How to Write Poetry

By Phil James with contributions from Alessia Iani, Nathaniel Leblanc and Nicola Atkinson

“My advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world” – e.e. Cummings

“I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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One of the reasons writing poetry is so difficult is that you set your own standards. Most acts of artistic creation have no endgame, and poetry is no exception. Long after finishing the first draft of a sonnet, a terse villanelle, or a free verse riff on the pleasures of living, you will likely dote on the parts you may have missed, the awkward rhythm, and that one line that just sounds so gosh darn cheesy.

Don’t worry. Many professional poets will write dozens if not hundreds of iterations of the same poem before coming to a unsatisfactory conclusion. What this guide will teach you is how to approach your poetry, create unforgettable images and construct pieces that you can not only be proud of, but happy to share as well.

Getting Started

Perhaps the most challenging part of engaging in any sort of creative writing is beginning your work. The key difference between working on poetry and say, programming in Javascript, is that there is rarely a standard procedure for writing it. There is neither a concrete moment when you can know for certain that you’ve completed your work.

But like any exercise, you need to be mentally prepared to get the best results. We live in a very distracted world, and it’s easy to deviate from the task at hand when so much is available at our fingertips. You should remember that creating poetry–or any work of art, for that matter–is in itself a therapeutic experienced that should be cherished and enjoyed. It slows down your life and should ultimately relax you.

So for this first section, we will focus on getting you a blank slate. It’s best that you have a particular method for dropping everything and being able to singularly focus on writing. We will get to technique in just a minute, but being mindful of how you work is indispensable.

What’s on your mind?

Poetry is a form of magic. Yes, for the most part you’re just putting down words on a page, but an ability to convey unforgettable images with unforgettable turns of phrase is a rare but precious talent. So where do you begin?

Before setting yourself down in front of the page, remove all distractions from your vicinity. Sit down in a quiet room or an open space. If you have the time, sit there for half an hour, and just listen. Be attentive to the slightest drip of a

The purpose here is not to get you to achieve transcendence or have some hifalutin, cosmic revelation, but rather, to simply make you more receptive to outside stimuli. Everyone can hear what is loudest and see what’s brightest, but talented poets have the ability to see what is hidden behind the veil. 

Finding a quiet place, a place where you can relax

Avoid all distraction. Turn off your phone and your wifi, and if you have a pen and paper, turn off your computer. Quiet places are not just great for thinking introspectively, but outside influences won’t affect the movement of your rhythm nor the clarity of your images. Before you even write, take a moment to think about what brought you here in the first place. Was some short phrase or passing quote bothering you, or did it bring up old memories? Or, was there something you read, or a sudden feeling you couldn’t describe that required you to record it? 

Open the Floodgates

Write freely and don’t worry about the structure of what you want to say before you say it. Young poets often worry too much about rhyming or getting a cogent rhythm in their work before even considering the content. Begin writing without stopping for ten minutes on a certain topic, phrase, place, day, picture, or scene. Look up an old work of art if you have to. You may feel a strain in the back of your mind while you’re doing this, a feeling of blankness or confusion. Still, persist–that’s your writer’s block. To even think about beginning writing, you need to do away with the inhibitions that bog you down every day. 

What now? 

So now you have about a page of material to work with, and you’ve activated your voice. Remember, athletes don’t just begin playing without warming up and stretching; speechmakers and actors often exercise their vocal chords and their bodies before they begin performing. Likewise, you will rarely just sit down and have the whole piece ready to go. You need to be ready to create striking images with striking language.

EBBROWNING

Other warmups

  • Record yourself talking for five minutes on video or audio. You are not allowed to stop talking. This will often help you “get to the point” of what you’re trying to say. Remember, inspiration can be hard to come by, but there’s always something on your mind. If so rant about it. It will activate your voice.
  • Write a response to a poem that challenges the narrative established by the speaker. If it’s a love poem, write a response that rejects their compliments. Or, if it’s a poem about an epic battle, talk about how the narrator may not have been as heroic as the verse suggests. 

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Creating images with words

Okay, so you’re done your warmup. Now, you’re ready to get started with the actual creation of your poem. For some of you, writing may come easily, and for others, getting even one line out may be the most difficult thing you can imagine. 

For starters, forget about the poem itself. Ask yourself, what will people (or you for that matter) remember about this poem? The most famous poems are also the ones that stick to someone’s memory or to the collective memory of a group of people.

Memorable images make memorable poems. The key to creating something meaningful is less in the mind of the writer and more in the mind of the reader, so you must be aware of how words create images, how combining certain words creates different types of images, and how combining those images creates a certain narrative, and how that narrative ultimately determines the purpose of your work. So let’s get started. 

Render an idea without saying it out loud–you suggest the meaning, hint at it. And you want the reader creates in in their head.

You must first realize that for poetry, meaning is absorbed through the eye of the reader or the ear of the listener. Consider e.e. cummings’ nonsense poetry. Cummings’ changed the way we think of poetry by putting the pleasure of language before the actual meaning of the poem. So how to do you render a good image?

