Posted by: Adam Roper | April 9, 2009

How to write poetry : Part 1

There really is no formula behind creating art, as much as artists enjoy explaining everything they create in intelligent sounding terms. Most artists just create for the sake of creating, if for no other reason. In “Walking on Water” Madeleine L’Engle explains that we write because we must, that the job of the artist is to serve the art. That said, the only way I can explain why, or how, I write is by reflecting on what I’ve learned so far. Here is some practical advice I have picked up from my experience with writing:

1) Read. If you want to write you have to read like crazy! Instead of trying to invent some new genre of poetry try adapting your style from thousands of other writers who have already mastered their trade. When you pick up on a writing style you really connect with try writing journal entries, term papers, or letters in that same style, and each time you connect with a new style adapt it into the way you write. Reading a lot of different styles, and being humble about which authors directly influence you, is a way to begin developing sincerity in your own voice.

1.2) Music. Listen to a lot of music. I try and listen to music I love when I write, just to stay focused and to give me ideas on what to write about. Or go to a concert and enjoy the music, then write about it later.

2) Write. As with anything in life the only way to write poetry is to actually do it. Write whenever you can, in journals, on scraps of paper, on white coffee cups- anywhere. If you have never written poetry before just think of some beautiful line from a book you read once, and think about why that line stuck out to you… what was the author trying to say? What is it about these words that makes them so intriguing? Donald Miller talks about such an experience (to reference his book again), saying that every person should stand in the wind whispering a sonnet under their breath- “I’ll tell you how the sun rose, one ribbon at a time”. To write you first have to fall in love with the idea of writing.

As a writer you have to expect that you will not always write great stuff. Some days, or seasons, will turn out dry and it’s not the end of the world. You have to be ok with being imperfect when you write.  It’s better to be honest about our limitations than to be arrogant.

Write as often as you can, about anything. As you write more it becomes easier to express your thoughts in writing form. As well the more you write the easier it becomes to develop your own unique worldview.

3) Experience. Created works come directly from significant events in an artist’s life, and the art form is how they interact and reflect on these events. Simply said, in order to have depth in what you create you have to have depth as a person. We develop depth, as humans, with our experiences. If you want to find inspiration to write you have to refuse to do nothing.

Discover something beautiful about life- sipping coffee in a cafe on a rainy day, walking through a busy city, smelling the dusty air of an old catholic church, shopping for old cameras in a thrift store, listening to stories from a older person who has lived life- and let it inspire your work.

4) Travel has a profound effect on shaping how a person writes, because it is a change of space and familiarity. If we live in one place too long we become convinced that this is all there is. Most of creation is a beautiful place waiting to be found, to be absorbed and enjoyed. That said, I don’t think you have to travel to the most exotic locales in order to find beauty. Try and seek out beautiful places a short walk, or drive, away from your house. Sometimes in order to find inspiration we are called to journey to inspiring places- like cathedrals in Europe, small villages in South America or Spain, or large cities. Most other times we are called to explore the place we call home for inspiration.

There are two aspects of traveling, crucial to each other: leaving and returning home. We always need some place to “come home to” after a period of being away. Some people will spend most of their lives traveling, searching for home, and other people will discover that home is the place they left behind. We can’t discover what home is until we leave.

5) Grow. A vital part of growing an artist is learning to have fair estimation of yourself and your work. As a writer, and an artist in general, you have to constantly resist the temptation to be pretentious. But you also have to resist the temptation to be self-defeating. You have to admit when you are wrong, and admit when you are right.

Get involved with an arts community if possible. Sharing your work, and reading it aloud in a community, will give you a much clearer picture of where you need to improve in your writing.

I think one of the biggest challenges I face is trying to take solitude and spiritual growth seriously, though these things are important. My advice is to find a spiritual discipline to practice every so often (fasting, solitude, community, study, simplicity). A great resource for this is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.

6) Engage. If Radiohead‘s music has taught us anything it is that our soul is deeply effected by the things we do. Our inspiration for creating comes directly from the soul. When our soul is disengaged our art is also disengaged.

Engaging in new thoughts is also a part of growing as a person. The ideas you fight for become ideas you have thought through yourself, and personally grow to care about. Most of the ideas we are passionate about have to, in some small way, touch our daily experience. That comes through in our writing. Ask the question, “does our writing reflect issues that touch our daily experience, or do we keep all our issues at arms length, settling with easy solutions instead of grappling with the difficulty of these issues?”

To be human is to be effected, sometimes damaged, by first hand experience of injustice. But the soul can also become numb to injustice. Be conscious of the fact that the soul is daily affected by the things we take in and experience- positive and negative. Engage the community you live in, and issues specific to your community. As well engage what is happening with the arts in your city, and get involved.


Stay tuned. This advice will become way more practical with time, I promise.




  1. “When our soul is disengaged our art is also disengaged.” – Brilliant!

    The best art comes from people who understand something about themselves, whether good or bad.

  2. For me, poetry comes like an ache that I cannot ignore. The ache stays there, like a strange homesickness, until I put pen to paper.

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