don’t e-mail me, I am intransigent on this point – my experience will out.) Work is good – art is good! Art can be work and work can be art!  They are not mutually exclusive. Trust yourself. You know if the yearning is there – don’t be afraid to acknowledge that internal artistic urging.


Once a person recognizes the artistic yearning the practical brain kicks in. There is no criticism in that statement, it is the way we are made, and what it is to be human. Someone created flint knapping and that skill was taught to others that had that ‘aptitude.’ They in turn created new ways to do the job and that led to other skills, or arts. The first steps in any Artist’s journey is to find an expression and then to imitate the work of other Artists that resonates in them, to me, a joyous time of self-discovery. In learning the rules the mind and body can incorporate those skills and, from there, jump ahead, as new innovations are realized, from that which has come before. Innovations that would not be possible, unless it was on the shoulders of other, previous, innovations – on the shoulders of previous innovation – and so on. Learn the craft!


This is the root of all Art, whether the ‘How To’ was stumbled upon or learned.

In the 80s I sculpted doll parts out of a product used for jewelry. The process started with me thinking I could create a new art form on the shoulders of an existing one, then thinking that the jewelry clay would work. I had to, by trail and error, find ways to make the clay do what it wasn’t designed to do.  Other artists and those I taught created other innovations and a new artistic community was created. I learned doll making before I attempted to create a new Art Doll expression. All art is created this way.

Poetry too has tried and true forms and modern innovations that stand on the shoulders of the poets who came before. I learned those rules early on and as a Poet they serve me well as the context of all of my work. I will consciously pick a form that best allows me to express what I wish to express.

Learn the craft, the rules, first before you creatively break the rules – you can’t create new ground till you know the old, in that relevancy is created.


Improvement by choice – the coolest (A technical term) thing that happens to an artist is when the piece reaches out to you and says, ‘This isn’t right! Improve this! Fix this!’ That can only happen if the artist is engaged in doing the work. Trust your own intuition – you will see it in your work and you will see it when others point it out. Criticism is valuable, but it is up to you whether the piece is changed. Every bit of criticism I get I file it all away. It may not apply, to me, to the poem or story at hand, but well may be appropriate to another piece I have yet to write.

You will always stumble when attempting something new, because you look to another and how they do it – but with time and effort, an assured-ness comes into play, and you no longer look to another, but trust in the skills you have acquired.

The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”

Oscar Wilde

The Fallacy of Failure

Every trip has a first step. There is no failure in Art. Things don’t work and do require fixing, but that is true of every life process. It was said during the Renaissance that nothing was to be made perfectly, for only God can make a perfect thing. The truth is we as humans are unable to make something perfectly – there is no compelling Heavenly ideal, or if there is, not one we should aspire – the work is to make it as good as you are able, up to your personal ideal – at the time. As an artist learns their chops, a voice will emerge. That voice being a clear resound, on what is in the nature and soul of the artist. The poetic voice I have often written about is just that – the self-discovery of a way in which the work of a poet manifests in the form, word choices, and imagery. Will there be periods of unproductive gloom, self-doubt, and self-depreciation –  I am sorry but yes! I do find the times when I’m non-productive very upsetting, but that is because I have an expectation that is being thwarted. In fact I do know that it is a time when my unconscious mind is going over its assets, and the font will again produce fruitful poetic waters.

Lord Byron’s take on those dark moments and the Muse’s neglect:

‘This bosom, responsive to rapture no more,
Shall hush thy wild notes, nor implore thee to sing;
The feelings of childhood, which taught thee to soar,
Are wafted far distant on Apathy’s wing.’

‘Farewell to the Muse’ George Gordon

But if you do find the will to work then remember this:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep,”

Scott Adams (American Cartoonist)

Approaching mastery by intention Avoiding mastery.

The above is a strange statement, but sadly ‘tis true. The problem with mastery is that you go right back to the beginning of the process. Once you have mastered an art form you begin to imitate yourself – sad bit of business that is.  It is better to continue to learn, risk, and keep creating within your chosen discipline. If you are a Poet, write in as many forms as you can, or stay in one if your heart tells you that is right for you, but always work and strive to find that personal ideal that is imprinted on your soul. You may never be satisfied, but I believe that is indeed a joyful place to be – creation/opportunity comes from uncertainty.

Here is the best quote on being an artist I have ever read:

“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.”

