How to Write a Poem

Do you write poetry? Have you thought about trying, but don’ know where to start?

And even if the only poetry you read is forced on you in English class, read this anyway, and you might be surprised by a sudden burst of enthusiasm. I was.

College professor Kathy Fagan teaches poetry and is a prize winning published poet herself. Even her advice to you is poetic:

I’ve been reading poems and writing poems since I was a kid, which is a pretty long time; and most of my adult life, which has also been a pretty long time, I’ve earned my liv­ing as a poetry teacher at universities. And the one thing I’m sure of is that there’s no right way to read a poem, write a poem, or teach a poem. I don’t always understand the po­ems I read; I can’t will myself, as a poet, to write the perfect poem; nor can I explain, fully and without a shadow of a doubt, any given poem to my students in ten words or less. In short, I can’t define what poetry is, for myself or anyone else. Just when I think I’ve got hold of it by the ankle, it wriggles out of my grasp, just as dreams do when we wake up—and that’s exactly why I keep reading poetry and writ­ing it and teaching it. I love it because it’s alive and naughty and disobedient and willful, surprising and heartbreaking and provocative and frightening—and true, true to itself. The best poems live, as we’d like to, by their own rules.

Having said that I don’t know what poetry is but can’t seem to live without it, let me say that I have learned some things about poetry. There are exactly four things to be precise:

  • Poetry is everywhere. Empty your pockets or pack and you’ve got a poem, or at least material for one. Lint? You can hear a washing machine grinding away, smell the sweet warm heat of the dryer, watch your mother sorting socks, and see T-shirts folded up in a pile like a deck of cards.

Poems are made of this stuff—stuff of the world, the concrete thing-ness of chair, shoe, sycamore tree, sparrow, manhole cover, tomato. Our world is made of these things, so our poems are, too. Our language is full of the names of these things—words—so our poems have to be. According to a puerto rican poet, poetry is one way of reading the signs of the world imaginatively. Poems are everywhere if we are in the least bit curious about the world. Almost any poem is found as much as it is written.

Exercise: Write a “found” poem. Try putting together newspa­per headlines or personal ads, overheard snippets of conversa­tion, or phrases from a favorite novel or song. Put a little pressure on them and see if they make something like a poem.

  • Most writers of poetry begin by writing it in secret.

They are pouring out their thoughts in a diary or journal, making up song lyrics they sing to no one but themselves, writing feverish love poems to someone who doesn’t know they’re alive, creating imaginary places or people. I began writing that way; every poet I know began that way. We needed to express ourselves, had something to say, thoughts that had to be figured out, feelings that had to be told.

The word “poet” comes from a Greek word meaning “maker.” To write poetry is to make, to create. We make im­ages in poems, pictures, stories, songs; we make characters and music in poems; we expose a thing or an object, see it as it is and as it’s never been seen before. Poetry makes us notice what we’ve missed. It allows us to understand some­thing we never understood before. It allows us to imagine and speculate, destroy or remember or keep forever. It’s dif­ferent, in that way, from what we tell our friends at lunch or what we write to our grandparents on e-mail or what we write, even, in our essays in English class-because that’s telling and poetry shows. It requires of its readers and writ­ers a unique looking, a unique heightening of all the senses—the powers of observation and the powers of imagi­nation meet up and make a poem. Poetry helps us to use our five senses the way children do to make something new, it makes an abstract feeling or idea into something concrete, something that can be shown to us in words.

Exercise: Write a poem using each of the five senses: sight, hear­ing touch, taste, and smell. Write three short images, one line apiece, for each sense. If you like, number each stanza 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You’ll end up with a 15-line poem full of your own sensuous world.

  • Anything and everything is appropriate subject matter for it. We know that poetry is everywhere; we know that it should be concrete. That must mean we can write about anything. There’s no such thing anymore as “poetic” subject matter because everything’s poetic subject matter, not just hearts and flowers and heroes. It’s all right for a poem to be funny or cruel, ugly or autobiographical, dark or whimsi­cal, rhymed or unrhymed—as long as it’s attentive to its sub­ject. The small details are important in poetry, the smallest words—because those details, those words, are important to us, in life.

Exercise: Write a love poem that doesn’t use the word love or any other term of endearment. In other words, don’t say, “I love you” Don’t tell us how you feel; show us, with all your senses, in word pictures and love rhythms.

  • Poetry has a mind of its own and lives by its own rules. Make it, give it everything, let it go. How often any­more are you given the chance to play, go wild, lose control? That’s okay when making poems. Let your mind wander; be spontaneous, the wackier the better. Don’t try to impose any artificial limitations on it—not at first anyway. It’s not up to you to make it say something. Let the poem ride on its own steam; it’ll say what it wants. Forget your earnestness and best intentions. The poem tells its own truth—isn’t that a re­lief? Let it shock you. Let it sing and swagger. Watch the way the words bump and grind; hear the sounds they make—the meaning is there—in the music, the pictures, the way it leaves you feeling after. Whether it’s your poem or the poem of an old master, if it’s real, and if you bring your whole attention to it, it’ll move you. Just let it.

Filed Under: Education & Training


About the Author: Darlene Aronson holds a degree in English literature and is a college teacher in Texas, USA. She likes to help others by sharing her experiences in education and training field. She has written for many blogs as well as local magazines.

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