TIPS FOR WRITING POETRY

by Joelle Steele

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Poetry is the highest art of writing that there is. You simply cannot be more creative with language in any other literary format. Poetry is a flexible art form that allows you to play with ideas and manipulate words to express your ideas in unique and sometimes extraordinary ways. And poetry is meant to be read aloud, so keep that in mind whenever you write it.

Before you write poetry, it helps to have read a lot of poetry. Read different poets from different time periods, and read poems in other languages if you can. Reading different kinds of poetry will help you distinguish the different poetic forms or structures that poets use to create their works, as well as the types of poems that best suit each form. Almost any poem can be written to fit into any form, but not all forms are truly suitable for every poem. Among the many poetic forms you will encounter include the canto, elegy, haiku, lune, limerick, ode, rondeau, and sonnet.

RHYME AND BLANK VERSE

Poetry either rhymes or it doesn't. When it doesn't rhyme, it is said to be written in "blank verse." The content and the poet dictate which form the poem should take. When a poem does rhyme, it doesn't necessarily have to have a rhyming word at the end of a line. The rhyme can be within a line instead. Rhyming is an acquired skill born of a lot of study and practice, and you really want to study rhyming poems and practice writing many of your own in order to master it. A poorly rhymed poem can sound amateurish and detract from the overall meaning or sentiment behind the words.

RHYTHM AND METER

Rhythm is a sort of beat or tempo that follows the speech patterns in almost every language. In American English, we speak with a rhythm that is largely iambic in pattern, meaning that each iambic "foot" consists of two syllables in which the second is accented (- /). Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in iambic.

Other forms of meter include trochaic, which consists of two syllables in which the first is accented (/-); anapestic with three syllables, the first two accented (//-); dactylic which also has three syllables with the second two accented (-//); amphimacic, in which there are three syllables, the middle one accented (-/-); and amphibracic, with three syllables, the first and last accented (/-/).

There are also the lesser-used spondaic, which is two unaccented syllables (--), and the pyrrhic, which is two accented syllables (//). These latter two are sometimes mixed in with other metric forms, and are not as frequently found all by themselves in a single poem.

Each type of metric foot is further characterized by how many feet there are in each line of the poem. One common type of line meter is iambic pentameter, in which there are five two-syllable feet, each with the accent falling on the second syllable (-/ | -/ | -/ | -/ | -/).

Iambic and the other metric feet come in a variety of line lengths, including monometer (one foot per line), dimeter (two feet per line), trimeter (three feet per line), tetrameter (four feet per line), pentameter (five feet per line), hexameter (six feet per line), heptameter (seven feet per line), and octameter (eight feet per line).

Some poets make use of more than one foot or meter per poem, alternating iambic with trochaic, or anapestic with dactylic. They may also likewise alternate between the two or three different feet from one line to the next, so that one line may be iambic tetrameter and the next iambic pentameter.

When a poem does not adhere to any specific foot or measure, it is said to be "free verse." The poem is still obviously a poem by looking at the shape of the lines on a page, and it still must have a rhythm of language in it, but that rhythm may vary widely from one line to the next or throughout the entire poem. A poem that is free verse is often blank verse as well, but it can also be rhymed.

WORDS

Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and this is important to remember when you select your words. Some sound like the things they represent, while others sound so different that they can have greater poetic impact. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a poet paints pictures with far fewer words than that, so finding just the right words to evoke sentiments or to explain and illustrate a thought or feeling necessitates a good vocabulary – and the ability to use a dictionary and thesaurus.

When you select your words, keep in mind all of your senses in order to make the poem alive and real for the reader. Think about what something looks like, what it sounds like, feels like, tastes like, etc. The writer's advice of "show, don't tell" works as well with poetry as it does with anything else you write. Don't just say something is beautiful, show what makes it beautiful. A rose is beautiful, yes, but can the reader see it the way the poet intended? No, the reader can only interpret it the way he or she personally envisions a rose. However, if you choose words that describe a rose as "a collection of densely packed velvet petals, blushing pale crimson, and redolent of spicy cinnamon," your reader can see, feel, and smell the rose of your imagination. Using such concrete words to describe a thing or an emotion usually makes the poem less open to misinterpretation by the reader.

PLAYING WITH WORDS

One of the things that distinguishes poetry from prose is the creative liberty that poets take when they use words — or deliberately misuse or misspell them. Some poets even coin their own words by taking two words and putting them together in an unusual or unexpected way that the reader immediately understands.