Mary Lou Cook

Ken Lehnig(c)2010 repost from an article by Ken Lehnig in the March 2010 isuue of Majestic

The Ramblings Of A Vagabond Poet

On Writing Songs and Poetry

Here I am rambling again, walking down a dusty road, with musty bits and clever things floating in my much too crowded head. Crickets are cricketing and birds are birding and all is well in the world. All of those annoying emotional chinks and tragedies are all in the past and now I can reflect, changing memories into myth with the use of elaborate word choices and perfected lies. It is a world where I am the hero in the story and the bad is forever vanquished. Every couple hundred steps I stop and sit down on a convenient rock, next to a verdant field, and play a few lines from the lyrics in my head. My old guitar seems to already know the chords and magically places my fingers perfectly -and I, with my beautiful Bocelli vocal chords conte par tiro-ing up into the too-blue Tuscan sky.

Oh man! Wouldn’t that be the ideal way to do what it is we do? What if writing prose, poetry, and lyrics was just as easy as waiting for Br’er Rabbit to pop out da blackberry patch and add a few dippity-do-das to a near perfect song, finishing it for posterity? Or maybe some little cute singing bluebirds, or sing-sewing mice, could help with the perfect Disneyfying ‘o dat last stanza. Oh well. It dippity-do-not work dat way wit me. Getting it down on paper or computer screen is a slightly more mysterious, lonelier, rougher, and grittier process for me.

When I was a younger man, and the need for creative out letting was a near mental disorder in me, I would go to seminars and read all the books on how to write poetry, lyrics, and prose. It was all, so very, helpful, as far as the nuts and bolts were concerned, but every exercise failed me in the end.

Let me give you some examples of techniques I have tried over the years:

!. Have a journal by your bed and when you think of something, as you tip over into dreamland, wake up, get up, and write down that brilliant thing. When I read them in the morning I thought most of it was incomprehensible and I didn’t write the context for the thoughts. Even attempting to be more descriptive made it even worse. This technique was terminated. My scratchings started to take on the tone of a true schizophrenic and sleep deprivation made social interaction almost impossible.

2. Keep a pad in your car and jot down those snippets that come as you drive. I once noted a toothpaste billboard and the light bulb went on. The brilliant song hook was ‘I only see her smile’ – it never became a song, because I rear-ended a late model primer gray Volvo, just as I finished the unintelligible word ‘smile’.

3. Warning: This next technique should never be used – unless you are Edger Allen Poe, Hemmingway, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, or Hunter S Thompson. I have to admit that in my earlier years I may have used this technique, on rare occasion, to no real benefit. It was the worst stuff I have ever penned. I keep it still, to remind me of my foolish ways. The use of any mind altering substance (Yes, that was what I was alluding to.) is said to assist in the creative process – but in truth what sounded good last night, when you wrote it -, probably was not all that impressive in the morning. A wise friend of mine once told me ‘The problem with any mind altering drug induced insight is that you can’t be responsible for that insight in the morning.’ Since this does not apply to any of my readers, or any of the folks I know, I wonder why I even bothered to list it. (Warning:  If you are drinking Absinthe, thinking you will somehow be Oscar Wilde  – stop it, you won’t write any better, the green fairy will just have you feeling like crap in the morning.)

4. Try riffing. A technique where you just let your mind go and see what comes out. Actually this isn’t a bad thing, but what comes is usually garbage and it can go terribly wrong. I had a gig at Tehachapi Prison years ago. My brother and I were supposed to do three songs. Then the producer said that we had a half hour to fill up, because the other act hadn’t shown up. In those days I did suffer stage fright and I retreated pretty far into my head. My brother whispered for me to calm down and to just make up a blues song. I didn’t have any other material ready, so that was all there was to do. The song was a big hit – ‘melted some faces’ as the saying is today. I even ended the song with an impromptu comic monologue.  We were the hit of the evening, just after the first Stripper to be allowed to perform in a state prison. (She was, indeed, more memorable than me.) Okay, so what was the disaster? When I got down off the stage I couldn’t remember a single word I had sang – or said. (Either did the inmates; the Stripper was simply more ‘poetic’.) If you use this technique please record it, something may be useable.

5. Flip through a dictionary or a thesaurus. This never worked, for me, but my vocabulary improved for when, and if, I did actually write any poems, stories, or lyrics.

6. Use Creative Subliminal tapes. These NEVER worked for me, but I did use them right after the failed ‘Journal by the bed’ technique – the tape put me, immediately, into a deep sleep and I would awaken refreshed and ready to arrange flowers and pick out fabrics. (A warning: Since you can’t hear any words on these tape/CDs make absolutely sure that you know what’s on them. To this day my color-palette  sense is just sensational.)


