How to Build a Poem and the Ars Poetica

I’ve just been talking on the phone to my good friend Kathleen Lynch about her poem, “How To Build an Owl.” Recently Kathleen told me a great story about how she happened to write this poem, a fascinating tale which I won’t go into here because Kathleen is at this very moment writing a piece about it herself. (The story involves Kathleen’s best friend, a wonderful artist, who died of cancer two years ago. That same friend’s marvelous painting is the cover art for Kathleen’s book Hinge.) So instead I’ll talk about why I love to use this particular poem whenever I teach a beginning poetry workshop.

Here’s the poem, reprinted from Hinge, which won the Black Zinnia Prize for poetry three years back.

How To Build An Owl

1. Decide you must.


2. Develop deep respect for feather, bone, claw.


3. Place your trembling thumb where the heart will be: for one hundred hours watch so you will know where to put the first feather.


4. Stay awake forever. When the bird takes shape gently pry open it’s beak and whisper into it: mouse.


5. Let it go.

I love to introduce beginning poets to the ars poetica—for them to try their own hand at writing one; to set down some ideas about what poetry is to each of them. Kathleen’s poem is such a great model for them.

It’s as simple and gritty and determined an ars poetica as ever I’ve read. (Yes, we also talk about Horace and MacLeish and a few others!) In its way, a manifesto.

Of course I can talk about owl = wisdom = Athena = nocturnal vision, etc. but what is most useful to the students is the poet as creative will—a true “decider” (unlike our old friend George Bush of too many TMJ nights) because in the end (the poem tells us) the poet must let the poem go. This is the lesson many beginning poets have a hard time understanding and/or putting into practice.

I love that the poem is about the poet/poem as observer (watching “for one hundred hours”), and as devourer, eating up the tiny bones of the world, bringing them up again, changed; leaving them for us to find along our way.

I also especially admire the slant rhyme in the third and fourth stanzas—what we want all good poems to do:


To find out more about Kathleen and Hinge, visit

Filed under: Poetics, Prose, Susan Kelly-DeWitt