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How to Write a Poem, Step-by-Step
Sean Glatch | December 6, 2022 | 26 Comments
To learn how to write a poem step-by-step, let’s start where all poets start: the basics.
This article is an in-depth introduction to how to write a poem. We first answer the question, “What is poetry?” We then discuss the literary elements of poetry, and showcase some different approaches to the writing process—including our own seven-step process on how to write a poem step by step.
So, how do you write a poem? Let’s start with what poetry is.
What Poetry Is
It’s important to know what poetry is—and isn’t—before we discuss how to write a poem. The following quote defines poetry nicely:
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” —Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove
Poetry Conveys Feeling
People sometimes imagine poetry as stuffy, abstract, and difficult to understand. Some poetry may be this way, but in reality poetry isn’t about being obscure or confusing. Poetry is a lyrical, emotive method of self-expression, using the elements of poetry to highlight feelings and ideas.
A poem should make the reader feel something.
In other words, a poem should make the reader feel something—not by telling them what to feel, but by evoking feeling directly.
Here’s a contemporary poem that, despite its simplicity (or perhaps because of its simplicity), conveys heartfelt emotion.
Poetry is Language at its Richest and Most Condensed
Unlike longer prose writing (such as a short story, memoir, or novel), poetry needs to impact the reader in the richest and most condensed way possible. Here’s a famous quote that enforces that distinction:
“Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” —Samuel Taylor Coleridge
So poetry isn’t the place to be filling in long backstories or doing leisurely scene-setting. In poetry, every single word carries maximum impact.
Poetry Uses Unique Elements
Poetry is not like other kinds of writing: it has its own unique forms, tools, and principles. Together, these elements of poetry help it to powerfully impact the reader in only a few words.
The elements of poetry help it to powerfully impact the reader in only a few words.
Most poetry is written in verse , rather than prose . This means that it uses line breaks, alongside rhythm or meter, to convey something to the reader. Rather than letting the text break at the end of the page (as prose does), verse emphasizes language through line breaks.
Poetry further accentuates its use of language through rhyme and meter. Poetry has a heightened emphasis on the musicality of language itself: its sounds and rhythms, and the feelings they carry.
These devices—rhyme, meter, and line breaks—are just a few of the essential elements of poetry, which we’ll explore in more depth now.
Understanding the Elements of Poetry
As we explore how to write a poem step by step, these three major literary elements of poetry should sit in the back of your mind:
- Rhythm (Sound, Rhyme, and Meter)
- Literary Devices
1. Elements of Poetry: Rhythm
“Rhythm” refers to the lyrical, sonic qualities of the poem. How does the poem move and breathe; how does it feel on the tongue?
Traditionally, poets relied on rhyme and meter to accomplish a rhythmically sound poem. Free verse poems—which are poems that don’t require a specific length, rhyme scheme, or meter—only became popular in the West in the 20th century, so while rhyme and meter aren’t requirements of modern poetry, they are required of certain poetry forms.
Poetry is capable of evoking certain emotions based solely on the sounds it uses. Words can sound sinister, percussive, fluid, cheerful, dour, or any other noise/emotion in the complex tapestry of human feeling.
Take, for example, this excerpt from the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” by Walt Whitman:
Red — “b” sounds
Blue — “th” sounds
Green — “w” and “ew” sounds
Purple — “s” sounds
Orange — “d” and “t” sounds
This poem has a lot of percussive, disruptive sounds that reinforce the beating of the drums. The “b,” “d,” “w,” and “t” sounds resemble these drum beats, while the “th” and “s” sounds are sneakier, penetrating a deeper part of the ear. The cacophony of this excerpt might not sound “lyrical,” but it does manage to command your attention, much like drums beating through a city might sound.
To learn more about consonance and assonance, euphony and cacophony, and the other uses of sound, take a look at our article “12 Literary Devices in Poetry.”
It would be a crime if you weren’t primed on the ins and outs of rhymes. “Rhyme” refers to words that have similar pronunciations, like this set of words: sound, hound, browned, pound, found, around.
Many poets assume that their poetry has to rhyme, and it’s true that some poems require a complex rhyme scheme. However, rhyme isn’t nearly as important to poetry as it used to be. Most traditional poetry forms—sonnets, villanelles , rimes royal, etc.—rely on rhyme, but contemporary poetry has largely strayed from the strict rhyme schemes of yesterday.
There are three types of rhymes:
- Homophony: Homophones are words that are spelled differently but sound the same, like “tail” and “tale.” Homophones often lead to commonly misspelled words .
- Perfect Rhyme: Perfect rhymes are word pairs that are identical in sound except for one minor difference. Examples include “slant and pant,” “great and fate,” and “shower and power.”
- Slant Rhyme: Slant rhymes are word pairs that use the same sounds, but their final vowels have different pronunciations. For example, “abut” and “about” are nearly-identical in sound, but are pronounced differently enough that they don’t completely rhyme. This is also known as an oblique rhyme or imperfect rhyme.
Meter refers to the stress patterns of words. Certain poetry forms require that the words in the poem follow a certain stress pattern, meaning some syllables are stressed and others are unstressed.
What is “stressed” and “unstressed”? A stressed syllable is the sound that you emphasize in a word. The bolded syllables in the following words are stressed, and the unbolded syllables are unstressed:
- Un• stressed
- Plat• i• tud• i•nous
- De •act•i• vate
- Con• sti •tu• tion•al
The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is important to traditional poetry forms. This chart, copied from our article on form in poetry , summarizes the different stress patterns of poetry.
2. Elements of Poetry: Form
“Form” refers to the structure of the poem. Is the poem a sonnet, a villanelle, a free verse piece, a slam poem, a contrapuntal, a ghazal, a blackout poem , or something new and experimental?
Form also refers to the line breaks and stanza breaks in a poem. Unlike prose, where the end of the page decides the line breaks, poets have control over when one line ends and a new one begins. The words that begin and end each line will emphasize the sounds, images, and ideas that are important to the poet.
To learn more about rhyme, meter, and poetry forms, read our full article on the topic:
3. Elements of Poetry: Literary Devices
“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
How does poetry express complex ideas in concise, lyrical language? Literary devices—like metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, irony, and hyperbole—help make poetry possible. Learn how to write and master these devices here:
How to Write a Poem, in 7 Steps
To condense the elements of poetry into an actual poem, we’re going to follow a seven-step approach. However, it’s important to know that every poet’s process is different. While the steps presented here are a logical path to get from idea to finished poem, they’re not the only tried-and-true method of poetry writing. Poets can—and should!—modify these steps and generate their own writing process.
Nonetheless, if you’re new to writing poetry or want to explore a different writing process, try your hand at our approach. Here’s how to write a poem step by step!
1. Devise a Topic
The easiest way to start writing a poem is to begin with a topic.
However, devising a topic is often the hardest part. What should your poem be about? And where can you find ideas?
Here are a few places to search for inspiration:
- Other Works of Literature: Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s part of a larger literary tapestry, and can absolutely be influenced by other works. For example, read “The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes , a poem that was inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”
- Real-World Events: Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has the power to convey new and transformative ideas about the world. Take the poem “A Cigarette” by Ilya Kaminsky , which finds community in a warzone like the eye of a hurricane.