And finally ‘The Rambling Vagabond Poets Seminar’: Be prepared to write – be a writer. Tell yourself a hundred times before you go to sleep that you are a successful writer. Put signs all over your house that read, ‘I am a great writer.’ Prepare a place in your house that is perfect for a writer. Buy the perfect computer for you. Buy the best Dictionary (‘Reader’s Digest Complete Wordfinder’ is mine.), Have yellow pads and pens available – sometimes it’s important to be tactile. The words sometimes feel different when you write them down. Purchase a separate recording device and read aloud and record what you write – play it back and be critical. Print out your good work and put it in a notebook. Having your work in print, on a page, is much different than having it on a screen, and a lot more real. Post your work on writing forums ( is a good one.) and let others read it, and trust in yourself to comment on other writers work – they are right where you are, and a little nod of encouragement and helpful tips will go a long way. Read other writers, but don’t emulate their style (Unless its just for fun.) Find your own voice and style. Always believe that with every word you write you are getting better and better. And for me and all of you: Pin your rejection slips on the wall in front of you, with pride, and know it as a sign that you are getting closer and closer to being that terrific writer that you have always imagined you would be. (I’m on number 14 on my first novel. The 14 rejection form letters are pinned to a vintage LOONEY TUNES © poster, on the wall in front of my desk. (Bugs reminds me to relax, smile, and breathe.) And, to let you know that I am not, in any way, deterred. My second novel is just a few hundred words from being complete.

Keep writing!

Let me know of any other crazy things you all have done to nudge the muse and I’ll mention them in future articles.

Ken Lehnig(c)2011 2012

A Conversation On Writing Lyrics

Ken LehnigYou have decided that you want to write your own songs. Your mood is positive, you have set up a quiet place to write, guitar or piano is at the ready, a chord progression  program is loaded on your computer, a dictionary, a rhyming dictionary, and thesaurus is at the ready. You are done fixin’ to get ready – you are ready. You pick a chord progression you like, and get comfortable playing it – now it’s time for lyrics. You have read all the books that have been recommended to you and you write:

“You hurt me so much
I am so confused and pissed
You are going to get yours
Don’t come looking for the CDs you missed.

When you moved out
While I was at work
Which was really crappy…”

You may have felt you started out pretty good. You got in touch with your emotions and where you intended to write a moneymaking evergreen,  it changed into a singer/songwriter, indie song. Well sort of…if you tell the truth it isn’t very good. And if you are functionally, self-realized person, with no tendency toward self-delusion, you would stop right there.

The problem with we human types is that we don’t – and that is a good thing. We immediately take what we have written and try to make it better. So we go to the book on ‘Hooks’ written by some guy who says he wrote a hit record once thirty years ago. Don’t take this as snarky, he probably is a pretty good songwriter, a better writer, and a fabulous teacher, and a dynamite salesman. You read the book again and come to the chapter where it reads that good hooks can come from ad slogans, idioms, regional slang, poets, and metaphors. Now here’s some news – every good songwriter already knows that, and every good book on songwriting will have a chapter on the subject of hooks. You want to be a songwriter so you start thinking of ‘Hooks’. You start to write down the first one that comes to mind.

‘You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Okay. I’ll start being helpful and positive. This is not the only way to start, but it is a way. Here is what works – it is an idiom that everyone knows. It has a natural cadence and can lend to any melody.

Let’s look at a good songwriting process.

It is an idiom that everybody knows. It’s not pronoun specific, it could easily relate to your lost girlfriend/boyfriend’s stubborn streak. The horse reference could make it an Americana, or a Country tune. You Google it and find a couple of not so good songs that use the phrase – so it’s not a bad start. Here is where you need to trust yourself.

All of a sudden you have a mind flash, apparently so different from the ‘horse and water’ thing,  a phrase that seems to ‘be’ your fading relationship. Most would be writers would get distracted and quit, rather than looking at the opportunity. What popped into your mind maybe a gold nugget, even if isn't where you started.

“It was a long road to where we were going…”

Then more

It wasn’t written in the stars
We did our best without our knowing
That book was written on Mars.

Mars clearly doesn’t work. Now I could look up all that rhymes with ‘stars’. Hopefully words with meanings relevant to my story/relationship; scars, disbars, are, bizarre, cars. Your first instinct is to use one.