Surprise enlivens, Cliché kills

While your ultimate goal for your verse is to make it meaningful, you should probably consider how to make it memorable first. The average person may read thousands of words a day, yet they will only absorb a small fraction of that, and of that fraction they will scarcely absorb a sentence. But your goal should be to make your language as memorable as possible, or to use the reader’s ability to remember as a tool to craft your poetry. I’ll use an example that I’ll return to time and again, as it encapsulates much of what you will learn from our guide. Take Margaret Atwood’s “You Fit Into Me:

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

 

a fish hook

an open eye

Before delving into the thematic qualities of this four-line poem, what I mostly want you to think about is the element of surprise in this poem. The line “You fit into me” is in itself a plain phrase, which establishes the idea that this is a love poem or even erotic verse. But what the second line does is take the first line’s image and puts it on its head. Surprise helps create the thematic undertone of this poem, as it challenges our expectation of reading with the general poetic conventions of erotic verse. It makes us feel uncomfortable, but then we think about what that image might be suggesting, we connect the dots. I know that it’s a simplistic reading, but it shows that it only takes a plain statement to make a poem memorable.

The role of concrete vs abstract language

The possibilities for writing poetry are infinite, but it’s important to distinguish concrete language from abstract language. Basically, concrete language describes things, places, people–whatever is tangible. A tree, a car, the state of Wyoming. Abstract language describes what is intangible–emotions, feelings, concepts, descriptors of time and space–love, sadness, existentialism, words like ‘when’, ‘soon’, ‘there’.

When writing in a journal or a diary, it’s easy for you to describe life with abstract language. But when creating images, be it in poetry or prose, you should avoid using abstract words because they are often broad and unmemorable. If someone began a confessional poem with “I am filled with emotion”, you would probably not be interested. But if they described an event that could have some heavy emotional quality to it, then it would be far more memorable.

What makes poetry interesting is that it can help someone unfamiliar with a certain way of thinking feel the same emotions or thoughts as the writer.

Aural vs. Sensory imagery

The difference between aural and visual imagery is simply the way that you use language to convey a certain image. At the root of all poetry is the image created by the mind’s eye, but there is more than one way to achieve this.

Think of aural imagery as the relationship between a word or phrase’s sound and its definition. For example, the word ‘boom’, as in the loud reverberation of a noise, also reflects the billowing heaviness of an explosion or a large object hitting the ground. it’s the reason little birds ‘peck’ while large mammals ‘butt’. A fun way to train your poetic muscles is to identify the aural quality of words, then switch them up, as it creates unique and unexpected images.

Sensory imagery is more literal, but that’s not to say that you can’t be creative in your description. Sensory Imagery doesn’t have to literally describe a scene, but rather, its constituent parts. And beyond that, not just its constituent parts, but the sensation of taking in a scene. Instead of saying “I felt cold”, instead say “my bones felt cold.” And instead of saying “cold”, think of words that might inspire feeling of cold without directly proclaiming a quality of the temperature. Maybe try something like “a frost brittled my spine.” Again, it’s not a perfect example, but it shows how showing and not telling can make a very positive impact.

The best way to leave a mark with your poetry is by having a physical influence on the reader. But you can’t simply can’t scare somebody by writing “and then a ghost appeared”. If you’re ever seen a horror movie, the more you look at the monster, the less scary it becomes. Instead, think about what kinds of things elicit fear. An old, decrepit house with the window shutters clapping on the old, dusty walls; the slow, dreadful creak of a closet door.

Lively image vs. stale cliché – Have fun playing with the reader 

Playing with your images is the most effective way of telling a story with poetry. If you begin the poem with a certain image, consider returning to it later on in the poem. How you modify that image can often inform the message of a certain poem. A good example of a modifying image is the idea of the road in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. It begins on a slight note of regret, as the narrator feels like they might be missing out:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, 

They are not one traveler, they feel divergent. The split of the woods evokes a lack of certainty. But then at the end, it’s not the road, but the choice of which road to take, that becomes his ultimate “path”, or ‘road taken’, so to speak:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Note how the ‘one’ in the last stanza describes the road and not the traveler. The narrator is no longer afraid of what he missed.

Use active, animate verbs

Poetry should be, above all else, an experience. So use verbs that speak more of the experience of an action than the action itself. When a prosecutor describes a crime, they may use very objective language to be very explicit about what happened. But as a poet, you have a duty to bring your images to life with your words. Sisyphus didn’t just pull a rock up the mountain, he lugged it. 

Using active verbs (specific to the activity described) renders your image into a unique experience that readers can’t find anywhere else. Dull, inactive verbs like ‘to do’ or ‘to think’ or  ‘to come’ will lull the reader into boredom. Active verbs also allow you to employ figurative language–an exaggerated verb can say a lot about the skewed perspective of a narrator, for example.