- Your Life: What would poetry be if not a form of memoir? Many contemporary poets have documented their lives in verse. Take Sylvia Plath’s poem “Full Fathom Five” —a daring poem for its time, as few writers so boldly criticized their family as Plath did.
- The Everyday and Mundane: Poetry isn’t just about big, earth-shattering events: much can be said about mundane events, too. Take “Ode to Shea Butter” by Angel Nafis , a poem that celebrates the beautiful “everydayness” of moisturizing.
- Nature: The Earth has always been a source of inspiration for poets, both today and in antiquity. Take “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver , which finds meaning in nature’s quiet rituals.
- Writing Exercises: Prompts and exercises can help spark your creativity, even if the poem you write has nothing to do with the prompt! Here’s 24 writing exercises to get you started.
At this point, you’ve got a topic for your poem. Maybe it’s a topic you’re passionate about, and the words pour from your pen and align themselves into a perfect sonnet! It’s not impossible—most poets have a couple of poems that seemed to write themselves.
However, it’s far more likely you’re searching for the words to talk about this topic. This is where journaling comes in.
Sit in front of a blank piece of paper, with nothing but the topic written on the top. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes and put down all of your thoughts related to the topic. Don’t stop and think for too long, and try not to obsess over finding the right words: what matters here is emotion, the way your subconscious grapples with the topic.
At the end of this journaling session, go back through everything you wrote, and highlight whatever seems important to you: well-written phrases, poignant moments of emotion, even specific words that you want to use in your poem.
Journaling is a low-risk way of exploring your topic without feeling pressured to make it sound poetic. “Sounding poetic” will only leave you with empty language: your journal allows you to speak from the heart. Everything you need for your poem is already inside of you, the journaling process just helps bring it out!
3. Think About Form
As one of the elements of poetry, form plays a crucial role in how the poem is both written and read. Have you ever wanted to write a sestina ? How about a contrapuntal, or a double cinquain, or a series of tanka? Your poem can take a multitude of forms, including the beautifully unstructured free verse form; while form can be decided in the editing process, it doesn’t hurt to think about it now.
4. Write the First Line
After a productive journaling session, you’ll be much more acquainted with the state of your heart. You might have a line in your journal that you really want to begin with, or you might want to start fresh and refer back to your journal when you need to! Either way, it’s time to begin.
What should the first line of your poem be? There’s no strict rule here—you don’t have to start your poem with a certain image or literary device. However, here’s a few ways that poets often begin their work:
- Set the Scene: Poetry can tell stories just like prose does. Anne Carson does just this in her poem “Lines,” situating the scene in a conversation with the speaker’s mother.
- Start at the Conflict: Right away, tell the reader where it hurts most. Margaret Atwood does this in “Ghost Cat,” a poem about aging.
- Start With a Contradiction: Juxtaposition and contrast are two powerful tools in the poet’s toolkit. Joan Larkin’s poem “Want” begins and ends with these devices. Carlos Gimenez Smith also begins his poem “Entanglement” with a juxtaposition.
- Start With Your Title: Some poets will use the title as their first line, like Ron Padgett’s poem “Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space.”
There are many other ways to begin poems, so play around with different literary devices, and when you’re stuck, turn to other poetry for inspiration.
5. Develop Ideas and Devices
You might not know where your poem is going until you finish writing it. In the meantime, stick to your literary devices. Avoid using too many abstract nouns, develop striking images, use metaphors and similes to strike interesting comparisons, and above all, speak from the heart.
6. Write the Closing Line
Some poems end “full circle,” meaning that the images the poet used in the beginning are reintroduced at the end. Gwendolyn Brooks does this in her poem “my dreams, my work, must wait till after hell.”
Yet, many poets don’t realize what their poems are about until they write the ending line . Poetry is a search for truth, especially the hard truths that aren’t easily explained in casual speech. Your poem, too, might not be finished until it comes across a necessary truth, so write until you strike the heart of what you feel, and the poem will come to its own conclusion.
7. Edit, Edit, Edit!
Do you have a working first draft of your poem? Congratulations! Getting your feelings onto the page is a feat in itself.
Yet, no guide on how to write a poem is complete without a note on editing. If you plan on sharing or publishing your work, or if you simply want to edit your poem to near-perfection, keep these tips in mind.
- Adjectives and Adverbs: Use these parts of speech sparingly. Most imagery shouldn’t rely on adjectives and adverbs, because the image should be striking and vivid on its own, without too much help from excess language.
- Concrete Line Breaks: Line breaks help emphasize important words, making certain images and ideas clearer to the reader. As a general rule, most of your lines should start and end with concrete words—nouns and verbs especially.
- Stanza Breaks: Stanzas are like paragraphs to poetry. A stanza can develop a new idea, contrast an existing idea, or signal a transition in the poem’s tone. Make sure each stanza clearly stands for something as a unit of the poem.
- Mixed Metaphors: A mixed metaphor is when two metaphors occupy the same idea, making the poem unnecessarily difficult to understand. Here’s an example of a mixed metaphor: “a watched clock never boils.” The meaning can be discerned, but the image remains unclear. Be wary of mixed metaphors—though some poets (like Shakespeare) make them work, they’re tricky and often disruptive.
- Abstractions: Above all, avoid using excessively abstract language. It’s fine to use the word “love” 2 or 3 times in a poem, but don’t use it twice in every stanza. Let the imagery in your poem express your feelings and ideas, and only use abstractions as brief connective tissue in otherwise-concrete writing.
Lastly, don’t feel pressured to “do something” with your poem. Not all poems need to be shared and edited. Poetry doesn’t have to be “good,” either—it can simply be a statement of emotions by the poet, for the poet. Publishing is an admirable goal, but also, give yourself permission to write bad poems, unedited poems, abstract poems, and poems with an audience of one. Write for yourself—editing is for the other readers.
How to Write a Poem: Different Approaches and Philosophies
Poetry is the oldest literary form, pre-dating prose, theater, and the written word itself. As such, there are many different schools of thought when it comes to writing poetry. You might be wondering how to write a poem through different methods and approaches: here’s four philosophies to get you started.
How to Write a Poem: Poetry as Emotion
If you asked a Romantic Poet “what is poetry?”, they would tell you that poetry is the spontaneous emotion of the soul.
The Romantic Era viewed poetry as an extension of human emotion—a way of perceiving the world through unbridled creativity, centered around the human soul. While many Romantic poets used traditional forms in their poetry, the Romantics weren’t afraid to break from tradition, either.
To write like a Romantic, feel—and feel intensely. The words will follow the emotions, as long as a blank page sits in front of you.
How to Write a Poem: Poetry as Stream of Consciousness
If you asked a Modernist poet, “What is poetry?” they would tell you that poetry is the search for complex truths.
Modernist Poets were keen on the use of poetry as a window into the mind. A common technique of the time was “Stream of Consciousness,” which is unfiltered writing that flows directly from the poet’s inner dialogue. By tapping into one’s subconscious, the poet might uncover deeper truths and emotions they were initially unaware of.
