French writer Gustave Flaubert once said, “There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” But it’s not always easy for us aspiring poets to find that purely abstract “particle of life” and transform it into a more concrete chain of evocative words and images. And so, the ever-persisting question remains: how do you write good poetry? What aspects of a poem do you need to consider, develop and flesh out before you can begin your actual process of putting words on paper?
Here are the first five of our nine essential steps to get you started today…
1. Have an overarching concept
In other words, think of a main idea that will encompass the entirety of your poem and essentially act as the framework through which you choose the most fitting words and phrases, and arrange them into the most fitting structure. This is especially important if you’re looking to write a suite of poems, because the overarching concept ultimately becomes the strand that will link and unite all your poems together into one cohesive collection of works.
Start with something broad, for instance, ‘love’, ‘freedom’ or ‘identity’, then attempt to narrow it down into more specific (and therefore less vague) ideas like ‘familial love’, ‘escapism’ or ‘self-image’. It may be worth pursuing concepts that are not only personal, but also universal, so that what you write is both relevant and relatable to your readers.
Look here for an exhaustive list of basic concepts you could potentially explore.
2. Derive smaller themes from your main concept
If you delve into the works of celebrated poets like Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost and Gwen Harwood, you will see that their poetry (more often than not) consists of several recurring themes – some more ‘concealed’ than others – that run alongside one another.
Let’s consider Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. While the prominent and most conspicuous concept Frost appears to examine is the turmoil of making choices in life, we could argue that he is also much more subtly exploring the “irrational” nature of our so-called “life-shaping choices” (in the words of American literary critic Frank Lentricchia), suggesting that there is no such thing as “choices” because every road we take on our life journey is “the road not taken”.
It might also be worthwhile experimenting with juxtaposition; consider the possibility of creating interplay between opposing themes, such as life and death, or youth and adulthood. For example, in her poem ‘At Mornington’, Harwood writes,
We have one day, only one
but more than enough to refresh us
Here, she alerts the reader to the imminence of death in “one day, only one”, yet subsequently utilises the disjunction “but” to convey to us the rejuvenating nature of memories which “refresh[es]” the persona and paradoxically brings life to the dying. In this way, Harwood is able to cleverly juxtapose the theme of death with the theme of life, and ultimately bring about a third theme of rebirth into her poem.
In saying this, exploring more than one theme really does give you the opportunity to create nuances within your poems and build greater depth in your writing.
3. Consider your audience and purpose
Ask yourself: Who are you writing the poem for? Are you writing for yourself or are you writing for someone else? For your friend? A family member? For aspiring poets of this world? Remember that you can also write for multiple audiences.
And of equal importance is: Why are you writing the poem? Are you writing to inspire, or to simply turn your thoughts to words? Perhaps you’re writing to raise awareness on a current social issue? Or maybe you’re just looking to bring a smile to that stranger’s face? Whatever your reason, the important thing is that you have one, because your purpose is the impetus that will propel your poetry writing forward. As writer Kelly Gallagher says,
…what he writes is driven by why he is writing.”
4. Choose your form
Form is essentially the medium through which we communicate our concepts, themes and ideas to readers. There are many kinds of poetry, ranging from more fixed verse forms like sonnets, haikus and sestinas, to less rigid styles of poetry such as free verse, found poetry and concrete poetry.
By far the most popular form in contemporary times is free verse poetry, which involves no particular set of established rules. However, as poet Ezra Pound noted in his famous Imagist manifesto, “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” This is also applicable to free verse poetry. When writing free verse, you are in effect creating your own ‘rules’ or structure.
…in free verse, the line on the page has an integrity and function of its own. This has important consequences for the movement and hence the meaning of the words.”
An interesting form that’s also worth a mention is found poetry, which is most suitable for those who enjoy collecting words from other texts. In this style of poetry, you physically ‘find’ your words from non-poetic contexts – letters, newspapers, magazines and so on – and arrange them into a collage of meaning and emotion.
Prose poetry is similarly fascinating, and appears to be quite an oxymoron at first sight. This form of poetry is in fact a combination of poetry and prose, using the normal typography of prose while maintaining elements of poetry, including rhythm, imagery and sound devices (more on these poetic features in Part 2 – coming soon!). A prime example of this is French poet Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Being Drunk’.
Yet poetry is not just restricted to the written form; performance poetry has become an increasingly popular method of communicating your interpretation of either your own poem or someone else’s poem to a live audience. In performance poetry, it is absolutely crucial that you consider not only what you will recite, but also how you will recite it. Look here for some examples of performance poetry.
Since there is such a myriad of poetry forms, it is a good idea to experiment widely and frequently. As the creative writing website William Victor suggests,
Try breaking the lines and different ways and compare the effects. Try changing the order of things. Try reorganizing things to move different words to the end of the lines so that the reader’s attention goes to them.”
5. Lines and stanzas
Stanzas are the groups of lines within a poem; the gaps between stanzas are called stanza breaks. Two-line stanzas are known as couplets; three-line, as tercets; four-lines, as quatrains.
While you could potentially fit all your sentences neatly into each stanza, it may also be worthwhile trying to let some of those sentences flow across stanza breaks as a way of creating tension and movement. This technique is known as enjambment. Ted Hughes employs such a technique in his poem ‘The Thought Fox’, like so:
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
By using enjambment, Hughes cleverly leaves the words ‘bold to come’ in suspension, and this, as British author Richard Webster points out, almost seems to reflect the fox’s act of “pausing at the outer edge of some trees”. The stanza break thus becomes the clearing itself “which the fox, after hesitating warily, suddenly shoots across”.
While you may not think so, deciding on the possible number of lines and stanzas you will use in your poetry is in fact a crucial step to take in your planning process, because this decision will ultimately help you determine the length of your poem. In this way, you can have a clearer idea of whether you’ll be capturing your concept and themes in a few short stanzas, or whether you’ll stretching it out into a comparatively longer poem.
So as you can see, there are quite a number of things you’ll need to brainstorm on and think about before you begin the actual process of writing poetry. And once you’ve covered those things, the next question to ask is: what elements should you consider when you do start composing your poem?
The answers will be coming soon! In the meantime, devise some awesome concepts, experiment with form and structure, and stay tuned for the upcoming Part Two!