On writing poetry – how to write terrific poems

Here are some tips on learning about poetry, finding your unique voice, and writing terrific poems.

Preparation & Inspiration for Writing Poetry

Read as much contemporary poetry as you can.

Those who read little poetry rarely succeed as poets. (Just as those who don’t experience a wide variety of foods rarely succeed as chefs, and those with little experience running don’t win marathons.)

Go to your local library or large bookstore and immerse yourself in what you find on the poetry shelves.

Learn about the wide range of poetry that is written, and what styles & messages appeal to you, and get inspired. Read carefully to see how the poet uses rhythm, metaphor, rhyme & other poetic methods. Figure out what makes the poems successful.

You’ll find it easy to find contemporary poetry you enjoy. But, in case you need a place to start, try:
Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Edwin Romond, John Ashbery, Don Share, Charles Simic, Sharon Doubiago, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Edwin Romond. (There are lots more! Learn about other contemporary poets at Poets.org.)

Read the best poetry of previous generations.

Read as many other classic poets & writers as you can. Digest their work, & be inspired.

By learning what came before, you will better understand contemporary poetry and where it came from. And, I bet that you’ll find you actually enjoy some of this type of poetry. It’s not all as stiff as you might imagine.

16th, 17th & 18th Century Poets, including William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Blake.

The Romantic Poets, including William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe.

The French Symbolists, including Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé Paul Verlaine, Paul Valery. Like those listed above, these poets were great influences on many of the modern poets.

20th Century poets such as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, H.D. & Marianne Moore

For more 20th experimental / modernist work, check out E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy.

Beat Generation poets & associated poets. Some are still living, writing & publishing. Those no longer with us include: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch. Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima & Lawrence Ferlinghetti are still writing. Check ‘em all out.

Read other stuff too!

When you’re reading something other than poetry, take note. If you find confusing or stale sentence, take a closer look to see what makes it that way. How could the writer have made it better?

When reading good writing, note how the writer puts his sentences together, how he chooses words, and how he paces his writing. You can learn from things like that. How did he write that stunning sentence?

Be alert & think like a writer.

Great ideas, phrases, & words are everywhere. Carry a small notebook & pen to write down your ideas, and things you come across in your life that you may be able to use. Write down names, titles, catchy phrases, interesting combinations of words, overheard sentences….

Inspiration comes from many sources. Visiting an art museum or gallery, reading an art book, taking a drive in the country, or taking a walk might be good ways to jump start your creative juices.

Tips on Writing Good Poetry

Write every day.

Yep, really. And I don’t mean writing emails or tweets or texts or blog posts, the stuff we all do every day. I mean purely creative writing. You don’t have to write a poem, or a story every day – those things can take time. But at least write an idea, a few lines, a paragraph, or a page.

Try to do it the same time every day. Maybe carve out an hour before the kids are up, or late in the evening when you won’t be distracted. Do it for yourself, and for your art.

If you write every day and you will find yourself writing better, enjoying it more, and your art will grow. And, I think you’ll find that it’s great for your state of mind as well.

Be authentic. Be true. Use your own voice.

Don’t emulate the style of the Romantic Poets. And, don’t try to write a poem that sounds like Allen Ginsberg wrote it. Every poet soaks up influences, and finds inspiration in other poets. That’s the way it should be. But the goal is to write a poem that sounds like you wrote it. Nobody else. Allen Ginsberg sounds like himself – not Walt Whitman. And many of the Beat Poets greatly admired Keats & Byron. But they didn’t write like them. They were true to themselves.

One mistake many beginning poets make is to use outmoded words (for example, “ere,” “o’er”); those oddball words will really stick out. Use words that you actually use in everyday speech. Doing so will make your poem ring true. Using outdated words brings the reader out of the experience.

To put it another way — modern poetry isn’t flowery. Mostly, it uses the language of everyday life. What do you want to say?

Stay away from cliches. Writing a poem about love that includes roses and sunsets isn’t very original. Yes, we all like those things! But instead, do something no one’s ever done before. Try not even using the word “love” in your love poem. Think of a particular time or place when you were in love, and draw from your own, unique experiences. Was there a basement window, a pottery wheel, a soup kettle, or a bicycle? How did you feel? Remember details.

What were the situations where you felt love? (I bet it wasn’t just when your sweetheart brought you roses, but maybe when she thoughtfully detailed your old clunker, went out at 2 a.m. for cough syrup, had your back in a frustrating situation, or said something startlingly perceptive.)

What did you smell, touch, move, see, imagine? Be a storyteller. Take us there.

It takes a while to find your voice and to find ways to make your poetry reflect what’s unique about you. For some poets it takes years. But that’s what you should be working on. Get in touch with what it is deep inside you that needs to be said, and what sounds just right to your ear.

Be specific.

This one is related to the item above. Or, maybe it is really the same thing.

If you’re thinking, “My father worked hard and was a family man,” don’t write that.

Instead, write about how your father came home from a long day of planting raspberry vines. Write about how the squeaky oak plank on the back porch let you know he was home for the night, and how his tired, scarred hands gently tucked you into white cotton sheets and soft chenille covers on a cool spring evening. Write about how you remember hearing the muffled sound of the living room radio, and your mother’s laugh after your father’s voice said something you couldn’t make out from your dusky bedroom down the hall.

Read your work out loud.

You may be surprised to find that your words sound different when read out loud than they do in your head. Read your work out loud. Record it if possible. Read it several different ways.