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Establishing various perspectives

The Role of Analogy – metaphor and simile 

Metaphors aren’t easy to use. Most often, they sound forced, as though you’re adding an extra limb to the end of an otherwise-clean sentence. See what I mean? There is no wrong nor right way to use metaphor, but they should reflect the imaginative capacity of the narrator, or the context in which you are writing a poem. Consider the poem “The Pennycandystore Beyond The El” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

 

The pennycandystore beyond the El

is where i first

fell in love

with unreality

Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom

of that september afternoon

A cat upon the counter moved among

the licorice sticks

and tootsie rolls

and Oh Boy Gum

 

On the surface, Ferlinghetti’s narrator is remembering a small candy store they visited as a child. He could just as easily have said, “When I was a kid, I went to the candy store and it was great!”, but that wouldn’t really say anything about the essence his childhood. Instead, he uses metaphorical language to dress up his childhood experience. The compound word ‘pennycandystore’ not only describes the place that he visited, but also the playful, sugar-coated amusement of visiting the very place he’s describing.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Consider what senses you want to pique

The best poetry hits you right in the senses, regardless of what you’re writing about. Think less of metaphor as a way to embellish the language of the poem, and more as a way of embellishing the senses. Ferlinghetti describes how the “Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom”, which is in itself a bit of a bizarre phrase, but it helps show us readers what his memories look and feel like. A jelly bean is just a jelly bean, but to a young kid, it’s a glorious, illuminated jewel. But the word ‘semi-gloom’ is also important. Not only does it literally contrast the glow of the jelly bean, but it suggests that time is passing, and that the experience of that memory is fleeting.

Metaphors can elicit pleasure in the reader when they’re surprising and unlikely.  

Instead of thinking of metaphors as “x is like y”, starting asking yourself: How is x like y, but also, how do they differ? And what kind of sensation or image shows up in our head when we combine the two together? And what do we take from the two images once we’re balancing both in our head? 

Making these connections is what makes creativity such an important aspect of writing poetry. So as an exercise, partner with a friend and ask them to write down eight random words. Then, write a poem in which you incorporate all of those words into what you’re writing. They are supposed to be as disparate as possible, but it’s your job to create the connections–as well as the narrator that puts them together.

AnneSexton

Think less about capturing epic events, more about making plain events interesting.

A huge misconception with poetry is that what you need to depict is epic. Sure, when Homer wrote The Iliad thousands of years ago, he described a battle for the ages, and included demigods, romance, etc. But poetry can be a very useful personal meditation on daily life. The example I want to use is a poem you may know already, William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say”:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

 

You might say thinking, “stealing plums? So what?”. But Williams is making a very important point about the nature of language, and how we derive meaning from words and wordplay. At least in the Western tradition, the stealing of a forbidden fruit (The Garden of Eden myth) is an important symbol. But what Williams does is he takes the myth and brings it back into the ordinary, something that anyone with a midnight craving has surely done before.

The last stanza is the most important, because it connects the myth with the present, and shows how language can help us derive meaning from everyday events. First, the narrator asks forgiveness for his transgression. Secondly, they address how the fruit fulfilled his sinful temptation to steal (“delicious/so sweet”). And finally, and perhaps most importantly, he describes the plums as cold, which is both a great description of a plum and a reference to the feeling of guilt involved with entering a world of sin.

The fact that the poem implies and understates the significance of the event tells us a lot about how poetry doesn’t need a big stage.

Exercises:

  • Read some old myths by the Brothers’ Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. You may recognize some of the stories from your favorite Disney movies, or from the stories you heard as a child. Now, take something from your life and retell the myth from your own perspective, including character, setting, and even the language you and your friends might use.
  • Recount an old Greek or Roman myth from a biased perspective, using a conversational tone. Remember, poetry can be more evocative for what it’s not than what it is. So a poem that defies the conventional–say, an epic character speaking in a non-epic fashion–can tell us a lot about an event or a person that we wouldn’t normally get.

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The Role of Sound

Sound is an hugely important part of good poetry. Whether you’re repeating the poem in your head or presenting your own verse out loud, sound can bring your poetry to life like nothing else. But how do you use sound to make the content of your verse interesting? Well, how about we listen to some poetry that is all sound and nothing else? 

Yes, Schwitters spouts pure nonsense in this poem, but the benefit of listening to nonsense poetry is that we don’t get bogged down by our own biased interpretation, nor by the own thoughts attached to the given words.

The key to good sound in poetry is creating sensation. So before you even pick up the pen or start typing, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Is my poem going to use cacophonous or euphonious language? Cacophonous language is hard and abrasive. As a reminder, think of the double ‘cah-’ ‘cuh-’ sounds in the word. On the other hand, euphonious language is softer, smoother, more languid. Often, it will describe passive, calm scenes.
  • Is your poetry musical or conversational? While both of these styles contain a particular rhythm, the musical style is poetry you can almost sing and remember better. Conversational poetry is verse that sounds like someone simply talking to you. Think about what story or conflict you’re presenting–nostalgic scenes are more often musical, while mournful scenes are more conversational, but that is, of course, subject to your creative vision.

