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

Writing Poetry - Notes

What is poetry?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines poetry as:

Literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm

As a 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.

It 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--

Choosing what to write about

A 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.

If, 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.

Some 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 clich├ęs. 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.

Choosing a form

Once 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 poetry

A 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 centuries.

Meter

Meter 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.

The 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!"

In 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:

Consistent:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;

Alternating:

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.

Rhyme

The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines rhyme as:

Correspondence 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.

This 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.

It 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:

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;

"Apple" and "supple" don't strictly rhyme, but their effect here gives the impression that they do.

A 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.

Structure

There 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 doesn't work.

Certain 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)

Because 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.

Formal Poetry or Free Verse?

There are advantages to using formal structures. They can:

  1. Impress the reader with a your skill, your ability to create variety within order, and they are obviously "poems" - any reader can recognise them as such.
  2. 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.
  3. Provide a sense of completeness impossible in free forms. It's absolutely obvious when the last word clicks into place.
  4. Enforce dignity, emotional power and density of meaning, when well done.
  5. Be easier to remember.

But there are disadvantages too. Strict forms are:

  1. Taxing to write, requiring a greater investment of time, and excellent literary skills.
  2. Much more likely to go wrong and appear contrived or incompetent.
  3. Less appropriate to the informal nature of much of contemporary life.
  4. Confining, often forcing the thought, emotion or message to be subservient to the form.

    And, last, but not least:
  5. More difficult to place in the better literary magazines or with publishers.

Free Verse

Free 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.

Often, things are described as free verse which really don't fit into the category at all. Remember:

Line breaks in
Odd
places and a
weird format do not
turn a sentence in-
to a POEM

This 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.

Free 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 and walking.

Choosing the words

Once 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?

Whichever 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.

Be influenced by other poets, but do not imitate

The 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.

Shakespeare 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.

This 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.

Don't 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 rubbish."

Be 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.