Listening to how your work sounds aloud will show you what’s working & where some adjustment (perhaps in word, line break, rhythm) would make all the difference. Keep reading & recording until you are happy with the finished result.

Try to attend a poetry reading given by a poet whose work you’ve read. You’ll see that poetry springs to life when you hear it read, and you’ll often pick up on subtleties in the work that you missed while reading. It can be a revelatory experience.

Understand the terms “Beat,” “free verse,” and “modern poetry.”

While these types of poetry have less stringent requirements than traditional, formal poetry, it’s not true that anything goes.

Don’t be careless or artless. Poetry is more than prose written in short lines, and every word should be there for a reason.

Ask yourself if there is a good beat, if the meter flows, if the line breaks make sense, if the layout works, if the words & phrases used serve the poem as a whole.

There is a misconception that Beat poetry is completely spontaneous, and that Kerouac never revised his work. That’s incorrect.

While he did write some poems & fiction spontaneously, Kerouac certainly did revise his work, as did the other Beat poets. Why not polish your work until it shines, too?

Experiment with poetic forms & meter.

Though much contemporary poetry is free verse, many modern poets do write in forms, considering it a springboard for their creativity.

Poetic forms include sestina, haiku, sonnet, ballad, cinquain, villanelle, and many others.

Meter – whether regular or irregular – is important in nearly all poetry, and having a good feel for it will take you a long way.

The various types of meter are many. (Search “poetic meter” on Google to learn more.) All poets write with some sort of meter, whether regular (or intended) or not.So, try your hand at some different varieties. While you may find this a challenging exercise, you will be a better poet for having done this.

Experiment with (and without) rhyme.

Though there are certainly exceptions, most modern poems don’t rhyme at the end of each line.

If you are inclined to write rhyming poems, why not experiment with other ways of doing things?

For example, use unrhymed lines, or internal rhymes (using rhyming words in the middle of a line). Some forms require a particular type of rhyme as well.

You can Google “types of rhyme” for more examples of different types of rhyming.

Check your spelling, grammar & punctuation.

A poem written with inconsistent style, poor spelling, using awkward sentence structure, or that is poorly punctuated seems amateurish.

So, look closely. Have you used “your” where “you’re” should be? “It’s” where “its” should go? Have you capitalized words correctly? If you’re not sure, look them up or show your work to someone who is good with such things.

It’s true that not all poems use the rules that are used in prose; some don’t use it at all. But, when abandoning things such as punctuation or capitalization, you should have a strong reason for doing so. Don’t do it because you think it looks cool, but because the poem actually works better that way. It should be necessary in some way.

Experienced poets don’t consider a poem finished until spelling, grammar, punctuation & other issues are just right, and would never submit a poem for possible publication if it had any errors. This is something you can learn from them, and it is, unfortunately, something many beginning poets miss. (And it can keep your work from getting published. Editors tend to quickly dismiss any sloppy submissions.)

Let it stew a while.

After you’ve finished your poem, put it away for a while. In a couple weeks, come back to it & view it with fresh eyes. Does it still work? Where is there room for improvement?

Again, read it aloud and see if it still sounds right. Probably something is still slightly amiss. Revise again.

It’s a rare poem that can’t benefit from some tweaking; most go through a few drafts. You might even find that only a few lines (or even one!) are really working. That’s OK! If that’s the case, Why not write a new poem around them?

Helpful Books on Writing Poetry

Over the years we’ve come across some especially good books about how to write terrific poems. While we don’t carry them here in the shop, they’re available at a discount from Amazon.com. Just click the links for more info.

And, if you’d like to publish, check out some Books about Publishing Poetry.

How can I get feedback on my poems?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Connect with other local poets who can give you feedback on your work. Perhaps you could join (or form) a local writer’s group, or hold a weekly salon.
  • Various online poetry groups (Facebook, Yahoo Groups, etc.) offer opportunities for poets to get critiques on their work, and read/critique the work of others.
  • Online poetry and writing forums also offer a great way to get feedback on your work and learn from other poets. (See the suggested links below.)
  • Take classes and workshops with poets you respect. A good class won’t aim to tell you how to write, but rather will guide you, offering suggestions, exercises & advice.
  • Attend poetry readings & open mike nights in your area. And, when you feel ready, participate. You’ll meet other poets, & get some feedback.
  • Hire a freelance editor. Freelance poetry editors do exist; a Google search will turn some of them up. Before hiring an editor, interview them, check their credentials, and look at some of their previous work to see if you share a similar point of view & might be compatible. Be careful; always get references. Award-winning poet Judith Skillman offers a manuscript editing service.

A Few Places To Get Feedback

(To find more do a Google search for “online poetry community.”)

Should I contact a well-known poet for advice?

Probably not. Most well-known writers keep rather full schedules & receive lots of mail, so don’t have the time necessary to read your work & give it a thoughtful review. However, some do give writing workshops; you might check the writer’s website, or in trade publications, to see if any are scheduled.

Where can I publish my poetry (or fiction, non-fiction)?

Publishing primarily takes 2 things: patience & knowledge! We can’t help you with the patience, but our article, “How to Publish Your Poetry”, will explain how to easily find prospective publishers for your work.

What are some helpful websites about writing?

Websites On Writing

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About Denise Enck

Denise is editor of Empty Mirror, as well as a writer and designer.

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