How to Write a Poem for Homework

Facing the Issue

We've all been there, at least when we were young and graded. You have an assignment due, and you need help writing a poem for English class. Your teacher gives you a set number of lines and words per line, and you're left feeling like Stan Laurel in a Hitchcock film, sorely out of place. Writing a poem might feel like a punishment to a stressed-out student, but it doesn't have to be as difficult as developing dramatic acting chops overnight. The essence of most contemporary poetry is pretty easy to understand and imitate. In my English classes, when I'm not pulling my hair out by the roots, I discuss a simple way to approach the writing of free verse poetry.

The Body and Mind of a Poem

Keeping the writing process simple is the key to success for a struggling poet. Over-analyzing can lead to frustration and a heap of balled-up paper in the trash bin. Assuming that you aren't required to use a strict meter or structure for your poem, your focus is just on content. You can think about a poem as two halves. A good poem essentially has a body and a mind. These two parts interact with each other the way your body and mind interact; one keeps your poem grounded and one gives your poem purpose. This can be a little confusing, since it's true that a poem comes entirely out of your head, but trust me. The principle behind the body and mind of a poem is sound. 

Keeping it Real

A poem's body is its central concrete object. This is what keeps the poem grounded. Choose a thing that doesn't have obvious symbolic value, such as a flag or a casket. This will help you to avoid cliches later on. A concrete object is a thing that you can theoretically touch (the sun qualifies, for example, only in theory). I'm choosing a 1987 Ford Escort.  On a piece of paper, draw two columns and write the name of your concrete object as the heading on the left. Beneath your object, list as many physical qualities about it as you can. Try to keep your list concrete--that is, don't get into feelings or ideas. Every physical detail you come up with about your object will act as as a little anchor for your poem. With enough concrete details, someone reading your poem will be able to relate on a "real" level. Remember to consider color, size, shape, surface, sound, smell, interior as well as exterior, temperature, brightness...you get the point. Just keep it earthy.

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Now Use Your Head

A poem's mind is its central abstract idea. This is what gives your poem purpose. Without a central idea, your poem is just a description of an object, and no one's wowed by that. Choose an idea, an emotion, a concept. It really doesn't matter what you choose, because if your choice doesn't work well, you'll know pretty quickly from the lack of detail in your second column. Write your word at the top of the right hand column, and then make connections across the paper. Connect each physical detail you came up with to the central abstract idea you've chosen, and fill the right-hand column with the results. For example, if one of my physical details is "rusty" and my abstract idea is "guilt," then I think about how rust might reflect guilt. Guilt can be old and scarring and flaking off in pieces but always coming back. Guilt might eat away at me. Guilt might make me appear haggard and worn. You get the point. Don't expect to come up with a solid connection for each physical detail, especially if you're new to poetry. All you really need is around five connections to write a short yet effective poem.

Body and Mind Together

So you have all the details you need to write your poem. Use your abstract idea as your title. Refer to your central concrete object in line two or three. Break at least one of your connections into two separate lines, in order to complicate the pace of your poem. Once you've written out around five connections, end your poem with a synonym/similar idea to your title (don't use the actual word!). Working in this order ensures that your poem will suggest purpose throughout, but will also remain grounded and somewhat mysterious. If you need an example, check this out. I wrote this just now, in about three minutes. It's not going to win any prizes, but it certainly does the job:

Guilt


Flaking off in pieces, crumbling;

Somehow my '87 Escort keeps on getting me

where I need to go.

Loudly backfiring when I meet new people,

its dents and scratches only make it that much more comfortable.

I have been driving this for what seems like ages:

an aging, faded, carriage of rust

and remorse.



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