Depending on who you are as a writer, Stream of Consciousness can be tricky to master, but this guide covers the basics of how to write using this technique.
How to Write a Poem: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice of documenting the mind, rather than trying to control or edit what it produces. This practice was popularized by the Beat Poets , who in turn were inspired by Eastern philosophies and Buddhist teachings. If you asked a Beat Poet “what is poetry?”, they would tell you that poetry is the human consciousness, unadulterated.
To learn more about the art of leaving your mind alone , take a look at our guide on Mindfulness, from instructor Marc Olmsted.
How to Write a Poem: Poem as Camera Lens
Many contemporary poets use poetry as a camera lens, documenting global events and commenting on both politics and injustice. If you find yourself itching to write poetry about the modern day, press your thumb against the pulse of the world and write what you feel.
Additionally, check out these two essays by Electric Literature on the politics of poetry:
- What Can Poetry Do That Politics Can’t?
- Why All Poems Are Political (TL;DR: Poetry is an urgent expression of freedom).
Okay, I Know How to Write a Good Poem. What Next?
Poetry, like all art forms, takes practice and dedication. You might write a poem you enjoy now, and think it’s awfully written 3 years from now; you might also write some of your best work after reading this guide. Poetry is fickle, but the pen lasts forever, so write poems as long as you can!
Once you understand how to write a poem, and after you’ve drafted some pieces that you’re proud of and ready to share, here are some next steps you can take.
Publish in Literary Journals
Want to see your name in print? These literary journals house some of the best poetry being published today.
Assemble and Publish a Manuscript
A poem can tell a story. So can a collection of poems. If you’re interested in publishing a poetry book, learn how to compose and format one here:
Join a Writing Community
writers.com is an online community of writers, and we’d love it if you shared your poetry with us! Join us on Facebook and check out our upcoming poetry courses .
Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists to educate and uplift society. The world is waiting for your voice, so find a group and share your work!
super useful! love these articles 💕
Indeed, very helpful, consize. I could not say more than thank you.
I’ve never read a better guide on how to write poetry step by step. Not only does it give great tips, but it also provides helpful links! Thank you so much.
Thank you very much, Hamna! I’m so glad this guide was helpful for you.
Very inspirational and marvelous tips
Thank you super tips very helpful.
I have never gone through the steps of writing poetry like this, I will take a closer look at your post.
Beautiful! Thank you! I’m really excited to try journaling as a starter step x
[…] How to Write a Poem, Step-by-Step […]
This is really helpful, thanks so much
Extremely thorough! Nice job.
Thank you so much for sharing your awesome tips for beginner writers!
People must reboot this and bookmark it. Your writing and explanation is detailed to the core. Thanks for helping me understand different poetic elements. While reading, actually, I start thinking about how my husband construct his songs and why other artists lack that organization (or desire to be better). Anyway, this gave me clarity.
I’m starting to use poetry as an outlet for my blogs, but I also have to keep in mind I’m transitioning from a blogger to a poetic sweet kitty potato (ha). It’s a unique transition, but I’m so used to writing a lot, it’s strange to see an open blog post with a lot of lines and few paragraphs.
Anyway, thanks again!
I’m happy this article was so helpful, Eternity! Thanks for commenting, and best of luck with your poetry blog.
Yours in verse, Sean
One of the best articles I read on how to write poems. And it is totally step by step process which is easy to read and understand.
Thanks for the step step explanation in how to write poems it’s a very helpful to me and also for everyone one. THANKYOU
Totally detailed and in a simple language told the best way how to write poems. It is a guide that one should read and follow. It gives the detailed guidance about how to write poems. One of the best articles written on how to write poems.
what a guidance thank you so much now i can write a poem thank you again again and again
The most inspirational and informative article I have ever read in the 21st century.It gives the most relevent,practical, comprehensive and effective insights and guides to aspiring writers.
Thank you so much. This is so useful to me a poetry
[…] Write a short story/poem (Here are some tips) […]
It was very helpful and am willing to try it out for my writing Thanks ❤️
Thank you so much. This is so helpful to me, and am willing to try it out for my writing .
Absolutely constructive, direct, and so useful as I’m striving to develop a recent piece. Thank you!
thank you for your explanation……,love it
Really great. Nothing less.
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How to Write a Poem
Last Updated: September 15, 2023 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Alicia Cook . Alicia Cook is a Professional Writer based in Newark, New Jersey. With over 12 years of experience, Alicia specializes in poetry and uses her platform to advocate for families affected by addiction and to fight for breaking the stigma against addiction and mental illness. She holds a BA in English and Journalism from Georgian Court University and an MBA from Saint Peter’s University. Alicia is a bestselling poet with Andrews McMeel Publishing and her work has been featured in numerous media outlets including the NY Post, CNN, USA Today, the HuffPost, the LA Times, American Songwriter Magazine, and Bustle. She was named by Teen Vogue as one of the 10 social media poets to know and her poetry mixtape, “Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately” was a finalist in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. There are 16 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 7,020,742 times.
Writing a poem is about observing the world within or around you. A poem can be about anything, from love to loss to the rusty gate at the old farm. Writing poetry can seem daunting, especially if you do not feel you are naturally or bursting with poetic ideas. With the right inspiration and approach, you can write a poem that you can be proud to share with others in the class or with your friends.
Starting the Poem
Brainstorming for Ideas Try a free write. Grab a notebook or your computer and just start writing—about your day, your feelings, or how you don’t know what to write about. Let your mind wander for 5-10 minutes and see what you can come up with. Write to a prompt. Look up poem prompts online or come up with your own, like “what water feels like” or “how it feels to get bad news.” Write down whatever comes to mind and see where it takes you. Make a list or mind map of images. Think about a situation that’s full of emotion for you and write down a list of images or ideas that you associate with it. You could also write about something you see right in front of you, or take a walk and note down things you see.
Finding a Topic Go for a walk. Head to your favorite park or spot in the city, or just take a walk through your neighborhood. Use the people you see and nature and buildings you pass as inspiration for a poem. Write about someone you care about. Think about someone who’s really important to you, like a parent or your best friend. Recall a special moment you shared with them and use it to form a poem that shows that you care about them. Pick a memory you have strong feelings about. Close your eyes, clear your head, and see what memories come to the forefront of your mind. Pay attention to what emotions they bring up for you—positive or negative—and probe into those. Strong emotional moments make for beautiful, interesting poems.
- For example, you may decide to write a poem around the theme of “love and friendship.” You may then think about specific moments in your life where you experienced love and friendship as well as how you would characterize love and friendship based on your relationships with others.
- Try to be specific when you choose a theme or idea, as this can help your poem feel less vague or unclear. For example, rather than choosing the general theme of “loss,” you may choose the more specific theme, such as “loss of a child” or “loss of a best friend.”
- You may decide to try a poetic form that is short, such as the haiku , the cinquain , or the shape poem. You could then play around with the poetic form and have fun with the challenges of a particular form. Try rearranging words to make your poem sound interesting.
- You may opt for a form that is more funny and playful, such as the limerick form, if you are trying to write a funny poem. Or you may go for a more lyrical form like the sonnet , the ballad , or the rhyming couplet for a poem that is more dramatic and romantic.
