Before I started working at a corporation, I got my MFA in Poetry, and sometimes I teach poetry writing classes at work. I’ve learned that lots of people think of poetry as a mysterious or rarefied genre that’s difficult to do well. I disagree! So here’s a little introduction to what a poem is and how you can write one – right now, if you want. I’ve made it basic on purpose, so you may know some of this already.
I define a poem as a piece of writing that’s in lines rather than sentences. Most poems make more use of rhythm and the sounds of words than other kinds of writing. Poets generally try to convey something in a really imaginative way.
Here are a few different things you can do in a poem:
Tell a story: yours or someone else’s, true, made-up, or somewhere in between. Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey wrote this narrative poem.
Express emotions, of course! Joy, regret, anger, love, you name it. Mad Men fans might remember this one by Frank O’Hara, though the passage they used on the show is quite different in the context of the whole poem.
Meditate on something. You can contemplate a particular object, a place, an animal, etc., and this maybe leads you to some greater insight, as in this example by Pulitzer Prize winner Kay Ryan.
Entertain yourself and others. You don’t have to be serious. For instance, you probably know William Carlos Williams’s 1932 poem “this is just to say.” In 1962, Kenneth Koch wrote this as a response to it.
Make an argument – a case for or against something, using examples or personal evidence. Here’s a classic example by Elizabeth Bishop of a rhetorical poem.
OK, ready to write? Here’s what you do!
1. Get in the mood. One of these things might work for you:
listening to music (some people can write while listening to songs with lyrics, and some can only do it to instrumental music)
taking a long walk by yourself
going to a poetry or fiction reading – or watching them on youtube
reading some good poetry
2. Start writing. Be as honest as you can, even if you’re writing lies. Don’t judge your poem when you’re in the middle of it. Just get it down.
3. Done? Now go back and check a few things!
Do you have a title? You probably should.
Do you have at least one or two images? I mean things a reader can envision, like doorknob, tornado, keychain, dolphin, grass. If you only use abstract language – for instance, coincidence, art, relationship, awareness, betrayal – it may be hard for other people to get into your writing.
Do you have any metaphors? You don’t have to, but you might want to give it a try. Most poems do a lot of comparing things to other things. Here are some examples:
- “As with a straw, you drink my soul./I know, it’s a heady and bitter taste.”
- Of an undersea mussel: “opening and shutting itself like/an injured/fan.”
- “the clear pebbles of rain”
- Of death: “Once there was a shock/that left behind a shimmering comet tail.”
If you want some help coming up with metaphors, let me know and I’ll share some exercises next week.
Do you have any clichÃ©s? Fix them. These are just metaphors and other sayings that are over-familiar. If you have some in the first draft, so what? You can change that!
Is there anything you want to cut out? Sometimes it takes a little while before your poem gets on a roll, and you’ll want to cut out the warm-up lines. If you’ve taken a long time to talk about one thing, tighten that up. Near the end of your poem, if you have a really strong line and then, say, three or four “eh” lines that come after it, make a cut and end on the strong line.
Are your line breaks where you want them? Most lines of poetry end at a place where you would naturally pause. Breaking in less expected places can make a poem feel jerky, nervous, scattered – or floaty and airy, depending on the poem. By the way, most people today don’t capitalize the first letter of every line, though you can if you really want to.
Do you want to separate your poem out into stanzas? A stanza is a group of lines with space before and/or after it. It’s the poetry equivalent of a paragraph. If your poem is a big thick chunk, stanza breaks may help your reader. I usually use stanza breaks of equal length, such as four lines. This forces me to cut out some weak stuff in the first draft. However, stanzas with different numbers of lines are fine, too.
Now, read your poem over again and try to figure out if other people would know what the hell it is you are talking about. What seems obvious to you may baffle everyone else. This can be very tricky to figure out at first, but a friend can probably help you. Sometimes you just need another phrase or an obvious title to make everything clear.
And that’s it! Yay, you wrote a poem! And I bet it’s pretty good!