Posted by: Adam Roper | April 13, 2009

How to write poetry: Part 4

This will be the final installment of my series on poetry. I have decided that, from now on, I will stick to writing poetry instead of trying to explain it. This is a valuable lesson for an artist to learn, I have been told. Enjoy.

If you wanted to sit down and write a poem on a whim where would you start? What are the basic tools used to write a poem, besides a paper and pen?

Words. Learning poetry is, first, learning words. Try spending time in a dictionary, stopping to look up words in books you read, finding words that are specific to what you want to say. What we want to say can be strengthened, or limited, by our vocabulary. As well, being able to search for just the right word, and understanding the specific context of a word, adds greater meaning. On the other hand, using a word improperly can give an unintended message and can distract a reader from the crux of a poem.

Just make sure you don’t get carried away with trying to use too many big words.

Lines. It’s not enough to just say something, you have to say a certain way so the reader’s attention and imagination are captured. You could say “yeah, last night was great”, or you could say this (a line by Emily Dickinson):

THE NIGHT was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single star,
That often as a cloud it met
Blew out itself for fear.

Ideas. What is the big picture? What are you trying to say when you write? Every art project should have a specific central idea, an idea that can be grasped. On rare occasions I start with a general idea and try to write a poem to illustrate that idea. With most of the poems I discover an idea in the process of writing. Then I’ll look back on these poems, try to figure out what it means, then I try to edit the poem to make a central idea more clear.

Structure. If words are bricks, a poem is a house. A poem is a structure, and as such the form/flow/meaning of a poem is strengthened by how well it is built. Awkward language, misused punctuation, and lack of clarity are distracting. I’m still learning this like crazy. Like a structure, a poem can fall apart if I try to revise it way too much. The best way to edit a poem is to restructure the poem to make what you are trying to say more clear, instead of trying to say too much.

A poem can either be very intentional- in that you want to make your point as clear and effective as possible- or it can be ambiguous or experimental- the kind of poem you have to spend a couple hours with to uncover the meaning. These are both valid approaches to construct a poem, and are made more effective with a strong structure.

That said, I believe that a rigid structure for a poem or a more flowing structure for a poem are both valid if they help poet convey the intended meaning in the best way possible. The masters of poetry are those whose poems maintain a sense of flow in a strong structure (like Keats or Wordsworth).

If you want to write technical poetry study the craft itself. If you are like me and just want to write poems to impress girls try to imagine speaking a poem as you are writing it.

Pictures / Senses. Whether you intend it or not, you poem will always portray a certain mood or visual picture. As with words, a poet must find the best possible visual imagery to convey meaning, otherwise a reader can be left with a completely unintended picture.

For some reason how we are feeling when we write a poem can effect the overall mood. If you are sad or happy when you write a poem the reader will be able to sense this. Perhaps there are technical ways to add mood or temperature to a text, but deep down this one of the mysteries of literature. It is mysterious how our feelings, and interactions with our surroundings, attach themselves to the words we write.

Personally I really don’t like poets who are inconsiderate with pictures and words. If I can’t trust an author I really can’t trust their work. Writing a poem is like having a conversation with a reader. If I’m acting really arrogant, or talking down to someone when I speak to them odds are they will not want to talk with me ever again. The conversation should never feel one-sided.

Rhythm / Flow. The best poems are those that seek to guide the reader, taking them on an adventure, drawing them into the story. The rhythm and flow of a poem is what draws a reader in. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien knew all too well that literature is not about writing stories for a detached reader- the point of a story is to engage a reader. The reader must be challenged to change in their own story as they interact with written stories.

Poetry is no different. A poem has to have a rhythm of sounds and movement, or a rhythm of ideas flowing into each other. An awkward set of sounds and punctuation, or a lot of vague unconnected thoughts, can make it difficult for a reader to connect with your work. Developing more of a rhythm in poetry comes more naturally with time, as you write more and become comfortable with writing.

Finally, Love. It goes without saying- everyone wants to be loved. Every poem we write, whether or not we care to admit it, reflects on our desire to feel validated and generally cared for.

All this advice is good and fine, but if it doesn’t lead me to find deeper ways to express love to someone, again, it’s all just talk. With our art we ought to seek to offer our most real self, to be honest about our humanity. In doing so we might just find that, deep down, we’re all looking for the same thing.

~

I’m sure there are other elements to poetry I missed here. I am not an expert on poetry by any means, but I do like it a lot. If you have anything to add this, or have any critiques, I would love to hear it. I’m always open to conversation.

Cheers.

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Responses

  1. Holy Long Post Batman!

  2. Well written man.

  3. I was just reading, “love in the time of Cholera” and was thinking, “hmmmm. I should look up some of these words”. Also, after your first post, I started to write again! Hurray!

  4. Hi, thank you for the poem writing tips. I’m trying some on my pitiful blog. 😀


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