Poetry For Dummies
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Millions of people have tried their hands at writing poetry. Often, people turn to writing verse at times of great emotion, insight, or need. A single article cannot tell you everything you need to know about writing poetry, but here are some basic guidelines for you to consider right now, if you just can't wait to get your feet wet.

Becoming a poet

Writing poetry involves not just scribbling in a notebook, but also undertaking a way of life, one in which you value being creative and sensitive. To write good poetry, work to do the following:

  • Discover as much as you can about the poetic craft. Read lots of poetry. Meet other poets. Become part of a poetic community. Get a mentor who will guide you. Attend readings and workshops. Take writing classes.

  • Become as sensitive as you can, both to life and to language. Figure out your personal sense of what is beautiful — both in life and in poetry.

  • Think divergently (that is, keep your mind open and nimble, and be willing to think in different ways and new directions). You never know when, where, or how inspiration will come to you, but you can prepare the way for it.

  • Make time for yourself to write. After all, if you don't write, you're not a writer.

  • Be disciplined. Rewrite your poetry again and again. Don't settle for using clichés or other people's language. The idea is to find out what kind of poetry only you can write.

Keeping a poetic journal

Many poets keep a journal, a repository containing ideas, images, subjects for poems, drafts of poems, other people's poetry, found objects (things you pick up that inspire you or that could become the basis for poems, such as someone else's grocery list). You can keep a journal in anything that's portable and easily accessible, such as a notebook, on a laptop, or on a microrecorder.

Credit: "written in slumber," © 2011 matryosha, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Many poets commit to writing in their journals each day. Their journals are, in a way, the "office" where the work of poetry takes place. Keeping a daily journal is a good idea.

So what do you put in your journal when you have it? Some people keep a diary in their journals. Some write down their dreams, their meals, or scraps of personal or overheard conversation. Some poets have separate journals for individual topics (say, a journal exclusively dedicated to Money and My Lack of It.) But only you can decide the exact way in which you'll fill your journal.

Trying your hand at a writing exercise

Here's an exercise you can try in your journal. It's called the "Poetry Pentad." A pentad is a group of five things, and this exercise applies our five major poetic principles — attentiveness, concentration (of language, insight, and emotion), originality, experimentation, and form — to seemingly mundane ideas. The pentad helps you do two things: generate material for poetry, and think about what makes poetry poetic.

Here's how it works:

  1. Write down a very mundane, straightforward prose statement about the outside world.

    You could write about a cut on your hand, a kiss, awkward silences, or a cash machine that won't give you any money. Write something as simple as, "Sure is a nice sunset."

  2. Now pay closer attention to the thing you just wrote about.

    Write down what you notice. Brainstorm. List as many aspects as you can — for example, "The color of the sunset is red in some places and a flat grayish-blue in others. The sky nearer to the sun is pretty, but farther away some of it is already dark and colorless."

  3. Concentrate on your subject and come up with a few new ways of presenting or describing the thing your original statement was about.

    Try using some metaphors, images, turns of phrase. Don't write down anything you've ever heard or read before. Reject anything that seems familiar or secondhand. Using the sunset as your subject, you could write, "The sunset is like a bruise; it's like spilled stew on a rug; it's a molten core with a hard outer crust."

  4. Write at least two passages of poetry on this subject, experimenting with different forms.

    Choose very different forms (say, two lines that rhyme with each other, or a passage of free verse, which doesn't have any rhyme). Use some of the material you generated under Step 3. For example, two rhyming lines about the sunset could be:

    Blood-red, flat grey, the sunset colors fuse,
    Spreading and growing dull green, like a bruise

    And free verse may be:

    The sunset spilled over the rug of the sky seeped into its fabric
    A stain spread, a ravishing mess will leave a mark
    No way I can cleanse it from my absorbent brain. It's running down
    the corners, lava hardening, darkening, losing light. It's nighttime.
  5. Now rewrite one of the passages in as few words as you can.

    Go for maximum meaning and emotion. For example:

    Sunset spilled on the rug, stained
    the fabric, can't get it out
    of my brain. It's lava, hardening
    to darkness.

Did you come up with Shakespeare? You didn't have to — your aim was to find fresh ways of making your readers experience your subject. In the example, "Sure is a pretty sunset" wasn't poetry, but in the final passage — with spills, stains, and hardening lava — it's much closer to something poetic.

Notice how the "rug" isn't explained — it could be a metaphor for the sky, or it could be just a rug on which the day's fading light is falling. And "hardening / to darkness" conveys the last moments of a sunset in an unexpected way.

You can go through this process as often as you want for any one statement. If you get inspirations while working your way through, stop and work on them.

The whole idea is to get used to some of the distinguishing characteristics of the poetic craft — and to generate images, ideas, and forms that you can use later in building poems. If you don't come up with anything useful in one round, don't worry — you will always throw more away than you use. Keep trying, and watch what you come up with.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

The Poetry Center in San Francisco sponsors readings and awards and houses a renowned poetry archive. John Timpane, Ph.D., is the author of It Could Be Verse: Anybody's Guide to Poetry. Maureen Watts is a writer and longtime poetry activist who serves on the board of the National Poetry Association

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