Adding a musical element to your rhythm will help your readers remember what you write. Consider Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”, the poem about the failed manoeuvre by British cavalry in the Crimean War. Try saying this part aloud, and listen to the rhythm of your voice:

 

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.
Not only is the rhythm musical, but it reflects the gallop of the horses as they pass through cannon fire. Think about the action of your poem, and how the subjects in your work are moving or changing. If you’re recalling a memory from your childhood home, make a list of all the noises you would hear there, be it a blender or your little brother running down the stairs. You don’t necessarily need to make an outline, but setting up a musical rhythm can do wonders to your tone and your voice.

Conversational Poetry

Conversation can be just as musical. Poetry that is conversational is often more accessible and more to the point. Not everything you say needs to be enshrouded in mystery. Try going to a cafe and take a good listen at the way that people talk. You don’t need to eavesdrop. Just Listen to how people talk, not what they say–what words to they elongate? what do they emphasize in the average sentence? Try recording a conversation with you and a friend. What did you learn about your voice that you didn’t know before?

Conversational poetry often depicts the slight shifting ideas as someone moves through a place or through their thoughts. Through a monologue or a dialogue, you want your narrator to introduce thoughts and reflect upon them, and see if they hold up. A good example of conversational poetry is Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation”. Without making grand statements, Soyinka shows how “casual” racism can be:

The price seemed reasonable, location

Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived

Off premises. Nothing remained

But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,

“I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”

Silence. Silenced transmission of

Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,

Lipstick coated, long gold rolled

Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.

“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT

OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A.

Read this poem aloud. You will probably notice that Soyinka actually uses the rhythm of the narration to (1) set the pace of the dialogue and (2) build up tension that leads to the racist observation. As an exercise, try recording a conversation with your friend, then dividing the transcript into lines and stanzas. The point isn’t to be perfect; just try and divide the conversation up strategically. Where are there natural pauses and turnarounds?

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Plotting your poem

Let’s say you’re new to poetry writing. Your biggest question is probably: “What in the heck do I write about?” Your first thought will probably be to write something significant, such as a tragic love or war story. But the key to poetry is to think small. It’s not that writing about something big is necessarily a bad thing; rather, if you can say just as much with far less, your poem will be more memorable. Jane Austen tells us a whole lot about human nature by simply putting people together at a dinner table in rural England. In the same way, try to seek out meaning in everyday life.

Try confronting a big problem with a small event either connected to the bigger picture or representing the larger themes. Remember, poems has historically played the role of a memoranda that represents greater events, greater themes. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, but economizing the scale of your vision will give you more time to meditate on the meaning behind heavier themes like death, love, etc.

Childhood

So let’s put this idea into practice. As an example, let us read Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”. Think about what the narrator says about his relationship with his father, who his father was, and how the poem evokes the memory of being a child:

 

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

 

We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

 

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

 

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.

 

Notice how the narrator uses a simple dance to suggest both positive and negative connotations about who the father was. While the “waltz” suggests a pleasurable memory, the word choice evokes images of violence (knuckle, buckle, beat). So what we get is an idlyllic childhood memory with a possible dark side, depending on how you interpret his father’s drinking, as well as the way that he treats his wife. 

But notice how he’s doing this by showing us his experience, instead of explaining his father’s qualities. The poem wouldn’t be too interesting if Roethke simply said that his father was either good or bad. Roethke gives us a snapshot of a life, and in doing so, tells us a lot about memory and childhood. The narrator’s memories are happy, but there are many hints of a darker side.

The Response Poem – challenging the conventional plot

Another option you have is the revision poem. These are always really fun poems to write, especially because you don’t need to craft a whole story off the top of your head. Instead, a revision poem takes another text, then either shifts the perspective or gives us more plot to work with.

A good example of a response poem is Anne Finch’s Coy Mistress, a response to Andrew Marvell’s infamous seduction poem, To His Coy Mistress. The latter poem tells of a narrator trying to sleep with a woman by using grandiose language, but Finch’s narrator–telling it from the opposite perspective–has other ideas. Here’s the beginning of Marvell’s poem:

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

 The narrator complains that her shyness is a problem because it’s getting in the way of their “long love”. But Finch replies to his poem in style:

So while this numbered World we see,

let’s sweeten Time with poetry,

and Time, in turn, may sweeten Love

and give us time our love to prove.

What she implores the suitor to do is take time for their love to grow, and not to rush. The response poem works in many ways, but what it must introduce is change. It can change the theme (exploring the meaning of the original poem), or it can change the tone (shifting the perspective from grand to flat). These poems are great to write because you have a lot to work with from the very beginning.

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How to make a reader feel

One of the goals of your poetry is to make the reader or the listener feel something. Poetry will tap far deeper than any factbook when you can literally make your reader absorb the sensations you are trying to portray.

