These are the notes for a two hour lecture/tutorial I'm giving on how to write poetry. They are accompanied by a selection of readings, and writing exercises, but this is the bulk of the lecture
Poetry - Notes
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines poetry as:
that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific
emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound,
working definition, this is probably as close as we can get - the thing about a
poem, a real poem, is that you'll know it when you see or hear it, not because
of the rhyme and structure, or the beauty of the language, but because the
specific arrangement of particular words emphasises and intensifies the meaning,
message or emotion that the poet wanted to get across.
is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and
see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes
him that he has taken an immortal wound - that he will never get over it. That
is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It hasn't to
await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten
it, but that we knew at sight we never could forget it. --Robert Frost--
what to write about
poem isn't the medium for every message - in fact, I'd suggest if what you want
to convey doesn't immediately say 'poem' to you, you'd probably be better
writing it as prose - not that prose is easier, but it is a lot more flexible.
There is, of course, nothing to prevent you from using 'poetic language' in
prose - James Joyce barely did anything else - but the prose form doesn't impose
the same structural limitations as a poem.
however, you've decided to write a poem, and are seeking a subject, you need to
look for something that lends itself to the limitations and constraints of the
form - one emotion, a single startling insight, a moment rather than a lifetime
- in general, a poem is a scene or a still, not a whole movie.
subjects lend themselves to poetry much more easily than others - love, pain,
death, war - intense emotions or events - subjects that are more simply
distilled to an essence. Of course,
this makes it all the more difficult to find something original and fresh to say
and to avoid well-worn clichés. If
you are writing on these topics you
need to look inside yourself and analyse what the subject means to you.
Because your own experiences are unique, if you can find a way to put
those into words, your poem should, itself, have that uniqueness.
you've decided that you definitely want to write a poem, and what you are going
to write it about, you'll need to decide what structure you are going to put
around the words. We don't have
time in this session to explore the many different poetic forms that exist, so
I'm just going to look at the key division - formal poetry (that which adheres
to rigid rules of meter and structure and usually rhymes) and free verse (that
where the structure is determined by the key thoughts and ideas in the poem).
formal poem follows a strict structure - either a specific format for the
particular type of poem (such as haiku which
has a three line structure with five syllables in the first line, seven in the
second, and five in the third) or a consistent meter and an established rhyme
structure. These are the poems we
are most often taught at school, and have been the norm for a number of
is the pattern of stressed and
unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. The
meter is the rhythm set up in the mind (and ear, when read aloud) of the reader
by the arrangement of these syllables on each line. The term is used in the same
way in music, to indicate the number of beats to a bar.
pattern of stresses results from the way, in spoken language, where two or more
syllables are said together, one syllable naturally tends to receive a stronger
emphasis than another. (stressed syllables are bold)
e.g., a-lone, un-a-ware, con-tempt-ible, ea-ger
"You must be kidding!"
formal poetry, the lines are divided into feet consisting of a stressed syllable
and usually one or two unstressed ones. The pattern of feet may be consistent on
every line, or may alternate:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
Meriam-Webster dictionary defines rhyme as:
of sound in the terminating words or syllables of two or more lines, one
succeeding another immediately or at no great distance. The words or syllables
so used must not begin with the same consonant, or if one begins with a vowel
the other must begin with a consonant. The vowel sounds and accents must be the
same, as also the sounds of the final consonants if there be any.
definition is the purest form of rhyme, but the perception that this is the only
way to rhyme is probably responsible for more forced rhymes and awkward word
ordering in poetry than anything else.
is possible to use a "slant rhyme" instead - something that isn't a
strict rhyme but sounds like it to the ear, when used in the right rhythm.