“Our love was so bizarre
“You drove away in your car
“I know it’s just who we are

Here is the first songwriting secret:

1. You don’t always have to rhyme.

Keep true to the song’s story. You can use words that have a similar sound.

“It was a long road to where we we’re going…
It wasn’t written in the stars
We did our best without our knowing
That we were better off apart

Here is another secret:

2. Writing lyric must never be far from music.

This is the difference between Poetry and Lyric writing. Poetry is about cadence and word sounds. Lyric is about cadence and word sounds as sung. Sing your words in any melody you like, and listen to the way your word choices sound when sung. You will discover a lot of words you have never used, and you will begin to compile words that will never work. (Although, I did find a use for 'pirouette' in a song.)

What we’ve written so far isn’t bad and it's not  a bad chorus. The first line is memorable, and the second is also a recognized idiom. But you still like the horse and water idiom. How does it fit with what you have written?

3. There are a thousand ways to say/write a thing. Trust yourself that you can always make it better.

What does that ‘horse to water’ idiom bring to mind? You realize that you think you had a perfect love and she apparently didn’t think so and ran off with a masseuse who you both met at a Club Med Vacation.  That is why that idiom came to mind.

So instead this comes to mind:

My heart was like the blazing (or morning/evening/ noonday) sun
(The masseuse was tanned)
Every day seemed a perfect day
(It was a good vacation)
But your pain was a shadow from your past
(Her last boy friend was a personal trainer)
And your fear pushed you away
(Monogamy scares her

(or/and – as a tag)

And my love chased you away

Now I am using a bit of humor here, but I am making a point. Even though I added in parentheses what created the words – the words themselves work.

My heart was like the blazing sun
Every day seemed a perfect day
But your pain was a shadow from your past
And your fear pushed you away
And my love chased you away

No one knows what tickled the muse but you.  A songwriter's ‘life’ is the resource  for songs. Here's what we have so far.

“It was a long road to where we we’re going…
It wasn’t written in the stars
We did our best without our knowing
That we were better off apart

My heart was like the blazing sun
Every day seemed a perfect day
But your pain was a shadow from your past
And your fear pushed you away
And my love chased you away

Not a bad start.

Here is the fourth and last secret for this article.

4. Write what you know.

What works about this song we are writing here is that it is created from a personal, yet universal event. How you describe the event, the words you use, the sounds of those words, the way they are sung, is what will make a good lyric/song or a bad lyric/song.
(Looking at chord progressions, melody, instrument arrangement, tempo, and sound production is for another article.)

You’ll find a story and lyrics here:
1. Something you have learned.
2. Something you have heard.
3. Something you are interested in.
4. Something you have read.
5. Something in your personal experience.
6. Something you dreamed
7. Something that moved you emotionally.

Let’s wrap it up.
1. You don’t always have to rhyme.
2. Writing lyric must never be far from music.
3. There are a thousand ways to say/write a thing. Trust yourself that you can always make it better.
4. Write what you know.

Keep Writing.

Ken Lehnig(c)2011 (c)2011 All Rights Reserved


the Work Of Poetry

Halloween is over, Thanksgiving is upon us, and I hope your spectral entanglements were manageable. And if not then I am sure the line and verse forthcoming will be dark and brilliant. So now just weeks way from Christmas and the New Year we are at that place where we either sigh and sulk in further ennui, or look forward with expectant hearts to the possibilities brewing in the New Year. Sadly one can also expect more of the same. And if the talking heads and the mad hatter cultural mechanics have their way that is what we will get. And once again that worry, and concern, be the makings of this article.

Are your ready for a connective leap from the opening paragraph to my subject that will seem like a quantum entanglement?  I am going to write about the power of words. No, I am not pointing to the failed grammar and spelling tests you had in Grammar School. Was it the stout and artificially happy Mrs. Theona Wentwhistle, or the bespectacled and stern Miss Agnus Dumwaters, or in my case the steely-eyed, garrison belt wearing and black robed task master Sister Mary Elizabeth (Who believed I would learn my lessons better being locked in my locker out in the hall, that discipline required for my transforming pages of poetry into spitballs) that told you that words are very powerful things and it would behoove you to be diligent in your studies? You know that grand Lady you pretty much ignored while humming ‘Teacher Teacher leave those kids alone!’  They were right you know, but I am not writing about your mastery of the language, I can assume if you are a poet you have attained some prowess there, even if sprinkled with unimaginative execration and cluelessly mundane inditements, both I would have you re-examine for a brick in the wall you shouldn’t have torn down. We are going to explore the power of word choice at a number of levels, to create the ability, for a poet, to make word choices that perhaps reach the listener at a deeper and more profound level.


