Writing Poetry Tips, Part One: What Can I say?



I've been involved in many poetry workshops over the years but the one I'm currently involved in at my local community college is certainly the most interesting. There's a student with Aspbergers who is rude to everyone and does not like it when we like his poetry, there's a grandmother and her grandson, there's experienced poets like myself and a bunch of inexperienced ones. Everyone (myself included) seems eccentric, which is fitting of a poetry class.

I've been writing poems since I learned how to pick up a pen and write and through years of practice and trial and error, I feel I've become a good writer and while I have a lot still to learn, I'd like to share what I have learned and pass it on to you, with the understanding that I am merely an experienced novice.

I'm not sure how many of these hubs on writing poetry I do, but I know there will be a few. I'd like to focus the first one on what is okay to say (and not to say) in a poem.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath | Source

"Stopped Dead" by Sylvia Plath

A squeal of brakes.

Or is it a birth cry?

And here we are, hung over the dead drop

Uncle, pants factory Fatso, millionaire.

And you out cold beside me in your chair.

The wheels, two rubber grubs, bite their sweet tails.

Is that Spain down there?

red and yellow, two passionate hot metals

Writhing and sighing, what sort of scenery is it?

it isn't England, it isn't France, it isn't Ireland.

It's violent. We're here on a visit,

With a goddam baby screaming off somewhere.

There's always a bloody baby in the air.

I'd call it a sunset, but

Whoever heard a sunset yowl like that?

You are sunk in your seven chins, still as a ham.

Who do you think I am,

Uncle, uncle?

Sad Hamlet, with a knife?

Where do you stash your life?

Is it a penny, a pearl--

Your soul, your soul?

I'll carry it off like a rich pretty girl,

Simply open the door and step out of the car,

and live in Gibraltar, on air, on air.

October 19, 1962

"As the Cat" by William Carlos Williams

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty


"Is it okay to say 'f*ck' in our poems?"

The above question was asked in our poetry class and it really took everything in me not not burst out laughing and hurt the question askers feelings. The question showed me that the asker of the question had very little understanding of what poetry was. IN hindsight, I'm glad the question was asked (and that I didn't laugh), because the question showed that the asker wanted to learn how to write better poems but also because it really got me thinking about what poetry is.

Poetry is a form of art where language is used to paint a picture. As such, a poet has in their arsenal every word in the world, no matter the language. You wouldn't ask an oil painter to only paint with primary colors. You wouldn't ask a sculptor to sculpt without a chisel. No matter how crass. No matter how ornate or how simple, words are your medium. To ask you not to use a word is to ask you to do your art without all the tools.

Is it okay to say "f*ck"?


Is it okay to say "horse"? You betcha.

How about "Dandelion?" Sure, if you must.

You're a poet. Your pen and the words that come out of it are your paintbrush. You need to paint the picture that you want your reader to see. It's possible that "f*ck" is the right word to paint that picture, it's possible that it's not. You shouldn't be afraid to use any word and if you write your poetry, or anything really, worried about offending people, then your writing is going to suffer from a lack of personality a lack of genuineness and, thus will lack any sort of lasting impact. Assume that your readers are discerning and intelligent people. If you want to let them know that a specific poem contains harsh language (as I usually do) then that's fine, but don't be afraid to say what you need to say and use all all the words you know to do this.

Look at the Sylvia Plath poem to the right, specifically the bold portion. While I loathe the taking of the Lord's name in vain, look at how the words "goddam" and "bloody" impact the poem as a whole and set a specific mood. What if those two words were taken out? Read it that way and see how the mood changes. What if she'd used different words, like "cuddly baby" or even "damn baby"? If you substitute either of those words into the poem, the impact and mood changes. The use of the expletives shows the anger to be much more seething and severe, then not swearing. Use the words you mean to use and your poem will be stronger. It's important to remember, you can always edit later, but it's important to get that first draft down without thinking too much, to let the creative juices flow.

Use Words You Know and Use!

Try not to use a thesaurus. I do only on rare occasions, usually only to make sure I'm using a word correctly. I'll go more into that in a later HUB on this subject, but, try to avoid fancy or overly poetic languge. our poem should sound like you or it may run the risk of sounding phony.

Look at the poem to the right by Modernist poet William Carlos Williams. While the poem works because of the form, (we'll discuss form in later installments), it also works because the language is very simple. Each word is chosen carefully and there is no colorful language. What if the poem read like this:

"the cat,

orange and naughty,

creeps agilely from the shelf upon which he was perched

and, with each tender paw,

one by one,

left and right

as if he were a soldier marching into battle,

steps into the flowerpot,

which is a most devious and naughty thing."