Take the following example, from Arms and the Boy, by Wilfred Owen:
his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
and "supple" don't strictly rhyme, but their effect here gives the
impression that they do.
final option, which should be used sparingly, is to actually repeat the word, as
W.B. Yeats does in He wishes for the cloths of heaven.
are countless ways of structuring rhyme in a formal poem, from simple rhymed
couplets, to things where rhymes progress with inherited terminal syllables from
stanza to stanza (as in Stopping By
Woods On A Snowy Evening) the key here is to establish a structure and keep it
consistent throughout, you simply can't chop and change in a formal poem - you
may be permitted to use two rhyme schemes, but shifting with every stanza
forms are more widely used than others, particularly the pattern ABAB -
If I should die, think only this of me: (A)
That there's some corner of a foreign field (B)
That is for ever England. There shall be (A)
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; (B)
it is what we hear most in school, this is almost how we define "a
poem" subconsciously, and nearly all poets beginning to experiment with the
structured form will default to either this pattern or to rhyming couplets.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it is therefore often seen as the mark
of the beginner, and it's essential to experiment with other patterns too.
Poetry or Free Verse?
are advantages to using formal structures.
Impress the reader with a your skill, your ability to create variety within
order, and they are obviously "poems" - any reader can recognise them
Help with the actual writing of the poem, either by prompting you to find words
in your subconscious to meet the requirements of meter or rhyme.
Provide a sense of completeness impossible in free forms. It's absolutely
obvious when the last word clicks into place.
Enforce dignity, emotional power and density of meaning, when well done.
Be easier to remember.
there are disadvantages too. Strict forms are:
Taxing to write, requiring a greater investment of time, and excellent literary
Much more likely to go wrong and appear contrived or incompetent.
Less appropriate to the informal nature of much of contemporary life.
Confining, often forcing the thought, emotion or message to be subservient to
last, but not least:
- More difficult to place in the better literary magazines or with publishers.
verse is poetry that is based on the irregular rhythmic cadence or the
recurrence, with variations, of phrases, images, and syntactical patterns rather
than the conventional use of meter. This
does not mean that a free verse poem lacks structure, but rather that the
structure is based around the concepts of the poem, instead of the number of
syllables in a line, how many
stresses there are, whether and where rhyme is used. Rhyming free verse is not a
contradiction in terms, but where rhyme is used, it tends to be less rigid than
in more formal poetry - this is where you can start to chop and change structure
to suit your subject matter.
things are described as free verse which really don't fit into the category at
places and a
weird format do not
turn a sentence in-
to a POEM
is why it's essential to know what a poem is and the rules of meter, rhyme and
structure, before you start to break them.
verse doesn't constrain you in the same way that formal verse does, but it must
still flow like a poem, drawing the reader on, evoking a sense of rhythm,
organization (loose but not lost) and inevitability - in the same way that you
are dancing when you go to a club, even though the dance doesn't have the same
strict moves as classical ballet. Poetry and prose are as different as dancing
you know what you want to say, and the form you want to say it in, you get to
the nitty-gritty - your diction or the actual words you choose.
Will you be direct saying what you want to say in everyday language, or
oblique, using metaphor to convey the message?
you choose, you need to be looking for new, fresh ways to express yourself. If
you want to indicate that you feel lonely, miserable, that you'd love to die,
you need to do it in such a way that your reader doesn't shrug and say "Oh
no, not more angst." You can use direct words - but use them to evoke the
feeling, not to describe it. If you want to use a simile to describe the person
you love look for something unusual - for example, make something black as Guinness rather than coal or a raven's wing.
influenced by other poets, but do not imitate
first step to learning how to write good poetry is to read it, and every poem
you read will, in some way, influence your own style. However, if you
consciously imitate the poets you admire your poems will at best, become good
parodies of theirs, and at worst will simply look contrived and artificial.
is dead. So is John Donne, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, W.B Yeats. Yes,
they were wonderful poets. Yes they could capture a feeling and express it
beautifully. But they used
their own voice to do it.
doesn't mean that you shouldn't write a sonnet, but writing "Thy beauty
holds me in its thrall" is probably a good sign that you are not using
your own voice or calling on your own experience. You are much more likely to be
showing off how well-read you are.
assume that because T.S. Eliot tended to write without rhyme, rhyming poetry is
bad. Don't take a well
structured narrative poem, remove all the capitals and break it up into lines of
three or four words just because that's how e.e. cummings writes.
If you write a poem "just like Wilfred Owen" your reader is
less likely to admire it than think "derivative
influenced. Experiment with
the devices you see your favourite poets using - try odd line-breaks or broken
meter. But in the end, if the
poem isn't said the way you would say it, it isn't your poem - it's just a
shadow of somebody else's.