Using Storytelling

Even if your poem shows little and lacks setting, character or plot, you should still incorporate a narrative arc. Almost all poems should have a beginning, a middle and an end, so use the standard aspects of storytelling to your advantage. 

  • Start with tension – An ill-at-ease reader will want to delve further to find some resolution.
  • Character Development – If a character is unique, relatable or recognizable, then the reader will be able to identify with their goals. That’s why overdramatic and chivalric poem worked in the 15th century, but not now. Characters who spout uppity, high language are not relatable.
  • The Conflict – What’s at stake? Is this a story about a personal conflict or disagreement between two friends? Are you coming to terms with your childhood or do you just feel melancholic?
  • The Climax – Does something happen to change the perspective of the narrator? Do they realize what they want is out of reach? Your poetry should have a moment of transformation, or a moment when the conflict reaches a turning point. How does the battle end? What did the landscape tell you about what you want to do with your life?

Using Structure 

Luckily, there are many pre-arranged verse structures in poetry that you can apply your thoughts and words to. For example, some sonnets (a full lesson can be accessed here) is divided into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines), the beginning often proposing or introducing something, the ending revealing a truth or deflating an ideal. Other sonnets (Shakespeare’s in particular) contain three quatrains (four lines) and a concluding couplet (two lines) that summarize or change the theme bridging the first three verses.

The point is that some structures exist to lead your reader in the proper direction, and that free verse, while fine to use in any circumstance, may sometimes require more direction to help the reader out. Think of structure as a way to set up signposts for your reader.

BillyCollins 

Using Words

Certain words can completely alter the direction of a poem, and in some cases, forever imprint your verse in the memory of your reader. Obviously, word choice is not just a factor in poetic creation, but perhaps the most important part. Consider Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, and how she takes a close look at identity by playing with “you” and “-body”:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Dickinson starts off the poem by contrasting the ‘I’ and the ‘Nobody’, an immediate conflict. The simple clashing of words in the first line can do wonders, even if it’s subtle. But the poem suggests several truisms without explicitly telling us. First, she suggests that (bear with me!)  “somebody” can’t be a “nobody”, and that these words are less about existence and more about public knowledge.

Dickinson was a very private person, but it gave her a very fresh perspective on individual words. Here, she finishes the poem with an odd word–bog–but the word itself says a lot given the rest of poem. As a place that preserves the dead, she associates public life with a certain mortality, but private life with a certain vitality. And she does so in five sentences in two stanzas.

Using Syllables

I wrote about the rhythm of syllables earlier on in the lesson, but you should also be thinking about what syllables you use. Just think about what your reader will be doing when they read your poetry. Some sounds will be difficult to make. Others, like a low hum, may induce a soothing sensation.

But this isn’t just an illusion. Some sounds, like the prefix ‘gl-’, evoke brightness (gleaming, glamour, glitter, etc). I recommend buying an etymology dictionary or going to www.etymonline.com/ to learn why certain words sound they way they do.

Perhaps the best source for understanding the role of syllables in poetry is the work of ee Cummings. Although it’s called nonsense poetry, his work is far from it. Rather, much of his verse communicates what many express in long sentences in just a few noises. Consider his poem, “13”, and how particular syllables evoke certain emotions:

who knows if the moon’s

a balloon,coming out of a keen city

in the sky—filled with pretty people?

(and if you and i should

 

get into it,if they

should take me and take you into their balloon,

why then

we’d go up higher with all the pretty people

 

than houses and steeples and clouds:

go sailing

away and away sailing into a keen

city which nobody’s ever visited,where

 

always

             it’s

                     Spring) and everyone’s

in love and flowers pick themselves

 

Cummings uses different sounds, such as the ‘-ee’ (“pretty people”) to evoke excitement, and ‘oo’ (“moon’s/a balloon) to evoke wonder (that’s my interpretation, at least). But my point is that he uses these sounds to contrast the sensation of normalcy one may feel when hearing the ‘-ow’ sound of “houses” and  “clouds”.

Print out a list of phonetic noises, like one you can find at the front of a dictionary. Figure out what kind of emotion you feel when you hear certain words. Sharper words will sharpen your intent.

The Element of Surprise

Look around you. If you’re in a public place, most people are probably on their cellphones, numb from too much technology. People need surprise in their life. But you don’t have to make it gimmicky; rather, using surprise correctly will help you gain control over your reader. in other words, you can effectively captivate them..

The violence of spontaneity

Even if you begin your poem with cryptic language, it helps to direct your reader to something tangible, an image or an idea that inspires further reflection. But one way to keep the reader enthralled, even long after they’ve read it, is to knock the wind out of them.

But how do you do that? How about we analyze “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, a war poem by Randall Jarrell:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The poem begins with an uncertain analogy. We don’t quite know what “the State” is, and why Jarrell refers to its “belly”. Basically, Jarrell wants you to be confused, but he’s only setting you up for the final sentence.

It’s not only shocking because of the graphic image, but also because they’re actually dead. The narrator’s life is not even guaranteed in the cruel world they describe. The ending also contrasts the dreamy beginning–he not only surprises with the description, but also with the tone.

