Ten Tips for Writing Poetry
Strategies for Original and Innovative Poetry
If you want to write anything, you're going to need peace and quiet. Turn off the radio, turn off the TV, shut your door, put your cellphone on silent - whatever you need to do to ensure that you're not going to be disturbed.
If the silence is too deafening, put some music on that is solely instrumental, or grab a soda and a bag of chips - things that can add white noise and movement, but won't distract from your thought process.
Solitude also helps because when you're alone, you're you. You're not impressing anyone, smiling for anyone, frowning at anyone, etc. Some people like to go outside to write, to sit at the edge of a lake, to go on a ferry, or hike up into the mountains. While this is a wonderful strategy for some people, I find it actually makes it more difficult for me. I like to be at home, looking at the things around me from my life, the memories. It's those things that you probably want to write about anyway, the things "close to home" that mean something to you. Mountains and lakes are wonderful, if you're a park ranger, but for the average urbanite, the home is the best writing environment.
A lot of people think poetry is entirely writing about romantic love, or writing about suicide/death. I have two problems with this:
- If you've never experienced romantic love you should not be writing about it, unless you're writing about how you've never experienced romantic love.
- If you've never experienced death you should not be writing about it, unless you're writing about a specific death - someone in your family, an acquaintance, people from 9/11. If you're writing about your death - something you've never actually experienced because you are, in fact, still alive - then you may want to consider a counselor. By all means, write poetry, but also see a counselor.
MORAL: Write about things you KNOW about.
Not only that, write about things you care about. People spend an awful lot of time in contemplation over flowers and sunsets, which is all very well and lovely, but who cares? Unless you have some deep emotional connection to flowers and sunsets, save your pen for a worthier subject. Perhaps you are a botanist or a meteorologist. I give you leave to write about flowers and sunsets.
If you're wanting people to read your poetry - and eventually most people do want that - then you have to know that people will be able to tell how good your writing is based upon how they perceive you feel about the subject upon which you are writing. Write about things that are important to you.
A lot of people think that if you have an "excess" of emotion, then you're emo. If you have an excess of emotion at any point in your life, you're human. That being said, some of the most moving poetry seems to be intentionally devoid of emotion. Poetry is not always about explosions of emotion. On the contrary, I have often found it to be more about the quiet moments.
THAT being said, you have the freedom to choose any emotion you want. I'm a person that has problems dealing with anger. So when I'm angry, I generally sit down at my computer (or, if there is no computer available, pull out my handy-dandy, ever-present journal from my suitcase-sized purse) and plunk out whatever it is I'm feeling, that way it's out of me, in front of me, and it's almost like I can edit the emotion. Not change it, but step back and look at it, and see what I'm really feeling, what the real issue is. In that sense, poetry is therapy. Or, poetry is clarity. Which can seem oxymoronic, considering the obscurity and indiscernability of some poems.
Grab hold of something you feel - anything you feel - and write it.
That first word. If I could only figure out how to start, I could write anything. The nightmare of anyone who loves language: the notorious blank page.
Any easy way to start is to simply write down the word of the emotion you're currently experiencing, or reflecting on. Example: Happiness. Wonderful! Now I have a word on the page. We have our emotion, now we need our connection. I'm going to think of happiness, think of a time when I was happy. Hmmm....okay, I got something. Example: Sunshine. Wonderful! Now we have two words on the page! Okay, so when was a specific time that I can remember where there was sunshine and happiness? Swimming at Baker Lake. Six words, we're on a roll!
Let's re-cap. We have:
- An emotion: Happiness
- A connection: Sunshine
- Specific connection: Swimming at Baker Lake
Now we're ready to write a poem! Well, almost.
We have the skeleton, the frame, for our poem. So...now what? Better yet, so what? Here's the part where you become a poet. There are a number of different points of departure from here, and you have to choose where you want to go. Before we get into formatting the poem, let's talk about the purpose of it. Why is this an important thing to write? Why is it important to share? Why should people care about this? If you can't answer any of those questions, then you're probably writing about the wrong thing. Here's my answer:
- I want to write about the happiness that sunshine brought while I was swimming at Baker Lake because I find that I have become so busy, and so continually stressed and stretched, that it is important for me to remember, to remind myself, that there are simple moments; where floating on the water with the sun on my skin made me happy.
If you were able to answer any of those questions to a satisfying degree, you are ready to move on.
