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4 Steps for Writing Successful Poetry

Updated on December 16, 2012

I believe that anyone can write successful poetry, and you don’t have to be a professional to do it.

Most poets have real jobs. Unless you write rap or song lyrics for musicians, writing poetry is not going to pay the rent. Most poets don’t even consider themselves poets. I certainly don’t. I happen to have a gift for words and phrases, and I’ve applied those gifts to two dozen novels. If it weren’t for poetry, I don’t know if I’d have any novels. I integrated eight poems into my first novel, and most of my second novel’s characters were originally characters in a series of dramatic monologues I published here and there in small literary magazines.

When I was growing up, no one ever taught me how to write a publishable poem. My teachers drilled me on the different types of poems, but no teacher ever said, “I’m going to teach you a way to write poetry that has a great chance of being published.” But when I became a teacher 28 years ago, I vowed that I would help my students get their poetry published—and many have.

Open your mind to a different way of writing poetry, and I guarantee it will spill over into all of your writing to make it tighter, leaner, and meaner.

Use concrete nouns to solidify your poetry.
Use concrete nouns to solidify your poetry.

What every successful poem should have

I read Poet’s Market cover-to-cover many years ago and made a list of what publishers of poetry expected then. I doubt much has changed. These publishers demanded that every poem have:

  • a picture or image that tells a story
  • music that is harmonious—or discordant
  • condensed language

These publishers wanted their readers to see and hear the concise poems they published. They expected poetry submissions to be visual, rhythmic, and to-the-point.

Even a snail moves--your poem should, too.
Even a snail moves--your poem should, too.

The elements of a successful poem

According to these same publishers, a successful poem:

  • has action
  • has drama
  • shows, not tells
  • draws a concrete picture
  • has a “curve” or memorable ending
  • is noun-driven with few adjectives or adverbs
  • exhales a unique voice
  • has no ornament but honesty

Something has to happen in a successful poem. A successful poem should tell some kind of story. Poets should suggest, not sledgehammer their readers. The overall effect of a poem shouldn’t be forced, faked, or copied.

Be like a camera on a tripod and take it all in.
Be like a camera on a tripod and take it all in.

Five “must” statements for writing successful poetry

1. You must have an impulse to create.

Daily life provides plenty of impulses, but it’s up to you to wrench these impulses into art. If you don't feel particularly creative, try sitting in one place and absorbing everything around you. Then like a camera on a tripod, swivel and make lists of everything and everyone around you. You may not find the poem in the scene, but the poem in the scene can find you.

2. You must practice receptivity.

Rid yourself of involvements. Seek solitude, chaos, or something in between—wherever you are most creative. Don’t try to think, and don’t try not to think. Consider it meditation with a pen in your hand or a laptop in front of you.

3. You must turn your ideas into concrete images similar to the images in your dreams.

Think about the last dream you had. Wasn’t that dream full of nouns? I know some poets who write out their dreams, edit them to make them “poetic,” and send them for publication—and get published often.

4. You must write down or type images in any order.

Poetry is not a science. Poetry is not linear. To me, writing the first line followed by the second line ad infinitum is boring and stressful. Let loose. Don’t worry about that first or last line or any particular line for that matter. Your lines will fall into place, and that first and last line will eventually float to the surface as you play with words.

5. You must arrange the images so they say something.

This is the pickiest step, but it is extremely important. What is it exactly that you want your images to say to your reader? How exactly do you want your readers to experience your images? Will you vary your line lengths, use stanzas, write in three-line bursts—what?

Like a smash-up derby, slam images together until they stick.
Like a smash-up derby, slam images together until they stick.

Four steps for creating successful poetry

1. Observe and write down images.

This could take minutes, hours, days, and even months to do. I record what I see, taste, hear, touch, and smell, and I rarely record anything in a linear fashion. If I see a squirrel, I describe the squirrel. If a woman says something like “You don’t know gold dust from diarrhea,” I write it down. If I smell food, I try to taste it in words. As I take poetic notes, I rarely have any specific poem in mind. I let my mind (and pen) wander. I have a thick journal full of images and phrases, a veritable word-picture album. These images are the raw material for my poetry, and I mine it repeatedly. Sponge up life, include all the drippings, and avoid linear thought.

2. Slam complementary or matching images together, squeezing out the weakest images.

A weak image is one that doesn’t appeal to any of the senses. If your reader can’t sense it, the image has to go, even if you feel it’s part of your best line. Consider your poem to be a puzzle you’re trying to assemble. Sometimes you have to turn a piece three or four different ways to get it to fit. The same goes for poetic phrasing. If it doesn’t work one way, try it another. The collision of phrases isn't always pleasant, but you may have some happy accidents.

3. Rearrange the images to look good.

Experiment! Check out the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti or e e cummings. They thrived on experimenting with the presentation of the poem. Play with line spacing and length. Use stanzas of varying densities. Get visual with the actual type. Consider your computer screen a canvas, and the poem is the painting.

4. Remove any word or phrase that isn’t absolutely necessary.

I look for “deadwood”—articles (a, an, the), adjectives, and adverbs. I once though I needed my articles, adjectives, and adverbs. I wanted my reader to see The blue-eyed, freckled three-year-old boy flying joyfully on the noisy swings at the pitifully crowded playground. Remove the articles, adjectives, and adverbs from the previous sentence, and what do you get? Boy flying on swings at playground. Though the image is sparse, it has become “evergreen” and universal. By removing what isn’t absolutely necessary, readers will be able to see any child they want to see flying on those swings.

After I have completed these four steps, I leave the poem alone and let it simmer for a while. Then with fresh eyes, I do a final edit and ready it for submission to a literary magazine or e-zine—or a Hub on Hubpages.com.

If you follow the previous four steps, your poetry will become visual, rhythmic, and to-the-point—the kind of poetry that any poetry magazine will seriously consider for publication and readers will enjoy every time.

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    • ExpectGreatThings profile image

      ExpectGreatThings 4 years ago from Illinois

      Thank you for writing this. As I was reading I started believing I was one of those students you had promised to help get published. It's fun to me that you wrote a LIST of things to remember while writing poetry, and you still managed to leave creative images in my mind. This line will stick in my head: Sponge up life, include all the drippings, and avoid linear thought.

    • multiculturalsoul profile image
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      JJ Murray 4 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      If we expect great things (to steal your moniker), we will get great things--eventually. These steps really work with reluctant poets.

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