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Form and Meter

And now to the boring part! Just kidding. Even in the most improvised free verse, form and meter play a huge part. Why? well, not only does the structure of a poem give the reader direction, but it also provides supplementary meaning to the rest of the piece. Like I mentioned earlier, poets like Shakespeare worked with and against the tension of the sonnet form.

Rhyming

Rhyming is memorable and musical. But what many associate most closely with poetry is more complex than you think. The one thing I stress is that you should NEVER force a rhyme, but that you find words that both fit and complement each other.

EmilyDickinson

See how Lord Byron, in his sprawling epic satire, Don Juan, applies both suitable and meaningful rhymes to further his message:

Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush?—Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!

Notice how ‘blest’ and ‘breast’ are close in meaning, and ‘bled’ and ‘dead’ both evoke the violence of war. They do not just sound alike, but they complement each other. Likewise, if you want to create a sense of dissonance in your work, your two rhymes could be opposite elements that you show in conflict.

Also, Byron crafts the last two lines in this stanza with expert rhythm. The phrase ‘grant but three’ is jumpy in tone, and perfectly complements the concluding “Thermopylae”. No, solid rhyming may not be as epic as the movie 300, but it can be far more elegant.

Types of rhymes

It does no justice to poetry to divide it into two subgroups. Rhyming comes in many shapes and sizes, and came take more than one form within a single poem.

Hard Rhyming is the conventional form that you probably know very well. Either the word or the last syllable of a word will rhyme. But remember, the spelling might be the same but the sound may not be. Similarly, you need to pay attention to the rhythm of your rhyming, because certain words with two or more syllables may have different stresses, meaning that you must rhyme the final two or three syllables and not simply the last one. For example, ‘visible’ and ‘syllable’ rhyme, but ‘visible’ and ‘able’ don’t rhyme, even if they both contain the same final letters.

Slant rhyming differs from hard rhyming in that it is not the word nor the syllable that rhyme, but rather the final consonant of a word. For example, the words ‘sling’ and ‘wrong’ are slant rhymes. These are useful for creating a sense of the familiar while also keeping tension within your poem. The reader will get the feeling that there’s an attempt for order, but disorder remains.

Eye rhyming is when two words that look alike (‘gone’, ‘alone’) look the same but have a different noise. Like slant rhyming, it serves the purpose, more often than not, to evoke discomfort.

Meter

Something to consider when writing both rhyming and free verse is how you are going to design the poem on a syllabic level. The best way to do this is to pay attention to meter, which is an effective way of dividing the poem up into particular segments. This is not a new practice. Poets have applied meter to the sonnet, which you can learn about here. Basically, meter is a game of long and short syllables. Pairing a short (or an unstressed) syllable beside a long (stressed) will help create a galloping rhythm known as iambic. Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in iambic pentameter, that is five iambs per line.

Other types of meter

  • trochaic meter: when a long stress goes before a short stress. The opposite of iambic.
  • anapestic: When two short, unstressed syllable precede a long one. Sometimes, poets writing in iambic pentameter will introduce an anapest to isolate a certain idea or embellish an image with a fresh rhythm.
  • dactylic: one unstressed syllable, then a stressed one, then another short one.
  • spondaic: Two stressed syllables beside each other. Spondees are rare in the English language and the form is used most often in Greek and Latin verse, though when you use them, they stand out. ‘Childbirth’ is an example of such a word.

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Styles of Poetry

Erotic, love poetry

I don’t know what love means to you. Only you do. And your first priority when writing love poetry is to express exactly how you feel. But there’s a few things you should think about when writing affectionate poetry:

A love poem still follows a lot of the same general rules as a regular poem,

Really avoid cliché. Love is a personal experience, and you will likely be doing a disservice if you describe an experience with someone else in familiar, overused terms. Even if it’s silly, and even if your actions aren’t the most romantic in the world, the fact that they are your own experience will make the poem come to life.

Love poems still contain conflict. I guarantee that the person you’re writing to isn’t perfect. I guarantee that on your first date, one of you did something really stupid. Love poems actually work better if you bring up what is imperfect, difficult, frustrating, uncertain—because then you can use your words to redeem those doubts.

When writing a love poem, you must play even more attention to showing and not telling. It’s easy to say “I Love You”, but how do you express that love when words fail? That should be the challenge of the poem. Also, what you don’t say can excite the reader. Why? Because if they’re intrigued, then their mind will automatically fill in the blanks. You literally don’t even have to do any of the dirty work.

For all perverts: Even the dirtiest poems should speak to something beyond the *ahem* bare *ahem* content of the poem. Think of the message you’re sending before you write it.