- “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge  X Research source
- “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman  X Research source
- “I measure every Grief I meet” by Emily Dickinson  X Research source
- “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare  X Research source
- “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop  X Research source
- “Night Funeral in Harlem” by Langston Hughes  X Research source
- “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams  X Research source
Writing the Poem
- For example, rather than try to describe a feeling or image with abstract words, use concrete words instead. Rather than write, “I felt happy,” you may use concrete words to create a concrete image, such as, “My smile lit up the room like wildfire.”
Try a New Literary Device Metaphor: This device compares one thing to another in a surprising way. A metaphor is a great way to add unique imagery and create an interesting tone. Example: “I was a bird on a wire, trying not to look down.” Simile: Similes compare two things using “like” or “as.” They might seem interchangeable with metaphors, but both create a different flow and rhythm you can play with. Example: “She was as alone as a crow in a field,” or “My heart is like an empty stage.” Personification: If you personify an object or idea, you’re describing it by using human qualities or attributes. This can clear up abstract ideas or images that are hard to visualize. Example: “The wind breathed in the night.” Alliteration: Alliteration occurs when you use words in quick succession that begin with the same letter. This is a great tool if you want to play with the way your poem sounds. Example: “Lucy let her luck linger.”
- For example, you may notice how the word “glow” sounds compared to the word “glitter.” “Glow” has an “ow” sound, which conjures an image of warmth and softness to the listener. The word “glitter” is two syllables and has a more pronounced “tt” sound. This word creates a sharper, more rhythmic sound for the listener.
- For example, you may notice you have used the cliche, “she was as busy as a bee” to describe a person in your poem. You may replace this cliche with a more unique phrase, such as “her hands were always occupied” or “she moved through the kitchen at a frantic pace.”
Polishing the Poem
- You may also read the poem out loud to others, such as friends, family, or a partner. Have them respond to the poem on the initial listen and notice if they seem confused or unclear about certain phrases or lines.
- You may go over the poem with a fine-tooth comb and remove any cliches or familiar phrases. You should also make sure spelling and grammar in the poem are correct.
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- Brainstorm big things in your life and how they have impacted you. For example, if you write about how someone you know died, the tone of the poem could be the great sadness and loss you feel deep down and how it feels like a piece of you is missing. Thanks Helpful 14 Not Helpful 1
- Think about what really matters in your life. It can give you ideas when you think about the people and places you love. You can write a poem in the form of the struggles in your life or the dangers you have had to face. You can also write a poem about happiness someone or something has brought to your life. Remember, what you write about should set the mood of your poem. Thanks Helpful 16 Not Helpful 4
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- ↑ https://www.edutopia.org/article/every-student-can-be-poet/
- ↑ https://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/creative1/poetry-writing-tips-h
- ↑ https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-empowerment-diary/201604/the-secret-writing-transformative-poetry
- ↑ https://writing.wisc.edu/handbook/assignments/readingpoetry/
- ↑ https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version
- ↑ https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/i-measure-every-grief-i-meet-561
- ↑ https://poets.org/poem/shall-i-compare-thee-summers-day-sonnet-18
- ↑ https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art
- ↑ https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/night-funeral-harlem
- ↑ https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow
- ↑ https://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/creative1/poetry-writing-tips-how-to-write-a-poem/
- ↑ https://www.literacymn.org/sites/default/files/learning_center_docs/metaphors_and_similes.pdf
- ↑ https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1266002.pdf
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/poetry-explications/
- ↑ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709796/
- ↑ https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/naming-the-unnameable/chapter/chapter-eight-revision/
About This Article
Writing a poem can seem intimidating at first, but with a little patience and inspiration, you can produce a beautiful work of written art. If you’re not sure what to write about, spend a few minutes jotting down whatever thoughts come into your head. Think about your feelings, your experiences and memories, people in your life, or things that you sense in your environment and see if any of those things inspire you. You can also try working from writing prompts. Once you’ve done some free writing, look for themes and ideas in what you’ve written, and choose one that feels inspiring to you. Common themes include things like love, loss, family, or nature. After you choose a theme, think about how you’d like to structure the poem. For example, you might stick to a traditional format, such as a limerick, haiku, or quatrain. If you’d rather not feel constrained by rhymes or meter, consider writing a free verse poem and simply let the words flow in whatever way feels right. You can also read poems by other authors to get ideas and inspiration. When you’re writing the poem, look for ways to express your thoughts using powerful, sensory language. For example, instead of saying something like “I felt happy,” try using a colorful simile, like “My heart soared like a bird set free.” As you’re writing, also think about how the poem will sound when read out loud. Try reading it to yourself or a friend to see if it’s pleasing to the ear. If a word or phrase doesn’t flow the way you like, replace it with something else that has a similar meaning. You might not be satisfied with the first draft of your poem, and that’s totally okay. Read it to yourself, get feedback from friends, teachers, or other people you trust, and keep revising until you feel like you’ve created a poem that really captures the feelings you’re trying to convey. For help choosing a structure for your poem, like a haiku, limerick, or sonnet, read the article! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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How to start writing poetry
By BBC Maestro Writing Last updated: 06 December 2022
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For thousands of years, people have been turning their thoughts and feelings into poetry. It’s a craft that had prevalence in prehistoric Africa and it’s evolved to shape Shakespeare’s sonnets, Edward Lear’s famous limericks and today’s rising ‘insta poet’.
If you’ve ever wondered what makes a good poem, and more importantly how to start writing poetry, you’re in the right place. Read on to find out.
What makes a good poem?
- 1. Pick your subject
- 2. Choose the form
- 3. Find the words
- 4. Start editing
- 5. Ask for feedback
All good poetry evokes something in its reader. It may be the result of delicately used figurative language or a rhyming pattern that makes the words on the page feel alive.
Good poetry is also thought-provoking – whether that be in a serious sense or a light-hearted one. It makes us reflect on the world around us and nudges us to see things a little differently. Take a look at this roundup of popular poems which are celebrated for shifting the reader’s perspective on life, a little.
There’s a lot of work that goes into writing good poetry. Even those that seem simple have required plenty of consideration, time and effort from their writer. So let’s take a look at a few ways to help you start writing poetry.
1. Pick your subject
This is something every creative has to do – whether you’re a songwriter, playwright, painter or sculptor.
What do you want to write about? Maybe it’s the feeling of hope, love or power? Or perhaps grief, isolation or dishonesty are captivating you more? You can write from your own experiences or imagine the experience of another, and how you can retell it in an evocative way. As a beginner to poetry, the first route might be easier, but try both if you’re lacking inspiration.
It’s likely your subject will act as a grounding motif in your poem – reoccurring throughout. For example, if your subject is death, you may choose to write similes that speak of darkness and loss, and imagery that refers to graveyards or funerals. These are examples of two literary devices to help bring your poem more depth.
Why not have a think about other various poetic language tools you can use to help you explore your subject before you get writing? It may help you refine your ideas before you get writing. Once you have your theme, it’s time to think about how you want to write it.
2. Choose the form
Matsuo Basho opted for Haiku poems and Shakespeare went for sonnets. But there are plenty of forms you can choose from when it comes to writing your poem.
