So You Want to Be a Poet? How to Write a Poem
Understanding Poetry - Rhyming, Meter, and Form
The literary world of the 21st century is consumed with one thing - poetry. Don't believe me? Take a look online at all those teenage poetry contests spilling out of page after page of Google results! Poetry has really lit a fire underneath many a teenage writer, and honestly I can't complain. What better way to improve the state of America than to get teens active and involved in an education-based hobby?
As a fiction poetry moderator (and a poet myself), however, I'll let you in on a little secret. Poetry these days isn't what it used to be. Standards have fallen slack, and anything that has a pretty, concise-looking (and usually center-aligned) format automatically becomes poetry - no questions asked. With no standards for true prose any more, it's no wonder that 94% of teens can't tell that their "poem" isn't anything of the sort.
That's why I'm here, your humble English major armed and ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of what REALLY makes a poem (and what REALLY doesn't). Having taken 2nd place in the Minnesota poetry contest and having received the Award for Writing Excellence (in addition to numerous other published pieces), I'll guide you through the basics of poetry so that you'll have one knockout piece of literature!
Step 1: Pick Your Form
First, Cover the Basics
Whenever most writers compose poetry, they generally do it through one of three basic forms. For the sake of time and space, let's just cover those three - the ones you'll use most often. They are:
Now, think about the poem you are writing. Do you want to write something that rhymes or something that doesn't? If you want rhyme, you can go with rhymed (imagine that!). If you absolutely detest trying to rhyme (which most people do), then you'll want to aim for free verse or blank verse - we'll cover this more in a moment.
Do you have your form picked? Good! Let's get going to the next step.
Read Up on Your Poetry!
Step 2: Find Your Rhyme - If you're writing blank or free verse, skip to step 3. Lucky you!
If you're writing a rhymed verse poem, let's get down to it. Rhymes are more than "bad, dad, fad, glad." Writing rhymed poetry means that you've opened up huge possibilities to take this poem anywhere you want it. You are free to establish your very own "rhyme scheme."
So...what's a rhyme scheme?
A rhyme scheme is a pattern of rhymes within a poem. It's usually represented by letters, like this - AABBCCDD. That means that the last word of every line labeled "A" will all rhyme with each other. All "B"s will rhyme, and so on. I know that sounds confusing, so look at an example of an AABB rhyme scheme from an excerpt of my poem, "Tempest."
The dark of night could not disguise (A)
The fervent flame of sailors' eyes. (A)
That night, they warred against the sea (B)
And maelstrom sang her melody. (B)
Can you see how the "A" lines rhyme with each other? That's the rhyme scheme. Now, here's the great thing - you can set up the scheme however you want! Many people write ABAB (every other line rhymes), but that's entirely up to you. Here's another example of a different rhyme scheme - AAArefrain - in an excerpt from my poem, "The Drakes of Wind and Water."
In speedy flight beneath the moon,
They screamed their call with the river's tune,
Then dove to strike like a fierce typhoon,
Those drakes of wind and water.
In this, the first three lines of every stanza rhyme, but the last line is always the same in every stanza. Make sense? Set it up however you want!
A word of caution - a rhyme scheme must be uniform! ABBAABBA is fine, but don't go pulling this ABEDBADECCAD. What is that? There's no rhyme or reason (no pun intended).
You still hanging in there? Good. We've got one last section to tackle before your work can truly be considered a poem!
Words of Wisdom from Poetry Greats
"Therefore" is a word the poet must not know. ~AndrÃ© Gide
Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition. ~Eli Khamarov, The Shadow Zone
Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted. ~Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821
Step 3: Watch Your Feet!
Meter - the Terrorist of Poetry
Yes, it's true. Poetic meter is the evil genius that thwarts every young poet at some point in his career. Thankfully for you lazy free verse people, you don't need to worry about meter. You DO, however, need to be careful about free verse poetry, because this form is the one that is grossly misused the most. Sentences are not allowed - free verse is poetry in as few words as possible!
Anyway, for you blank and rhymed verse people, meter will likely be the most difficult part of the process. Are you ready?
Meter can be defined as the rhythm of a sentence. A very good example (and one that my English teacher always loathed) can be found in this excerpt of James Whitcomb Riley's "When the Frost is on the Punkin'" -
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence....
Can you hear it and feel it? Doesn't it feel...bouncy? That's meter. To be more specific, it's the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a sentence. A stressed syllable looks like this - / - and, for the sake of this lens, we'll say an unstressed syllable looks like this - U.
I won't go into too much detail, because it can get quite confusing. Here's the bottom line - meter is broken up into the literal "meter" and "feet."
Feet are how the syllables are arranged. To make it simple, let me show you an example of all the types of feet and give you a word or phrase that shows it.
U/U/ - "...and maelstrom sang her melody." (and MAELstrom SANG her MELody)
/U/U/ - "...ever waning moon." (EVer WANing MOON)
/UU/UU - "...anxiously telling her story." (ANxious ly TELLing her STOry)
UU/UU/ - "...and I went and I jumped." (and i WENT and i JUMPED).
Can you see the stressed and unstressed parts? Those are poetic feet. Every poem except free verse NEEDS this kind of meter. You've made it through the most difficult part of poetry! Now that we've got that covered, let's go into the other part of meter than a poem needs - numbered meter.
Meter is very simple - it is just the number of times you repeat a foot pattern in a sentence. The example I'll give you is the most common poetic meter used - iambic pentameter.
This is an excerpt of Robert Browning's famous poem "My Last Duchess," which is written in rhymed iambic pentameter -
That piece a wonder, now: FrÃ Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"FrÃ Pandolf" by design, for never read.
Can you see each U/ in the lines? That U/ foot pattern is called an "iamb," and from that we get the term "iambic." We get the word "pentameter" from "pent" (which means five) and "meter" (the number of times a foot is repeated per line). Let's put that into English - the iamb (U/) is repeated five times per line. That means each line has 10 syllables. That's iambic pentameter!
If you're still with me, I applaud you for making it this far through a very dry article. Now, to wrap things up -
Those writing rhyming verse can decide which foot AND which meter to use. Just make it consistent.
Those writing blank verse have it a little harder. Blank verse must be written in iambic pentameter, and it does not rhyme!
Top 5 Things NOT to Do in Poetry
- DON'T center align regular sentences and call it poetry!
- DON'T make things rhyme without having meter!
- DON'T put a comma at the end of EVERY line of poetry!
- DON'T leave the first letter of each line of poetry lowercase - capitalize it!
- DON'T be afraid to put some love into your poem!
Too Many Rules?
Some people think that poetry has too many restrictions that keep people from being creative; others think that the rules are all part of the art. What do you think?
Do you think that poetry has too many rules?