Odes and Elegies

Like Erotic poetry, odes and elegies can be delicate topics. The Ode, a type of poem that celebrates someone or something, can be a mark of praise beyond

On the other hand, the elegy is a poem that mourns the death of someone or the loss of something. But the poem is not simply an act of remembrance nor a gut-spilling piece of logorrhea. Rather, Use the outside world to describe the inner. Let’s take a good look at perhaps the most famous of all elegies, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Church Courtyard.” Notice how the narrator uses observations of the world around him to make inferences about what goes on within. Gray begins: 

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 

The sense of an ending. The passing of the herd, and the iconic image of death, the ploughman, disappears into darkness. The countryside scene reflects the approach of death.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air. 

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

 

This passage shows how the anxiety of death can transfer into a redemption. Yes, many of the world’s beautiful things may go unheralded, but—like Cromwell, the reviled anti-monarchist who overthrew the throne, maybe the fact that someone didn’t become famous means they spared others of suffering.

The Ode, in short, is a formal address that permits free expression of heavy sentimentality. Started by the Greeks and updated by the Romantic poets. Unlike the elegy, there’s a certain celebratory or affectionate air to the words.

There are no set structures for the ode or the elegy, but you will want to play with the tension between the form of the poem (it could be a sonnet, a haiku, etc) and the need to intensely express oneself. Your words should burst from the seams, but the seams should just hold them together.

TSELIOT

The Villanelle is another type of poem whose content will often closely align with the form. This type of poem is especially difficult because of the strict form you must adhere to.

Each verse has a ABA rhyme scheme, but the last line is either one of two refrains. It goes as such:

AbA1 AbA2 AbA1 AbA2 Aba1 AbA1,2

The most famous Villanelle, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, creates tension by repeating the refrain until the end:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Even with such a firm structure, a well-executed villanelle can succeed, unmatched in intensity.

The Sonnet

The sonnet is perhaps the most misinterpreted style of poetry in the English language. For too long, it has been associated with Shakespearean dandyism and caricatures of half-witted Don Juans trying to woo their lovers with pithy flower metaphors. This myopic view has prevented many aspiring poets from honing their craft and incorporating structure to their unstructured verse. I’m here today to teach you how to write a sonnet, but I also want to explain how it can be beneficial for the average writer–and even the non-poet–to use the sonnet as a training ground for keeping ideas sound and cohesive.

OK. But what is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem developed by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) during the 14th century. Enamored by a lifelong love for a mysterious and elusive woman known as Laura, Petrarch composed 366 of these poems (for every day of a leap year) that primarily addressed her, but at times took a contemplative focus toward himself. The poem often contained:

  • Several analogies associating the female figure with natural symbols, such as flowers, celestial objects, water, diamonds, etc.
  • Analogies to pure and fertile animals, such as deer.
  • The colors red (for passion) and white (for chastity) often in conflict with each other.
  • A turn, or a volta. After 8 lines, there would be reversal where the wooer would be rejected or the object of desire would leave. The feeling of longing gets replaced by a feeling of loss or despair.
  • The rhyme scheme abbaabba cdecde is used most often.

While the first three characteristics mentioned above would make the average reader throw up in disgust, the structure of the sonnet remained when it left Italy and became the most popular form of poetry in England during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Unfortunately, English does not contain as much potential for easy rhymes as Italian, so several poets modified the rhyme scheme to make it abab cdcd efef gg, what is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet (though the bard did not invent it). Here are a few of its  characteristics that you must know:

  • Developed by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney, the English (now known better as the Shakespearean) sonnet contains fourteen ten-syllable lines that are written in iambic pentameter, which means that, of the ten syllables, every odd number is unstressed and every even number is stressed. When writing, enunciate this rhythm in your head: ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM. It will come with time.
  • Unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, the turn is often in the last two lines and not the last six, with the first twelve lines divided into quatrains, or groups of four. This helps build up a certain idea that can culminate in a statement that confirms or denies the design in question.
  • While many English poets replicated the Petrarchan narrative of a longing for a fleeting love, many (including Shakespeare) challenged the norms by denying the conventional message. Consider the beginning of perhaps his most famous effort, sonnet XVIII: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate”. He immediately addresses the inadequacy of associating them with a bland, irrefutably perfect image in lieu of a more genuine one.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

In the past few weeks, I’ve been voraciously reading the work of various sonneteers and trying my hand at a few verses of my own. I think that, like a morning crossword or Sudoku, the sonnet can help you take more control over your language, give rhythm and cadence to your speech and give a bit more weight to your daily contemplations. It can also give you a more lucid understanding of the structure of language in general. That’s why I want to give you a few pieces of advice on how to write a sonnet:

Where to Start

1. Begin with a blanket statement, a quote, an expression, or a basic observation. What is an overused line that people use too often? Did that person really just say what you think they did? This is a good starting point because a sonnet is not a 14-line statement, but an exploration of the language that produces meaning. The sonnet helps break down barriers, and in that way they can be refreshing.

2. If you are addressing your poetry to a spouse, a lover or a friend, don’t rely on conventional stereotypes. Begin with words that are familiar too you both, or perhaps words that have lost their power over time.

