How do I write a Poem?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

So, you want to write a poem. I’ll being with a definition. Defining “poetry” is no simply task; for, while most people can recognize poetry when they see it, efforts to pin down the guide lines for what makes a “poem” are often exercises in futility. Therefore, consider this definition instructive; not absolute.

Poetry is an effort to fit more meaning—or meanings—into fewer words. This definition is coupled with the following specification: no absolute rules govern poetry. Although there are no rules that govern poetry, breaking the rules that govern normal writing will draw attention. So don’t break rules—nor do anything at all to draw attention—unless you want to draw attention to that particular place in the poem.

Poetry is a contextual art. It must be written with a specific audience in mind, because that audience forms the context for the poem. For instance, a poem written with a number of Latin phrases might seem esoteric or inaccessible to the casual reader, while to a Linguistics professor those same phrases might be accepted at face value. In writing a poem, it is important to know how the audience will react to your writing so that you do not express meaning accidentally, or fail to express what you meant.

One of the most powerful tools in poetry is the extended metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison that says one thing is another, such as “love is a rose.” Love is clearly not a rose, but the statement “love is a rose” implies that one may gain understanding about love from a rose. An extended metaphor goes on to describe that object in order to shed light on the original subject. Here is an example: “Those old video cassettes/last near forever,/but these D-V-D’s,/what of these?/They are being replaced already--/can anybody say/blu-ray?” This short poem is a metaphor for a generation of people that feels they are being replaced before they have a chance to mature. The “video cassettes” are referring to the previous generation, and “D-V-D’s” refer to the current generation. The next generation is symbolized by blu-ray discs. Note the implication that the “D-V-D” generation has been intentionally phrased out by marketing symbolized by the sing-song rhyme, “can anybody say/blu-ray.” The audience for this poem is almost certainly the “D-V-D” generation, because it references an antiquated technology, the VHS, and a little-known (as of the time of this writing) technology, the blu-ray disc.

One way to start a poem is to determine a subject, and then think of an appropriate metaphor. If you have trouble, try describing your subject and then considering what else some or all of those descriptions could apply to. For instance, you may wish to write about the process of coming to love someone (as many others have). You know that it makes one feel dizzy, disoriented, somewhat absent-minded, and happy without reason (though you should consider your audience: what is your audience’s view of love?). What else makes one feel like that? Perhaps you have experience parachuting, and you decide that it feels much the same way: you may now proceed to write a poem called “falling in love.” That particular metaphor—falling in love—has already been taken, but it also makes another point of interest: whenever you can, bring in your own personal experiences. Write about things that you know. One ability of poetry is to speak about common things in new, unique ways.

Any discussion on poetry must visit the topic of rhyme. Do not feel that your poem must rhyme: in fact, it probably should not. Rhyming is a technique, and it is important to use it artfully. Avoid using rhymes that lack creativity, or that sacrifice clarity or meaning for the sake of rhyme. Your rhymes should add to the meaning of your poem, not detract from it. Only when you become skilled at rhyming creatively and meaningfully should you attempt to write a rhyming poem. Meanwhile, try emphasizing important lines by making them rhyme, or add internal rhymes to draw attention to certain words.

Learn to pay attention to sonics. Sonics simply means: the way it sounds. Do the sonics of your poem agree with the meaning? Do repeated sounds reinforce what you are trying to communicate? When you are writing about something relaxing, don’t use lots of hard consonants (lots of “t” or “d” sounds); use soft consonants (“h” or “l” sounds). Pay special attention to the unique hissing of the “s” sound. As you develop your poetic sensibilities, you will become acquainted with the different effects of each vowel and consonant.

To begin your poem, choose a subject and decide on an approach. That approach may be a metaphor, or it may just be a different angle of thought. Begin writing about the subject until you feel that the thought is complete. Then, start removing words. Start with unnecessary words or phrases and those that repeat themselves. Try replacing words with techniques, and avoid using boring or cliché verbs and adjectives (the various forms of “to be” should be avoided—“are,” “is,” “was,” etc.—and common verbs like “went/came” and “made”; also, common adjectives such as “big/small” or “white/black” should be replaced when possible with more specific and/or meaningful words). Focus on description rather than events, and use concrete nouns when possible (talk about “ropes” or “doors” instead of “respect” or “honor”). Above all, keep your audience in mind.

The last challenge to overcome will be placing line breaks. Thankfully, there is no “right way” to do it. Try to keep similar lines parallel (“how do your eyes/bear the weight of your loathing;/how does your soul/bear the lie of its clothing”) and edit as you go, removing ambiguous words (like “soul” and “loathing”) that mean nothing without further explanation. Group similar ideas on a line (ideas may consist of just a few words) and then move on to the next. Attract the reader’s attention by suddenly starting a new line in the middle of an idea, but don’t do it too often or it will lose its effect.

Now, you have a poem; it even looks like a poem! There is still plenty of work to do—as a rule, most of the work in poetry takes place during editing—but you have taken the first steps toward becoming a poet. Congratulations.

There are a multitude of techniques and tools to be employed as you develop your inner poet, most of which you will develop only with experience. The best way to learn poetry is to write often. You may wish to join a poetry forum online that offers feedback on your work, or give your poetry to a close friend that you trust. Read experienced poets to learn how they use techniques

A warning: Do not make the mistake of thinking that complex, undecipherable poetry is “good.” Don’t try to be esoteric. Do your best to make your poem accessible to your audience; your goal is to write in a way that connects your audience to the subject in a way that they, lacking your experience, never could have done on their own.

Therein lies the power and purpose of poetry.