Mother F**ker, back off
see he’s with me,

I’ll hand you misery,
‘cause I can see
like the stars at sea,
don’t mess with me,
‘cause I’m your mother f**king tragedy,
I got me a modus operandi,
for you being a foolhardy,
higgledy on your piggledy,
lowdown, raggedy ass
man heisting fool.

my heart is broken
how could you have left me
threw my heart out the window
like it was garbage
after I gave you everything
and you just disregard me
as unimportant
as nothing
just dust in the wind
I’m broken you win
your so vain
I bet you think this poem
is about you

Am I saying the above doesn’t have value? It most certainly does – as entertainment and as a journal entry. And there is an audience. If we are to be poets, should we not make the disPhotobucketdistinction that we have a responsibility to create ‘high’ work, work with an honest effort to lift, enlighten, reveal, to open a door to another possibility, or reality, to say it in a new and fresh way. It would seem that I am snarky and mean spirited, that I’m setting a high bar, and I may even seem arrogant. I am not passing myself as some master of the language, some grammatical alchemist, or a lingual magician; I am none of those things, but I am a student and a hard working practitioner of all those arts. We will explore together and if I, as the tour guide, fall short…oh well. It was still worth the effort. Language is fluid and fixed at the same time. It changes over time for good or ill. Modern language is the language you use at the time that form of the language is being used. Seems obvious…Right?

Here is a quote from Wikipedia, “Language change is the phenomenon whereby phonetic, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features of language vary over time. The effect on language over time is known as diachronic change. Two linguistic disciplines in particular concern themselves with studying language change: historical linguistics and sociolinguistics. Here is another tidbit: The principle of least effort: Speakers especially use economy in their articulation, which tends to result in phonetic reduction of speech forms. See vowel reduction, cluster reduction, lenition, and elision. After some time a change may become widely accepted (it becomes a regular sound change) and may end up treated as a standard.

For instance: going to gonna. As a poet we communicate with words. The choice of words and word chains are the color and texture of what we write. If the poet is limited to the words in the common lexicon then the work has the danger of being mundane. That being said it doesn’t mean that mundane work will not get some degree of popular approval. In fact many folks make a good living delivering consistently mundane product to a hungry fan base, and more power to them. I myself , without any shame at all, have produced such work for a buck or two. But that isn’t the point I am making, it is about seeing differences between types of work, creating the ability to make distinctions in your own work. If we can’t see it we can’t fix, or change, it. If you would, it is learning to write in levels and recognizing what makes each level as distinct from another.

The common lexicon is a tool of the poet, but not the only tool! There are different ways to use the language. Lewis Carroll wrote ‘Jabberwocky’ as a poem within a work ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

I tried the same exercise:

Priddle and passel
Perning on a peer
Saddle up a seaner
Brigged and get
Tattle in a tangle
Teater and tear
Better a bounder
Than a booring bet

If there is meaning it is only with the writer. The brain ‘matrix-es’, which means it, seeks meaning in all input from the senses. You get a sense that the poems mean something, but it is just outside the grasp. Combining uncommon words in unusual groupings has the same effect. Another valuable tool is metaphor.

Here is an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’ ‘Holy Spring’

Out of a bed of love
When that immortal hospital made one more moove to soothe
The curless counted body,
And ruin and his causes
Over the barbed and shooting sea assumed an army
And swept into our wounds and houses,
I climb to greet the war in which I have no heart but only
That one dark I owe my light,
Call for confessor and wiser mirror but there is none
To glow after the god stoning night
And I am struck as lonely as a holy marker by the sun.

Types of metaphor:
1. Personification

Simile is also a tool to enrich prose and verse.