Beyond the former two, there are limericks, elegies, acrostic poems, villanelles and free verse (to name a few). The latter is a favourite of former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy , although she’s known to famously present her works as monologues too.
You might want to create a visual poem – where the layout of your words forms an image on the pages. It’s one that requires a bit of artistry but makes for very engaging reading if done well. George Herbert’s Easter Wings is a great example.
The first line of Easter Wings is a certain length, and as the reader continues each line gets smaller in width beneath the other until the reader reaches a mid-point with only two words. Then the lines then get longer again, line by line. The second verse follows the same format, mimicking the shape of wings.
Perhaps there’s something creative you can do visually with your theme? Or maybe you want to let the words speak for themselves.
3. Finding the words
Now it’s time to get writing. Differently to prose, which generally follows standard sentence and paragraph structure, poetry is a little looser with its rules. And it comes with a whole host of literary tools you can use to create something great. Explore figurative language, juxtaposition , simile, metaphors and imagery. These are incredibly expressive tools for writing poetry.
It can be a little daunting putting those words to paper. One way to get over the hump is to just start. Don’t expect to write an award-winning poem straight away. You don’t have to write your first line and then the second, and so on. You might find you write one brilliant line and a weaker one that follows. Or you may write a whole stanza (verse) and it may fit somewhere else differently down the line.
Turn away from distractions in the writing phase too. Switch off your phone or devices and find a comfy corner where you feel relaxed. You could also choose to play a soothing playlist to help increase your creative flow. Remember that whatever you come up with now isn’t final. So have fun with it. See what you come up with.
4. Start editing
Now for the next part. It’s likely you’ve gotten your poem to a stage where you’re either happy with it, or it could do with some help. This is where you can cut, crop, remove and replace any lines that you think don’t work with ones that do.
That rhyming couplet on the fourth line which doesn’t quite rhyme, and it bugs you –remove it. The simile you used which doesn’t quite capture the rawness of your feelings –strike it out.
Before you do anything drastic though, keep your first draft safe – whether that’s on a laptop, or on a notepad. You don’t want to lose the first thoughts you had. They may come back in handy.
If staring at a now blank space that was formerly filled with an average turn of phrase is grinding on you, here’s a quick tip. In the blank space, write down a few words you want that part of the poem to achieve.
It may be emotions (relief/joy/dismay), it may be situations (rock bottom), or it may be just a simple note to yourself – ‘something punchy’. Sometimes in the editing process, we remove too much of that great impulsive creativity that was captured in our first go of writing. So, as you remove words and struggle to replace them, jotting down what you want to achieve in these parts of the poem may be quite useful.
Remember too that no book, article or poem was ever published after just one sweep of edits. Take your time. Walk away from it and come back to it. Looking at it with fresh eyes will really help.
5. Ask for feedback
This stage is an important part of the process in any creative endeavour. If you’re lucky enough to have friends in the literary world, send your poem over to them for a review. Ask for honest opinions and elements of feedback they may have.
If you’re not in those circles yet, that’s OK. You could also use your work as your ticket to a local writers' group or submit them to online writers’ forums. If you’re feeling confident, poetry slams are one of the best ways to gain authentic feedback on your work too.
There’s nothing wrong with getting the opinions of family members, friends or colleagues on your poem too. Maybe give them a feedback task to do and make any amendments you think are worth it. For example, you could ask them the following questions:
- What emotions do you feel after reading it?
- What were their favourite lines?
- How would they describe this poem to someone who hasn’t read it, in one sentence?
Once you’ve written one, why not write another? You could have your very own collection in no time. If you need a little more inspiration, take a look at Carol Ann Duffy’s course, Writing Poetry .
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On Writing Poetry
There’s nothing more elusive than the emotional charge of a well-written poem. How, we wonder, does a word after a word after a word become so potent as to be felt deeply by the reader and never forgotten?
The idea of teaching poetry leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There aren’t necessarily right or wrong ways to write a poem, and the distinctions can easily be made relative by the reader’s experience.
A poet is someone who burns with emotion, who—in the words of Mary Oliver—has “a mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling” and who cannot bear to keep it in.
Like with any form of art, such as painting and music, there are exercises to practice to artfully compose poetry (see The Practicing Poet edited by Diane Lockward). But rather than attempt to teach you all there is to know about poetry (an enormously time-consuming task), from the basics of meter, rhyme, and form to crafting imagery, developing your voice and style, and creating imaginative similes and metaphors, we would rather spend this time writing about the beautiful possibilities of poetry, and how it acts as a balm for the souls of the writer and reader alike.
If you are new to creating poems, we hope this section convinces you to pick up the pen and explore this delicate and expressive form of writing. If you are a practicing poet, we hope what follows inspires you to keep going.
What is it About Poetry?
Mary Oliver, one of the most popular and widely honoured poets in the U.S., had much to say about poetry. At the end of her book, Rules for the Dance , Oliver writes, “No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonour life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever.”
A poem is a declaration of life. As Oliver says, “Every poem is a statement.” About what? Well, that’s up to the poet—it can be about passions, dreams, failure, life, death, love, heaven and hell, mystery, meaning.
Poetry is music and dance, revealing the magic hidden within everyday language—the sublime within the mundane. It rushes through the body, reminding us that we are made of flesh. It speaks of the human condition, our fragile and brief lives, our finitude. It shares secrets and tells stories. It confesses. It demands. It claws at the ineffable. It names things and gives them colour. It grants awareness and delights the imagination. It’s a secret shared between friends, and if you lean in and listen, and we mean really listen , your life will be all the more vibrant for it.
But as the saying goes, “show, don’t tell.” So, below are a handful of our favorite poems. Hopefully they will resonate with you as they did with us:
- The Moment by Margaret Atwood
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
- The Day by Peter Everwine
- Kiss of the Sun by Mary Ruefle
- You, Andrew Marvell by Archibald MacLeish
Read Widely and Deeply
Do you know the difference between a sonnet and a villanelle? A ballad and a pantoum? A sestina and a blank verse? Can you tell an iamb from an anapest from a trochee?
You may know the answers to all these questions, or you may have no clue. Regardless, there’s no better way to understand the rules of the dance than to read poetry, and lots of it. Reading poetry is like laying the foundation of a house. It’s vital to not only familiarize yourself with the language of poetry, but to understand the tradition of the art form, passed over from one poet to the next.
Mary Oliver has lamented the modern reader’s inability to appreciate the range and complexity of poetry beyond contemporary standards, writing,
“[the reader comes] to poems, frankly, with tin ears. They cannot scan […] They read for comprehension and hear little if anything of the interwoven pleasures of the sound and the pattern of the poem, which are also deeply instructive concerning the statement of the poem, along with the meanings of the words themselves. Not knowing how to listen, they read the poem but they do not hear it sing, or slide, or slow down, or crush with the heel of sound, or leap off the line, or hurry, or sob, or refuse to move from the self-pride of the calm pentameter, no matter what fire is rustling through it.”
A good poet, like a good writer, reads. It’s a simple rule. All the best rules are.