Forming the first argument

3. Petrarch was one of the first to use the conventional set of analogies still known today, but don’t fall back on them. Sure, hyacinths and nightingales are sure to please a bumbling fairy strolling some imaginary forest, but if you are addressing someone else, use images closely attached to them. If you are praising them, be creative. If they’re a skateboarder, investigate the workings and movements of the board. If they love crochet, analyze the movements of the hands or the final product. Not only should the subject matter be dear to their hearts, but the rhythm of the poem, as well as its final form, should resemble one of their praiseworthy qualities.

4. If writing a Shakespearean sonnet, the quatrains should in some way be related to one another, and should contain a certain element of progression. Sonnets often mark the progression of a desire–be it blind idealism or immediate gratification–and should, in their rhythm, portray the attempt (and if need be, failure) of the acquisition.

The Turn

5. Once you have completed that progression, the last lines should be epiphanic–they discern a particular truth from the previous twelve. If you’re making a turn after the eighth line, outline in the last six lines how it cannot be, or why your words can’t stay true.

6. Ask yourself: What did I think before I wrote this and what do I know now? Your limitations allow you to include what is most necessary, but they also force you to exclude what is not. Make sure that you directly address elements from the first part of the poem in the second one. Antonyms, opposite elements (such as night/day) allow the reader to see the changes that have occurred.

Other techniques

7. Creativity flourishes when it is most limited, but you can challenge the rigidity of the sonnet, so long as you do so deliberately, and not indifferently. If you want certain phrases to emerge above others, change the rhythm slightly or interrupt the line in the middle. These changes and pauses provide certain discomfort, but they also force concentrated reflection. But don’t dismantle the rhythm altogether. Subtle changes are what make the biggest differences.

Okay, so let’s just see if we can deduce what a sonneteer might be doing based on the aforementioned information. I will use P.B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as an example:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Okay, How about we break this down step by step. This isn’t an analysis of the poem as much as a close inspection of the form.

I met a traveller from an antique land

(begins with conventional moment–the beginning of tale or parable)
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

(He interrupts the line to emphasize its STANDING. it’s like its right in front of you)
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

(Shelley has told us it’s inanimate, but for a second the bodily descriptions make us think otherwise.)
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

(The sculptor makes artificial things but was alive with passion. he’s balancing the Alive/Dead duality)

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

(Same thing)
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

(Below is the Turn. The line of vision goes from the statue as a whole to the message below, which will make us rethink the first part of the poem.)
And on the pedestal these words appear:

(The narrator quotes the statue, adding another voice to the poem)
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

(Nothing remains, and so little that it warrants three words: Nothing Beside Remains. The word “Round” also prompts the mind’s eye to look around the imagined statue, an act that confirms there is nothing else.)
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

(Shelley uses elevated words (collosal) and deflates them down to meager qualities (bare). He portrays the idealistic inflation and subsequent deflation of the once-idealized figure.)

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

(The word level offers some resolution. Everything eventually slips into the sand and erodes into an even plane. The sand, of course, represents time.)

I hope that this walkthrough helped you gain a sense of how to write a sonnet. Remember, the most memorable sonnets are those that move away from regular conventions while staying true to the structure of the work. Sonnets, however, are not an easy thing to write, so aspiring poets should start early. Be sure to speak them aloud, as well. You’ll be surprised by what you’ll change.

As I said before, sonnets provide great training for someone who wants to master the language, as they can teach you how to speak more clearly and economically, while also permitting the release of emotions without seeming too pathetic or too lofty. Let me know what you think and if they’ve helped you in any way.

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Stanzas and whitespace

When writing poetry, you really ought to think about what exactly you’re putting on the page. But you should also think about what you’re not showing. Using white space to your advantage can create tension that would otherwise not be there. But how exactly do you employ it?

Stanzas should conform to the purpose of your poem. How your poem is organized should say something about the content. Don’t just think about what you’re putting within the stanzas, but rather, what effect the space between the two will have. Will it mark the passage of time? Will it reflect a change of character?

Putting white space within a poem is known as aeration. It can have many effects; for one, it can force a breath out of the narrator. It can also force them to pause and reflect on individual words. Check out the first stanza of Earle Birney’s “Vancouver Lights” below, and notice what words he separates from the rest of the poem.

 

About me the night    moonless   wimples the mountains

wraps ocean   land   air   and mounting

sucks at the stars   The city   throbbing below

webs the sable peninsula   The golden

strands overleap the seajet   by bridge and buoy

vault the shears of the inlet   climb the woods

toward me   falter   and halt   Across to the firefly

haze of a ship on the gulps erased horizon

roll the lambent spokes of a lighthouse

 

Birney wants to make the reader take in certain aspects of a bigger canvas to form a clearer picture of the landscape. Words like “moonless” and “halt” warrant a sense of stoppage that can help you reflect upon the content more effectively.

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I hope you enjoyed our lesson on how to write poetry. Please let us know in the comments if you have any pressing concerns about poetry composition you want us to look at!

 

4 thoughts on “How to Write Poetry

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