In this case, too many words and the impact intended by the author is lost. We don't need to know what the cat looks like or why he is doing it, what he is doing is what is important to the poem. Less is more. Choose the right words and choose the right amount of words. This takes practice, proofreading and honest critiquing, but it's necessary to writing.

Don't use antiquated words like o'er, e'er, nevermore, evermore, o', woe, and other words simply to make your poem sound poetic. It usually makes your poem sound lazy and uninspired. They are lazy words. They are not words used in everyday speech, which makes them difficult to hear and understand with any sort of meaning. There are better words. Use them. If you're worried that your poem doesn't sound like a poem, fancifying the language isn't going to help.

Read your poem out loud and have it read to you. if it doesn't sound natural, doesn't flow, then consider reworking it and changing the language.

I hope this helps you to not be afraid of saying what you need to say in your writing. I hope this helps you to choose your words carefully and to not be afraid to simply let the words flow!

Until next time, ta ta.

Thanks for Reading.

PDXKaraokeGuy, also known as Justin W. Price, is the managing editor at eFiction horror. Husband to Andrea, father to two dogs. writer.poet.baseball fan. tattooed. He is am amateur theologian with a rabid sweet tooth. He resides in a suburb of Portland, Oregon.He has a poetry book available for Amazon Kindle, and also maintains a blog, FirstBlog. His work has been featured in the Crisis Chronicles, efiction Magazine, The Hellroaring Review, the Bellwether Review, eFiction Humor, and the Rusty Nail. Please visit his profile page for more information. Thanks!

Other Sources for Writing Poetry

Need a Critique or Edit?

That's what i do. Contact me for rates and services.


More by this Author

Comments 59 comments

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks a lot, lovedoctor. I'm pleased that you found this useful.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks, Jim. I've heard it said that the right word to use is the one that works best. it's a Catch 22 but so true. You don't sound poetic when you say "thee" and "thou"... you just sound trite.

profile image

lovedoctor926 4 years ago

Useful tips for beginners like me. voted up..

xstatic profile image

xstatic 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

Great advice Justin! This is very much to the point and really interesting. Some other words that just don't hit the mark in contemporary poetry are "thee and thou." I am a big fan of direct every day language in poetry and the image created by the use of words creates the poem.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks Kos. I'm pleased you found this useful!

Koshaugh profile image

Koshaugh 4 years ago from Indianapolis

As someone that enjoys reading and writing poems I found this hub interesting. Thanks for sharing!

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

audra, hopefully you can learn more than a thing or two! Thanks for stopping by :-)

profile image

iamaudraleigh 4 years ago

Justin, I could learn a thing or two from you...I like this hub! Voted up!

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks Till. i always enjoy a fresh revisit :-)

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks so much, Kimberly. That means a lot!

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

My Minds Eye, I recently wrote a poem where I overplayed alliteration on purpose. If someone has a good enough grasp on the language, they can get away with something like that. But, it's easy to spot an amateur that way as well. I'm glad your professor understood the humor :-)

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

Stopped by to re-read to let your good advice soak in!

profile image

kimberlyslyrics 4 years ago

Fantastic Hub

Thank you

voted way up!

My Minds Eye53 profile image

My Minds Eye53 4 years ago from Tennessee

I have never taken a class in poetry and I just started Haiku recently. I have been writing story telling poems and limericks for eons. I won a poetry contest with a poem that had a little forcing of words. The judge thought it was funny and knew I had done it on purpose. Otherwise I agree with you on that.

I do have to say that while in college, I had an art teacher who, on more than one project would only allow us to use primary colors. It taught me how to mix colors and understand them more.

Interesting Hub, voted up.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks Alecia. nothing is effective if it's overused. profanity is not exception... Thanks for reading. Always a joy to see you!

Alecia Murphy profile image

Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

You make a great point about the f-word Justin. It's effective when used properly in any context and I've heard it in poetry without being alarmed or startled. It's all about like you said using words you know.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thanks B.A. There's nothing worse, to me, then a poem where rhyme is clearly and unskillfully forced! Thanks for reading and commenting!

B. A. Williams profile image

B. A. Williams 5 years ago from USA

Well said! Liked the bit about not adding words like ye and nae just to rhyme too.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Frank, I certainly understand what you're saying I don't like vulgarity either, but I don't view vulgarity as merely just the words being used. I also view them as the context and appropriateness of those words. Sometimes the best word that fits is a traditional "curse word". If it fits, I don't consider it vulgar, but I can see where some do. I appreciate your comment!

Audrey, LOL at your comment. Brilliant, like your poems!

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 5 years ago from California

I just thought I would chime in with regard to "less is more"--I am a fan of brevity in writing--especially in poetry--and again, just have to tell you what a great article this is--(was I brief enough?)

Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

The good things about your hubs.. is that you leave an open end to disagree.. Poetry and Poets write poems in verse with language selected for its beauty and sound.. it should be like the art of writing stories, thoughts and making them into verses.. using vulgar language.. ruins the beauty in poetry's motion... but nevertheless good hub.. Frank

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Till, I am also quite chatty, to the point where IK annoy myself, but I take pride in saying much in few words in my poetry. I wish it was a skill I had in real life. I also have a really short attention span so I don't really enjoy long and superfluous poems!

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 5 years ago from New York

I too am struck by the "less is more." Being a real "chatty cathy" myself it is hard to limit my words. Great information. Thanks PDX.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Audrey, it certainly does. That's why I almost always revise 3 or 4 times before i feel a poem is publishable.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 5 years ago from California

Great hub PDX! And you are right--word choice affects meter and color and feel so much--

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

missolive, that's a good point about sculptors and such, but I still think it's a good example.

i do use the thesaurus on occasion, but never when I'm writing. Usually when I'm writing, I just let it flow. if there is a word I want to consider changing later, I usually mark it with a star or put it in parenthesis. That was I can let it flow without being bogged down by language. Sometimes I don't change it at all, sometimes I do. but I try to get the word from my own vocab. the key, though, if you use a thesaurus, is to not sound like u used one :-)

Thanks for reading and commenting!

missolive profile image

missolive 5 years ago from Texas

ok - I made it. I've actually read this hub a few times and have neglected to make a comment - sorry. My life is a funky blend of organized chaos.

I honestly like the points you are making here. There are just certain words that just have greater meaning and depth and if it is a derogatory word well - so be it! It is what it is. I like the poems you provided. They support your point nicely. Poetry can add some interesting pressures for a writer. It challenges you to think out of the box while luring you into the old standards of rhythm, rhyme and verse. It can be hard to break away at times. I must admit that I am thesaurus dependent, but I like reflecting on how different words would change the meaning. I did disagree with something. Artists, sculptors and even dancers are challenged to create with limitations within their respective workshops. This helps evoke creativity and challenge the standard while creating a new perspective. Writers can become repetitive with their themes and tone - perhaps we need to challenge ourselves in the same way -- but how?

I've already bookmarked this and will be rereading it again. Great insight and perspective - glad you shared it.

I might add another comment later after I contemplate a few things and get some much needed rest. Not sure if what I wrote is even coherent at this point. :)

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

GYpsy, please send me a private message with a few links to those, if you could! I'm very interested!

Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

In regards to my dad you may like to look at Memories of a Poet but there are some other hubs I wrote which mention him. Their all in my True Stories group if you're interested.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Sue. Thanks for stopping by. I agree!

profile image

Sueswan 5 years ago

Great hub.

Less is more.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thank u for your support Lyns. I'm glad you found this useful and thanks for taking the time to read, share and comment

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thank you newday. I'm torn on williams. Sometimes he seems overly obtuse, but, for what he was, he was good.

lyns profile image

lyns 5 years ago from USA

Excellent, and so true hub about poetry and poems, it's amazing with me I have always said that writings is words painting a story, it's a distress reliever, healer, and divine relaxation art, your class mates that get upset sometimes, one day they will get it when they learn how much of an art writings truly is. Thanks for sharing this hub. I voted up, interesting and awesome...

profile image

newday98033 5 years ago

Hey PDX, you are a very good writer, thank you for the compliment! I have to admit I like your cat poem more than Mr. Williams'. However I'm not a big fan of his.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Movie Master, thanks so much for your support and I'm glad you got something out of this. You may be able to find a poetry workshop on craigslist or on writersmarket.com

Jha- thanks. I didn't know that, but it makes sense. It seems like a good way to test your chops.

newday: Thanks for reading. I couldn't agree more. Im constantly revising (even stuff that's published) and reading. It's really the best way to improve. You're a very good writer so that advice means a lot coming from you!

Gypsy, I'll do that. Do you have a specific one you'd like me to look at?

Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

My dad has poetry books which have been published but as I mentioned they're in Latvian. However you can take a look at the things I've written about him Devoted to Poetry and Memories of a Poet. There are also some other hubs on both my parents in my true stores group.

profile image

newday98033 5 years ago

I agree with most of the above, thanks for posting. My advice is to write and read. Never be afraid to change what you've written and, with regard to poetry, usually less is more.

jhamann profile image

jhamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

Thank you for this hub. I like how you included the poems of Plath and Carlos under the photo section of the capsule, very inspiring. I love community college courses, by the way did you know that a community college course is what helped Plath with the beginning of her journey, that and her husbands infidelities.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Thank u, Snakes. They are two of the best. Ironically, they both died the same year too

Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

I would love to take a poetry class, but I reckon this must be the next best thing!

Interesting and good advice, I'm bookmarking and voting up.