Reading helps the writer in a variety of ways. It connects the writer to the long line of writers that came before them. It allows the writer to observe and absorb a wide range of work, both technical and non-technical, that they may then assimilate into their writer’s toolbox. It acts as inspiration and education. It illuminates the path and offers them a way to move forward.
Read, read, read.
Here are a handful of poetry collections to whet your appetite:
- Staying Alive: Read Poems for Unreal Times , edited by Neil Astley
- The Oxford Book of English Verse
- A Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year , compiled by Jane McMorland Hunter
If you don’t feel like spending money, you can always just browse the Poetry Foundation website .
Imagine a World Like That…
Oftentimes, an unsure poet may try to universalize whatever it is they’re writing about by injecting the poem with what can only be described as desperate sentimentality. One poet may yearn to write a poem about their lover, but end up only writing about love, a vague and unimaginative word. Another may try to put into words how the ocean makes them feel, but end up speaking only of transcendentalism and grand designs.
Neither poet says anything about what it feels like to experience the life they are living.
Voltaire once wrote, “L’art d’ennuyer est de tout dire.” The secret to being boring is to say everything .
Good poems tap into our imagination. Rather than abstract up into the world of notions, strong poems describe what is seen, smelled, heard, tasted, and touched. Great poems are pregnant with imagery and metaphor, delightful ways of explaining the world around us.
“Imagine a literal world,” writes Kim Addonizio in The Poet’s Companion , “in which nothing was ever seen in terms of anything else. Falling blossoms wouldn’t remind you of snow […] The shape of a cloud would never suggest a horse or a sailing ship. If such a world were possible, it would be a severely impoverished one.”
Images haunt. Metaphors paint old emotions and experiences anew. Both are important tools of a great poet.
In his book on style, F.L. Lucas shows “how much ordinary language is built off dead metaphors.” Lucas writes, “Even a seemingly simple word like ‘zest’ has gained its meaning metaphorically; from its literal sense of ‘orange or lemon peel’ it came to be used for ‘flavour, relish,’ and then for ‘a feeling of relish.’ Even our most ideal terms are metaphors with material roots; an ‘idea’ is merely a ‘shape’ […] ‘Spirit’ meant once no more than ‘breath.’”
The benefits of metaphor are many: “Metaphor, above all, can give strength, clarity, and speed,” continues Lucas. “It can add wit, humour, individuality, poetry […] against boredom there are no better antidotes than these qualities that vivid metaphor can often bring.”
Take T. R. Hummer’s poem “ Where You Go When She Sleeps ,” for example. Pay attention to how he describes his love for her—not directly, but through his close attention to the details of her face, head, and body: her bright head and easy breath, her jerking eyelids, her hair shiny “like metal.” The idea of falling in love is compared to falling into “a silo full of oats,” a “gold whirlpool,” that drags you down into the deep rush of that “gold sea.” His use of enjambment and a lack of periods breathlessly carry us forward to the end of the poem. It is a rush—just as we imagine love to be. Just as love is.
We’ll leave you with more poignant words from Mary Oliver: “Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves. None is timeless; each arrives in a historical context; almost everything, in the end, passes. But the desire to make a poem, and the world’s willingness to receive it—indeed the world’s need of it—these never pass.”
For more resources, browse the collection of books listed below about reading and writing poetry.
- A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
- Making a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
- Rules for the Dance : A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Vers e by Mary Oliver
- The Practicing Poet edited by Diane Lockward
- The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
- The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano
Feel ready to submit your poem to Archetype ? Go to our submissions page to review general guidelines and submit!
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How To Write Poetry for Beginners
Getting started writing poetry can seem daunting. We have heard that there are so many "rules" over the years when it comes to good poetry, and while there are certainly rules that make good writing in fact good, poetry is one of those forms of writing that can be much more subjective and "looser" in terms of the rules. However, there are certainly things anyone can do to improve their poetry writing, and this is a worthwhile place to start for beginners who want to take on poetry so they have guidance when they might not know how to approach a poem.
For beginners, and anyone who needs a refresher about poetry writing (or even general writing guidelines) the below points will go a long way in leveling up those poems or give you a place to start if you're ready to get those ideas on paper.
1. Read poetry
Many of the points about writing good poetry for beginners on this list will speak to the art of writing as a whole. Stephen King once said , If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or tools) to write. Reading and paying attention to the writing of others that you admire is a great way to get you thinking about the poetry you'd want to create yourself. Even when you read casually without dissecting the work, it is having an impact on you and being absorbed, even if subconsciously. You can also of course read poetry in a less casual way to truly study the craft, pick up on what other poets are doing with their sentence structure and language, their descriptions, their unique choices with words, etc. This might get you thinking about the types of poems you want to write whether it be in terms of subject matter, sensory details, literary devices, rhyme scheme and structure, and so on. Reading is always the most important thing any writer can do to improve and be inspired. Often when a writer is stuck or experiencing writer's block, the best advice is to read. Inspiration will come soon enough.
2. Ask what the story of your poem is
All writing should have a story. This may be your starting point, or it may unfold after you begin with a detail, image, or literary device . If you don't start with building the story, then be sure to ask yourself what story you are telling once you have the poem drafted. This will inform where to take it next. While reading beautiful words and conjuring images is appealing, the story is where the emotion lies and where the reader will find connection.
3. Start small
For beginners, starting small can be much less daunting. A short poem of a few lines or even less is a good way to get the creativity flowing and become familiar with the poetry form. Try writing a haiku or even a brief reflective idea that may either stand on its own or become incorporated into a longer poem later. Some of the most impactful writing can be short and simple but contain a lot of depth. Simply getting started can be more than half the battle, so don't think you have to write a long narrative to make meaningful poetry. Quality outweighs quantity every time.
4. Write first, edit later
Nothing kills creativity like editing as you are writing. The first draft can (and often should) be full of liberties and mistakes and writing that doesn't even make sense because getting the creative ideas out is what first drafts are all about. Editing is a much more technical part of the writing development, and it can impede the creative process. Don't think about how the poem isn't perfect or you can't find the right word or description just yet. Just write first, the refining and perfecting will come later.
5. Read your poems out loud
Reading out loud helps you pick up on the way the words sound and flow together in ways that you may miss or not realize while reading silently. This can allow you to see if your word choice is working well, if your sensory details are hitting the way you intended, and if your story and point is coming across in the way you envisioned. Reading aloud is important for any type of writing and should always be part of the editing process. This allows you to hear your poems from a reader's point of view.
6. Utilize literary devices
Using tools like metaphor, simile, personification, allegory, and so on goes a long way in writing, but especially with poetry. Poems are often known for being deep or even interpretative. These devices lend to that and invite the reader to think deeply and draw their own conclusions or link their own experiences to what they feel through the use of these devices.
7. Use sensory descriptions
Sensory descriptions are one of the most important aspects of good writing. They are about showing versus telling. This comes down to emotion, thoughts, feelings, and even expressing ideas in simpler ways without outright telling the reader in stiff language. Every few lines ask yourself if these are verses the reader can see, smell, hear, feel, and taste firsthand. If the answer is no more often than not, then you will want to infuse your lines with more sensory descriptions. Always look to appeal to the senses, and this can also go hand in hand with utilizing literary devices. When the two work together truly powerful writing can emerge.