Here is one of mine own. From “I Need More Than This’

I saw you like liquid in the sunlight dancing
A dancer from a world where answers come before the asking
I’m asking to hold you not like a bitter pill
Swallowed with a lithe hand promised of a sweeter sweeter night
Lies like poetry moved and held me bound
Your body held me till my breath was still
Hey baby I need more than this

Friends are shadows just marionettes and empty talking
They are an empty well you drink from shines on you
Your beauty is empty and time keeps stealing
Without worry the choir and the cadence rolls on and on
But baby I need more than this

Word choices can also be powerful. I’ll use an excerpt from one of my poems for the example.
From ‘A Living Ghost Town’
Hot white work to do
no sunlight
dusty ghosts toil
lamp lit underground
holes collocated

troll’s kin
world tossed sanctorum
digging gritty earth

The last tool for this article, and we return to the top of the page, is to go back in history and look at the common language then. I have noted in new Western movies the dialogue is in the vernacular of that time. The lexicon of two hundred years ago is quite different and a rich mine of poetic gold.
strong>Here are pieces from the 1800s
From ‘The Figure Head’ by Herman Melville

But iron-rust and alum-spray
And chafing gear, and sun and dew
Vexed this lad and lassie gay,
Tears in their eyes, salt tears nor few;
And the hug relaxed with the failing glue.

From ‘One Day’ by Rupert Brooke

Today I have been happy.
All the day I held the memory of you, and wove
Its laughter with the dancing light o’ the spray,
And sowed the sky with tiny clouds of love,
And sent you following the white waves of sea,
And crowned your head with fancies, nothing worth,
Stray buds from that old dust of misery,
Being glad with a new foolish quiet mirth.

And the last excerpt – one you know but have not of late visited. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

There is always something to be gained by studying what has come before, street poet or learned grad. The Internet has brought about the possibility of a golden age of poetry just by the fact that we have so much that is now accessible to everyone.

Best to you!

Ken Lehnig

Originally posted On ‘Majestic’ the newsletter for

The Rambling Vagabond Poet/Ken Lehnig(c)2011

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On Smashwords

I just finished three days of arduous work . I published a book on I have been seeing a lot of e-book publishers popping up and I wondered on what program was being used to upload the manuscript. I found the site and began the journey. The first thing I noticed is that they wanted a perfectly edited manuscript. ‘What!’ What writer ever has a perfect manuscript. We are artists. We allow the mind to roam free, to find the little treasures we write. I was deflated and almost gave up. But I decided to move ahead. I edited my book three times – sadly finding errors every time. I now appreciate the skill, the stamina, the dedication, and the tenacity it takes to be an editor. Once I had finished I sent it out to be properly edited.

The next step was to read the horribly long and eye twisting ‘help and guidelines’. Dear God I thought I had already done all this. I finished reading the guidelines and collapsed head down on my desk, from the sheer horror of undertaking the next step. But I rose from the pit and went to work. Now I know that there are a lot of writers out there that use ‘Word’ and I would imagine, like me, feel pretty damn smug and boast proficiency on that insidious program. Well, there is more to learn. It was mindboggeling to me at all the functions available to the editor on ‘Word’, which I must now master Okay, you already knew, it was only me stuck back in the 20th century who didn’t. I do now, and I am sure I am a better man for it.

I did it. Everything was perfect, in fact, probably the only thing I have ever written that was technically that well done. Dear Lord, what have I put people through ,when I say “Could you edit my book?’  For the record – ‘I am truly Sorry!’

I uploaded my now near perfect book (I am sure there are still typos in there, please forgive them for the blood and sweat I have given.) and it worked across a number of formats. (Kindle and other devices) But not for APPLE, oh no, there was a standard out there for e-books. I sat and stared in dismay. I read up on the requirments and realized that it was ‘good’. Apple had set a standard at the same level as printed work. I was pleased, if a little daunted. I slogged forward and submitted my manuscript into a site that checked for compliance. I got back the page of errors and set about trying my best to even understand the techno script I was reading.

I stayed with it, line for line. Research and fix, research and fix. Finally it came down to a Giff. image that I had never put in my book. nevertheless the code was in there somewhere. Two hours later, starving for lack of sleep, nourishment,and coffee, I threw my hands in the air and deleted every image,  re-inserted jpegs, and resubmitted. The manuscript passed.

The good folks at Smashwords don’t pull any punches. They tell you that it will be an arduous and terrible process. They call the program ‘Meatgrinder’ for good reason.

I would actually suggest all you writers out there to not do this yourself, some of us are computer savey enough and have a masochistic streak that compels us to jump off cliffs and walk on fire. (But never drink bad coffee) Nearly twenty five hours went into learning the program and the process. I feel as if I have graduated from some invisible school. My advice is write your creative heart out then find a good e-book publisher, or pay me,  or others like me, that have decided to give up a substantial chunk of their life to learn the process, to help you through the process. In any event keep writing!


OH Yeah! Buy my book!