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

Nice write PDXKaraokeGuy, love that you included the Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams pieces for examples. Regards, snakeslane

epigramman profile image

epigramman 5 years ago

..by the way my friend - could you give me a 'quick' recipe for 'gringo tacos' - thanks buddy.

lake erie time 10:36 pm listening to the Beau Brummels

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Interesting hub-I enjoyed the description of the other classmates, LOL That is a hub all in itself!

Great tips and examples here. Thanks!

Ardie profile image

Ardie 5 years ago from Neverland

I second what Vinaya says! Now Im nervous posting anything I refer to as poetry...I have no formal writing classes/instruction and I do not know form, type, rhythm or anything like that :P I've been writing poetry since I could write too - but this November is the first time I've put any out for others to read!!

Keep writing hubs on how to write poetry and I'll keep reading them to learn!

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

Gypsy: Who was your dad? Is he published? I'd love to read him!

Frank: Thanks for saying so. I wrote it to be useful, and also to vent!

Dim: Thanks. I will. I love learning, especially writing skills.

Epi- Thanks for the share and for the eager anticipation. I'll try not to disappoint!

Thanks to you all for stopping by!

epigramman profile image

epigramman 5 years ago

....love your hub subject here and yes you can sing karaoke at my hub bar anytime - lol - and now I will sit front row in your next class and seminar on this sweet poetic science - or is it just good old fashioned artistic spontaneity - either way I will be posting this most essential and definitive hub on this genre to my FACEBOOK page with a direct link back here - more people gotta see/read this.

lake erie time ontario canada 1:43pm

Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 5 years ago from Great Britain

Great hub. Keep enjoying those classes

Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

this was very useful two thumbs up :) Frank

Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

I found this especially interesting since I enjoy writing poetry and my dad was a famous Latvian writer and poet Eriks Raisters. I wrote a hub about him - Dedicated to Poetry. Now I can't write like my dad - he wrote mostly in latvian and wow his poems are good. I write like you said about what I know and try my best to express myself. So what else can I say? Have a great day!Just don't go away.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

@ Always. I'm sure if you do some kind of search on craigslist, you may find a group or two. I also offer critiques at $10 a poem or 5 for $40. I offer 1/2-1 page critiques which are much more in depth and helpful then anything I can offer on Hubpages.

@Fastion- indeed I do. I have not read that book, but I will look it up. reading out loud is always helpful, no matter what genre you're writing in. it helps you decide if your piece sounds natural and if it sounds the way you want it to sound. Check out the books I linked too in my HUB. They are very helpful.

@ Alicia. I'm very glad you found it helpful. I want everyone, myself included, to write better poetry!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

I loved this hub, PDXKaraokeGuy! It contains a lot of very good advice. Voted useful and interesting.

profile image

The Fastionista 5 years ago

Nice hub! It sounds as if you've got some good characters from your class to use as fodder for future writing too. :) That's great advice about reading your work aloud to really hear the flow of the piece; I work more with novels than poetry, and reading aloud is a technique I use too, but I would imagine doing it with poetry really pinpoints the rhythm of the language. Have you heard of the book "Poems Poets Poetry" by Helen Vendler? Wonderful book. Thanks for the hub - voted up and interesting!

always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

Hey, I learned from this. I wish i could take a poetry class. Our college doesn't offer it. I've thought about taking a course on line..Maybe i will..Thank's for the info..Cheers

ubanichijioke profile image

ubanichijioke 5 years ago from Lagos

Quite interesting and useful. Absolutely remarkable piece!

Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

I just saved a draft of poetry on hubpages. After reading your take on poetry writing, I will like to consider my composition.

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska Author

@ Debby, I'm glad you enjoyed. Thanks for reading

@ Hattie- indeed. but if I'm writing a poem about how angry I am, I don't think saying "dangitt" or "shoot" will convey that anger. I've heard poems at some poetry slams that make even me blush! Thanks for stopping by!

HattieMattieMae profile image

HattieMattieMae 5 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

Awesome hub! Sylvia Plath had a lot to say, watched her movie, and struggles she went through! She was a sensitive soul, as we all are! :) Ha! Ha! for fuck! It's a funny think in one of my open mic groups, I hear a lot of poets write about that, as well as sex. Even was told in my ordinary poems, if Hattie would just stop being shy she would right good erotic poetry. I'm sure I could, but I think for me I can write just aboaut anything, but what message do I really want to convey, and so maybe determines what your purpose and mission is, and what kind of poetry feels right and like a glove! :)

Debby Bruck profile image

Debby Bruck 5 years ago

Thank you, Justin. Learning from you is fun. Deb

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

    Justin W Price (PDXKaraokeGuy)744 Followers
    230 Articles

    Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award- nominated author based out of Juneau, Alaska.

    Click to Rate This Article