8. Express emotion
As noted, poetry is often known for being deep, philosophical, and interpretative. Even the simplest poems when done well will hold great emotion. If you are using sensory descriptions and "painting" with your words, as well as using appropriate literary devices, and telling a story then the emotion should automatically be felt. This step of good poetry writing results from a culmination of other executed steps that will take the poem to the next level and give it the needed depth.
9. Try writing structured poems that follow a set of rules and patterns
While free verse poetry has risen in popularity in the modern era , there are so many different types of poetry out there that serve as a great starting point for beginners. Some writers tend to do better when they have parameters they must stay within, plus it's a great challenge to get the creative juices flowing. Look up the different forms of poems like haiku, villanelle, quatrain, and so on , all with their own set of rules (number of lines, rhyme scheme, meter, etc.) to familiarize yourself with poetry in all its possible forms. Being able to incorporate versatility into your writing is always valuable, even if you do end up gravitating toward free verse poetry. Free verse has no set of rules in terms of rhyming, meter, and so on, but sticking to the other pointers of what makes good poetry is still important to create words — emotions and story — that will resonate with your reader.
10. Write what you know
Writing what you know doesn't necessarily mean only sticking to topics you know about, though many writers find that's most suitable to them while some want to research and explore new worlds. Writing what you know means there should be an emotional truth that you have experienced and has been part of your life. Even fictional poems, or any work of art, will have pieces of the artist within the creation. So not only should you appeal to emotions with the story you create, but it should contain truths that are part of your experience in one way or another.
Poetry is one of the forms of writing where you can take the most liberties, and many will agree that lots of different types of works can be considered poetry, whereas that isn't necessarily the case with other writing like a novel. Although poetry tends to allow the writer to be freer, there are rules that should always be followed to execute good writing. Along with reading other poets, you should look to connect with poets as well and have a few critique partners available. It's one thing to share writing with people that are part of our everyday lives, but if they aren't writers themselves then their feedback may not be the biggest help to aid your growth as a poet. So, after you get started following these steps, developing your poems, and familiarizing yourself with your voice and form, join a community that will take you to the next level! Now you have the tools you need to begin, and remember not to agonize over the daunting feel that starting can bring. Simply write and worry about refining and infusing emotion, sensory details, literary devices, and editing later on. The hardest part is always getting started, but once you do you'll be on your way to surpassing beginner status in no time.
Header photo by Thought Catalog .
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Writing About Poetry
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This section covers the basics of how to write about poetry, including why it is done, what you should know, and what you can write about.
Writing about poetry can be one of the most demanding tasks that many students face in a literature class. Poetry, by its very nature, makes demands on a writer who attempts to analyze it that other forms of literature do not. So how can you write a clear, confident, well-supported essay about poetry? This handout offers answers to some common questions about writing about poetry.
What's the Point?
In order to write effectively about poetry, one needs a clear idea of what the point of writing about poetry is. When you are assigned an analytical essay about a poem in an English class, the goal of the assignment is usually to argue a specific thesis about the poem, using your analysis of specific elements in the poem and how those elements relate to each other to support your thesis.
So why would your teacher give you such an assignment? What are the benefits of learning to write analytic essays about poetry? Several important reasons suggest themselves:
- To help you learn to make a text-based argument. That is, to help you to defend ideas based on a text that is available to you and other readers. This sharpens your reasoning skills by forcing you to formulate an interpretation of something someone else has written and to support that interpretation by providing logically valid reasons why someone else who has read the poem should agree with your argument. This isn't a skill that is just important in academics, by the way. Lawyers, politicians, and journalists often find that they need to make use of similar skills.
- To help you to understand what you are reading more fully. Nothing causes a person to make an extra effort to understand difficult material like the task of writing about it. Also, writing has a way of helping you to see things that you may have otherwise missed simply by causing you to think about how to frame your own analysis.
- To help you enjoy poetry more! This may sound unlikely, but one of the real pleasures of poetry is the opportunity to wrestle with the text and co-create meaning with the author. When you put together a well-constructed analysis of the poem, you are not only showing that you understand what is there, you are also contributing to an ongoing conversation about the poem. If your reading is convincing enough, everyone who has read your essay will get a little more out of the poem because of your analysis.
What Should I Know about Writing about Poetry?
Most importantly, you should realize that a paper that you write about a poem or poems is an argument. Make sure that you have something specific that you want to say about the poem that you are discussing. This specific argument that you want to make about the poem will be your thesis. You will support this thesis by drawing examples and evidence from the poem itself. In order to make a credible argument about the poem, you will want to analyze how the poem works—what genre the poem fits into, what its themes are, and what poetic techniques and figures of speech are used.
What Can I Write About?
Theme: One place to start when writing about poetry is to look at any significant themes that emerge in the poetry. Does the poetry deal with themes related to love, death, war, or peace? What other themes show up in the poem? Are there particular historical events that are mentioned in the poem? What are the most important concepts that are addressed in the poem?
Genre: What kind of poem are you looking at? Is it an epic (a long poem on a heroic subject)? Is it a sonnet (a brief poem, usually consisting of fourteen lines)? Is it an ode? A satire? An elegy? A lyric? Does it fit into a specific literary movement such as Modernism, Romanticism, Neoclassicism, or Renaissance poetry? This is another place where you may need to do some research in an introductory poetry text or encyclopedia to find out what distinguishes specific genres and movements.
Versification: Look closely at the poem's rhyme and meter. Is there an identifiable rhyme scheme? Is there a set number of syllables in each line? The most common meter for poetry in English is iambic pentameter, which has five feet of two syllables each (thus the name "pentameter") in each of which the strongly stressed syllable follows the unstressed syllable. You can learn more about rhyme and meter by consulting our handout on sound and meter in poetry or the introduction to a standard textbook for poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry . Also relevant to this category of concerns are techniques such as caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (continuing a grammatical sentence or clause from one line to the next). Is there anything that you can tell about the poem from the choices that the author has made in this area? For more information about important literary terms, see our handout on the subject.
Figures of speech: Are there literary devices being used that affect how you read the poem? Here are some examples of commonly discussed figures of speech:
- metaphor: comparison between two unlike things
- simile: comparison between two unlike things using "like" or "as"
- metonymy: one thing stands for something else that is closely related to it (For example, using the phrase "the crown" to refer to the king would be an example of metonymy.)
- synecdoche: a part stands in for a whole (For example, in the phrase "all hands on deck," "hands" stands in for the people in the ship's crew.)
- personification: a non-human thing is endowed with human characteristics
- litotes: a double negative is used for poetic effect (example: not unlike, not displeased)
- irony: a difference between the surface meaning of the words and the implications that may be drawn from them
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
What Style Should I Use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing about poetry. First, when you analyze a poem, it is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs. Second, you will want to make use of numerous quotations from the poem and explain their meaning and their significance to your argument. After all, if you do not quote the poem itself when you are making an argument about it, you damage your credibility. If your teacher asks for outside criticism of the poem as well, you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. A third point to remember is that there are various citation formats for citing both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources. The most common citation format for writing about poetry is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format .