Other forms of wordplay include alliteration, in which the initial sounds of consonants of a word are repeated in a line, or throughout a stanza, or throughout the entire poem. However, since alliteration is rather obvious, it is usually reserved for use when there is an important point or emphasis to be made. Assonance is another form of repetition, this time of the vowels in a word, and is often used when rhyming words are not exact thymes but are almost rhymed.

In general, the connotation of a word is probably the most significant aspect of it when used poetically. What does the word mean to people in general? Does it have a positive or negative connotation, or is it a neutral word? For example, when the word "snake" is used, most people think of something negative: slimy, slithery, evil, satanic, venomous, dishonest, etc. Some words are very strongly identified with certain meanings, and so they may be used in a poem within that context to better illustrate or define a person or thing.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE

Almost everything can be expressed in multiple ways, and nowhere is this more so than in poetry. The very nature of poetry leads the poet to constantly seek out new and unusual ways to tell a story, illustrate an idea, express a deep sentiment, or define a philosophy. Figurative language, in the form of allusion, metaphor, and simile, is often used to do so.

In some cases, a poet may decide to use literary allusion — the reference to a known person, place, or thing. For example, the purely fictitious story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and admitting it to his father, is an allusion used to illustrate the importance of honesty. Poetically, some of the most well-known examples of allusion are found in Dante's Inferno, in which he alludes to Greek mythological figures.

Similes are simple comparisons of one thing to another, usually using the words "like" or "as." They are fairly common in most languages, and they include such common expressions as "deaf as a post," "as old as the hills," and "black as a crow." Metaphors, however, substitute one thing for something else that it isn't. They can be used in a single line or they can become the poem itself, in which case the entire poem is a metaphor and is therefore said to be allegorical, or having both literal and figurative meaning.

WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!

When you are ready to write, write about everything. Write often — daily — because practice makes for great writing and that's what makes any writer great. Keep a notebook and pen or a laptop/table with you at all times and make lots of notes. Whenever you come up with a good line or idea for a poem, write it down. You may not use it right away, but you never can tell when it might come in handy.

When most people write poetry they gravitate to certain subjects that are important to them, but there isn't anything in this universe that can't be expressed poetically. You can tell a story — complete with beginning, middle, and end — or you can describe a thing or an emotion. You can do both simultaneously. Poetry has no limits.

Whatever subject matter you select to write about, remember that you need to avoid going with a broad topic, because it will sound trite and will ultimately lack originality. Narrow your focus to one aspect of the broader topic, and keep narrowing that focus until you have isolated the subject that best exemplifies the topic you want to address. Then look at the theme for that topic, the feeling or meaning that is behind the topic and that is what you really want to convey to the reader. A theme is usually something that is difficult or challenging, maybe even moralistic or ethical, and the reader discovers the theme as they read the poem.

An aspect of theme is that of motif. A motif is a recurring device that is used to express the theme. For example, in a theme about good and evil, the motif may be the difference or separation between light and darkness, and that motif may recur throughout the poem. You really should not expect to be able to write a strong poem until you have the basic concepts of subject and theme very clear in your mind.

Your poems should always be seeking originality and uniqueness, either in the choice of subject or theme itself, or in your own vision, philosophy, or emotion towards your chosen subject and theme. The idea is to take something rather mundane and make the reader see it in a unique or even magical way. Don't be afraid to sound funny, awkward, strange, or frightening. Don't be afraid to express your emotions on paper.

A good title for your poem is just as important as a title for a novel. Your title can be a line from the poem itself, or it can be a few words that define what the poem is about. In some cases, you may want to just pick a single word for your title, possibly one used in the poem, that sums up the theme of the work or that evokes the feeling behind the work.

EDITING AND PROOFING

Never assume that your work is done the minute you put it on paper. All writers must learn how to edit their work. Set your poem aside for a few days and then take a look at it again. Make changes and corrections. Read it out loud to yourself and/or to someone else. Ask someone to read it out loud and ask them specifically what they like and what they don't like. Rewrite it again. Look for better words to say what you mean. Get rid of any words that don't fit or that are not essential to the poem. Set it aside again for a few days, then read it out loud again. Have someone else read it out loud and comment on it again. And rewrite it as necessary. Once you are completely satisfied with your poem, proof it one last time to make sure you've spelled everything correctly and that you've punctuated it correctly — yes, poems do get punctuated!

This article last updated: 10/09/2003.