How to Write Poetry
I decided to write this poetry help page after receiving the following email. This email reminded me a lot of myself when I was first trying to figure out how to write poetry.
“Hi there, I'm so glad I found your website! I stumbled upon writing poetry recently when my daughter lost her boyfriend to melanoma at just 26 years old. Traumatic and so, so sad. I found I could, through poetry, express some of my feelings to my daughter - and hopefully project a sense of hope etc. I am a perfectionist type of person. I know it will sound crazy - why should it matter?! But. . . I sometimes worry that I don't know the 'rules' of poetry writing. OMG that sounds silly - I just somehow would like to know - that if I write a poem - does it meet the criteria as a good poem? Do you have something on your website which would address this? I feel silly just asking actually! Thanks for your poems and for sharing and caring! Regards D.”
Like the above reader, I can be a perfectionist, and I wasn’t sure if the poems I had written qualified as good poetry. I’m sure D. and I are not alone. We know that the writing of poetry has been helpful to our own emotional well-being, yet we want to know that what we are writing measures up to—to what? Perhaps the former English teacher’s standards of good poetry?
I found Ted Kooser’s, The Poetry Home Repair Manual
to be very helpful as I pondered if my poetry was “good enough.” Kooser says that beginning poets should not worry about “the rules.” He says, “There are no shoulds or should nots in writing poetry. (p. 35)” However, from reading this book, I developed the following questions that I use as guidelines in editing my poetry:
- Does the poem communicate to others? All written language is meant to communicate. Have I thought enough about the audience as I’ve written the poem? Would they understand it? Even if you are writing poetry for your own healing, you can increase the quality of the writing by imagining an audience. Some readers appreciate ambiguity in poetry others do not. If you picture an audience, you might have an easier time focusing your poem.
- Are there too many words or unnecessary distractions? The power of poetry is that each word needs to add to the poem. Take out every word or phrase that does not add to the image or message of the poem. Take out every element that the reader will not care about or that might drag down the pace of the poem.
- Is there information in the poem that can be placed in the title? Are your first few lines just setting the stage to get the reader to the “real” poem? Can you combine the essence of these lines into one meaningful phrase for the title?
- Do your opening lines set up expectations and possibilities? The opening lines need to draw the reader in and let the reader know what the poem will be like. Don’t start out with the poem set up one way and then change structure or rhythm later in the poem.
- Would your poem work better turned upside down? Ted Kooser suggests that you turn your poem on its head and see if you like it better that way. Or try the poem with your original stanzas shuffled around in a different order. You might be surprised at what a new ordering does for your poem.
- Are you creating a vivid, specific image with your poem? Classic writing advice says “show don’t tell.” For example I can tell you that my great grandmother was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever met. Or I can show you by creating a verbal picture of waking up to the sounds of her whistling in the kitchen as she prepared breakfast for her loved ones. The story will always connect more deeply. Kooser says he sometimes forbids beginning writers from making overt statements of feelings. Rather they are to rely on scene, mood, pacing, etc. to tell the reader how they feel.
If you’ve found these questions helpful, I highly recommend The Poetry Home Repair Manual
for more thorough poetry help and advice on how to write poetry.
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