Writing About Poetry
View in pdf format, get to know the poem.
Describe the poem: Before you begin to organize your essay, read the poem aloud several times, noting its structure, meter, recurring images or themes, rhyme scheme – anything and everything which creates an effect. Paraphrase the poem: Again, before you begin to organize your essay, make sure you understand the language of the poem. Poetry, particularly from other time periods, often contains confusing syntax or vocabulary. Put into your own words those lines or phrases which are especially difficult. Resist the temptation to brush over the lines or phrases which seem unintelligible; these can be the most crucial parts of the poem. The Oxford English Dictionary is a good resource for defining difficult vocabulary.
How the Poem Works
Analyze the poem: Since your analysis should make up the bulk of your essay, approach it with care. Knowing that you will not be able to address every aspect of the poem, select the elements which work together to create special effects. Look beyond the surface meaning of the words and start to think about how the techniques used in the poem add depth to its meaning. How do the elements work together? Do they complement each other, do they create tension, or both? Think in terms of cause and effect and look for relationships within the poem itself. For example, if you see a pattern of imagery which suggests something about the speaker, look at other areas of the poem for more evidence along the same lines. In poetry, form and content are inseparable, so you must not overlook the relationship between what the speaker says and how he or she says it.
Interpret the poem: Using your analysis of how the poem works as your evidence, interpret the poem – answer the question, "So what is this poem all about?" In the interpretation, you bring together your analysis of the elements in the poem and show what they mean to the poem as a whole. You may suggest an interpretation of the speaker's state of mind, the poem's subject, or the nature of the experience which the poem creates. For example, does Poe's "The Raven" describe a dream? A drug-induced hallucination? A recollection? Why do you think so? What evidence, from your analysis, supports your idea? The main argument of your paper should begin to take form as you struggle with this process.
You have great freedom in interpreting a poem, provided that your assertions are solidly linked to your evidence. Interpretation that does not align with your analysis will be invalid. In the words of M. H. Abrams, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry , "There is no one, right interpretation of a poem – but there is one which is more right than any of the others."
The multi-faceted nature of poetry demands that you know where you are going before you begin to construct your written argument, which is why the description and paraphrase stages are so important. Your selective analysis emerges from them in the form of an argument that is limited to a manageable set of ideas. After you have thought through these stages and taken good notes, you should be ready to begin writing your essay.
Constructing Your Paper
Thesis: Review your notes. Look for patterns and themes. Formulate a thesis statement that will allow you to explain the relationships and the effects of elements in the poem. If you can, indicate in the thesis the areas or features of the poem important to your argument (a pattern of imagery, for instance, or a series of crucial lines). Remember, your thesis statement must argue a point; instead of simply saying that a poet uses certain poetic devices, you must give some indication in your thesis as to how those devices work and what they do to the poem's meaning. You do not need to go into elaborate detail in your thesis, but do show the relationship between the poem and your argument.
Your first paragraph should make your reader comfortable with the poem by identifying the poet, offering a brief, general description of the poem and, most importantly, leading into the thesis and development of the argument by narrowing and limiting the subject. It may be helpful to imagine the introduction as a funnel, initially appealing to your reader from a wide perspective and then swiftly directing him or her into the body of your essay. Avoid sweeping, abstract statements or statements which you cannot concretely link to your thesis. The more quickly you get away from the general and focus on the specific, the sooner you will engage your reader.
The Development of Your Argument
The approach you undertake in your thesis determines the organization of the rest of the essay. Some arguments lend themselves to a linear presentation. For example, if you choose to trace the development of the speaker according to the recurrence of an image throughout the poem, you might want to go through the poem chronologically to show how that image changes in significance from line to line or stanza to stanza. You need not limit yourself to such a presentation, however. Many poems are difficult to explain chronologically; some poems are better suited to a non-linear argument which reflects cycles or other patterns in the poem. If you organize your argument according to the patterns you choose to address, your argument might move through the poem several times, according to the instances of the images and their contextual significance. For example, one word may have a formal relationship to numerous other words in the poem. The word "snow" has a relationship to the word "flow" in that they rhyme, and to the word "ice" in that they are both associated with winter. To discuss the significance of these relationships, you may find yourself jumping around the poem. That's fine, as long as you make your argument clear and keep your thesis in sight.
Each paragraph should consist of a point which is credible, relevant to your thesis, and analytical. Remember that you are arguing for a certain position and need to convince your reader of that position. At the beginning of each paragraph, tell your reader the focus of your argument in that paragraph by starting with a topic sentence. The rest of the paragraph should address the assertion with convincing evidence. The effectiveness of your argument depends heavily on how well you incorporate evidence into your paragraphs.
You cannot create a compelling argument without evidence to back it up, but you must present that evidence in the context of your own argument. Merely including a line or a passage in your paper without linking it to your argument will not be convincing. Try incorporating your evidence into a "sandwich" of information which will allow your reader to receive the full impact of the lines. Before the quotation, describe the evidence in terms of the poem. Where is it located in the poem? Is it part of a pattern? Let your reader know what he or she should be looking for. After the quotation, if the passage is particularly difficult to understand, you should explain problematic syntax or vocabulary. Then, you must analyze the quote and show how that quote supports the claims you are making in your thesis. This is the most important part of your paper; it is where you make your interpretation clear to the reader and where you prove your thesis. Don't assume that the quotation will speak for itself—it is your job to explain it.
Be sure to cite your evidence properly. Citing from a poem is different from citing from a prose text. Because the line form of poetry is so important, you must indicate where lines end by separating them with a slash mark "/". If you are quoting more than three lines, single space the passage, indent, and present the passage as it appears in the poem. Follow the quotation with the appropriate line numbers enclosed in parentheses (see English Department handout on use of quotations and citations, available from the department office and the Writing Center).
Conclusions take many forms. In your conclusion you can emphasize crucial ideas, raise questions about the poem, or connect the poem to other literary works or experiences. This is where you can offer your interpretation of the poem, which by now should be convincing to your reader since you have presented your evidence in the body of the paper. You may raise new ideas in a conclusion, provided that they are solidly linked to the development of your argument. Remember, you have flexibility, but your conclusion should flow naturally from the body of your paper.
- If you have the choice of which poem to write about, pick one you like.
- Read the poem aloud. Your ear will notice things your eyes miss.
- Notice the way the poem looks on the page. The form of the poem may reveal something about the way it works.
- Be careful to make a clear distinction between the poet and the speaker. Even in poems that are written in the first person, you should be careful not to assume anything about the speaker that the poem itself does not suggest.
- Let your interpretation follow your analysis – avoid making unsupported assertions.
- Be selective with your evidence. Limit the length of your quotations to a workable size. Passages longer than a few lines will be impossible to explain in a single paragraph.
Enjoy the Poem!
Poems are artistic expressions that demand that you appreciate them before you begin to reduce them to something explainable. Often, the most brilliant elements in a poem are very subtle and will be felt before they are understood. Remember, you are not just explaining what a poem does, you are explaining what it does to you. You are the medium in which the poem comes to life. Writing about poetry offers you a special opportunity to interact with a work of art.
by Seth DuCharme '92
Office / Department Name
Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
Writing Center Director
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