You could write a sonnet, a quatrain, something with an abcdabcd rhyme scheme. You could. Or, you could write however you darn well feel like writing. I enjoy rhyming as much as the next person, but I like rhyming in unexpected places. There's something called "internal rhyme" where words rhyme within the same line, instead of at the ends of specific lines. With "formatted" poetry, there is a sense of predictability.
So I suggest "freestyle" poetry. The lines end where you want, the words rhyme - or don't rhyme - where you want, punctuation, font size, word location, every little thing is intentionally placed. This is the type of poetry where, when you go back to read it, there is something new, something different, every time.
Because I like this style so much, we're going to continue on with it.
There are a few things I keep in mind when I'm writing poetry, besides emotion, connection, and relevance. Fluidity and imagery are important. Something that is not essential, but is a tool I use quite frequently, is something called alliteration, which is a repetition of the initial, or consonant, sound. For example, I used the phrase "knolls of Not-Remembered" in a poem a few months back. The word "knolls" and the word "not" have the same sound, and they are in close proximity to each other. This is an option you can use to stress a point, an image, etc.
I also use line breaks or blank spaces to interrupt or stop the flow of a thought. Sometimes I intentionally break off a train of thought before I conclude it, making the reader create their own conclusion. Sometimes the blank space alludes to a conclusion, and there is something you are supposed to understand by the intentional "leaving out" of some words.
Another tool I take advantage of quite frequently is dialogue. I speak, or a "character" or someone speaks, but generally it's in stream-of-consciousness;
I need to tell them, but my mouth is full of gauze, and I want to gag on the blood
coalescing near the bottom of my tongue,
and they realize I'm trying to speak but I can't speak and I want to tell them
this happened last time, I was cold, and shaking, and
I couldn't stop shaking, and I couldn't remember, I couldn't remember last time,
or now, I can't remember, I was sitting there, nodding, and now I'm here, shaking,
and it was like this last time
only last time blood was pouring from my head, not my mouth, the gash in my eyebrow,
not the holes in my jaw,
last time was an accident, last time there were lights and people and ice-bags and wheelchairs
and a really really bright light and Tess, Tess Hodges was there, I don't know why,
and yellow iodine, must've been iodine, my face was yellow and red,
this time it's clean and I don't remember a thing,
and it's okay, they tell me, and stop shaking, I tell me,
and it's cold.
So there are a few tools you can utilize as you begin to write your poem.
It's time to start adding some meat to the skeleton we created earlier. We have emotion, connection, relevance, and tools to tie it all together. Now we need the words. Your words are your own, and while emotions can be universal, and anyone can use the tools that anyone else uses, the words you write belong to no one else but you.
So you've got your first draft. Congratulations! It's probably crap, right? That's the beauty of revision; everything can be made better. This one's called "The Game"
It's a game of battered people biting bruised lips in the night
hoping more pain will relieve the pain of last night's knock-out fight
so the bruises turn to blood-clots and they burst in sheer delight
freed from their fleshly castles to die out in the light.
It's a sick and twisted living, it's a perfect poisoned kiss
and we lick all of our bruises with a moan or sudden hiss
and our bodies cannot take more, but we pound them all the same
and nightly wring them out until we're dry and crumbling.
See, the pain is a reminder, a sharp and urgent cry
that the world is unforgiving and that loved ones always die.
But the pain proves that we're still here and that we have not yet succumbed
though we want to, though we beg to, though we're deaf and blind and dumb.
It's a game of misfit toys tacking limbs on from the dead
and the pain washes the noises that claw inside your head.
So we fight and scrape and brawl and bleed with every breath
to exorcise the spoken words that cannot be unsaid.
For the night is long and dark and the fight goes on and on
but as long as we taste blood, we postpone the denouement.
So turn your cheek, it's yet unbruised, so I can place my hand on you
and mark your skin and share my pain and shed some of this suffering.
We've died a thousand times, I think; at least we've gotten to the brink
and come back with more memories gone, but peace eludes, so we move on.
It's a game of battered people, and we're battered you and I.
Perhaps one day the game will change, no more an eye for eye.
One day the battered people won't be biting bloody lips
but rather moving smoothly in a sea of perfect bliss.
Perhaps there is a coming day when the fight loses its sting,
perhaps one day we'll rest again, perhaps we will take wing.
Note, if you can, the use of alliteration, breaks, imagery, word-choice, or any other tools you can find. Now, revise it.
The last step. You've revised your poem, looked at it a dozen time, walked away, and walked back, and considered it. Now it is flesh and bone, it has movement, it has words, a voice, it can say something. You have a finished creation.
Congratulations. You are now a poet.