Poetry For Dummies book cover

Poetry For Dummies

By: The Poetry Center and John Timpane Published: 05-16-2001

Demystify and appreciate the pleasures of poetry

Sometimes it seems like there are as many definitions of poetry as there are poems. Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in the best order.” St. Augustine called it “the Devil’s wine.” For Shelley, poetry was “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” But no matter how you define it, poetry has exercised a hold upon the hearts and minds of people for more than five millennia. That’s because for the attentive reader, poetry has the power to send chills shooting down the spine and lightning bolts flashing in the brain — to throw open the doors of perception and hone our sensibilities to a scalpel’s edge.

Poetry For Dummies is a great guide to reading and writing poems, not only for beginners, but for anyone interested in verse.  From Homer to Basho, Chaucer to Rumi, Shelley to Ginsberg, it introduces you to poetry’s greatest practitioners. It arms you with the tools you need to understand and appreciate poetry in all its forms, and to explore your own talent as a poet. Discover how to:

  • Understand poetic language and forms
  • Interpret poems
  • Get a handle on poetry through the ages
  • Find poetry readings near you
  • Write your own poems
  • Shop your work around to publishers

Don’t know the difference between an iamb and a trochee? Worry not, this friendly guide demystifies the jargon, and it covers a lot more ground besides, including:

  • Understanding subject, tone, narrative; and poetic language
  • Mastering the three steps to interpretation
  • Facing the challenges of older poetry
  • Exploring 5,000 years of verse, from Mesopotamia to the global village
  • Writing open-form poetry
  • Working with traditional forms of verse
  • Writing exercises for aspiring poets
  • Getting published

From Sappho to Clark Coolidge, and just about everyone in between, Poetry For Dummies puts you in touch with the greats of modern and ancient poetry. Need guidance on composing a ghazal, a tanka, a sestina, or a psalm? This is the book for you.

Articles From Poetry For Dummies

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17 results
Poetry For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 03-08-2022

Poetry is the practice of creating works of art through language. The study of poetry should include important works that display a bit of the history and evolution of poetry. Poems are written to be read aloud, so follow the helpful reading guidelines offered in this Cheat Sheet. Then, take a poetry pop quiz to test your knowledge and discover some fun facts.

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How to Write a Sonnet

Article / Updated 10-04-2021

Learn how to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter, just like Shakespeare did. Discover the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the quatrains and couplets that make up a Shakespearean sonnet. How to write a sonnet When writing a Shakespearean-style sonnet, there are various rules you need to keep in mind. This form of poetry is required to follow a specific format including length, rhythm, and rhyme scheme. To write a sonnet properly, follow this process: Select a subject to write your poem about (Shakespearean sonnets are traditionally grounded as love poems). Write your lines in iambic pentameter (duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH-duh-DUH. Write in one of various standard rhyme schemes (Shakespearean, Petrarchan, or Spenserian). Format the sonnet using 3 quatrains followed by 1 couplet. Compose your sonnet as an argument that builds up as it moves from one metaphor to the next. Ensure your poem is exactly 14 lines. The Shakespearean rhyme scheme If you're writing the most familiar kind of sonnet, the Shakespearean, the rhyme scheme is as follows: A B A B C D C D E F E F G G Every A rhymes with every A, every B rhymes with every B, and so forth. You'll notice this type of sonnet consists of three quatrains (that is, four consecutive lines of verse that make up a stanza or division of lines in a poem) and one couplet (two consecutive rhyming lines of verse). How a sonnet tells a story Ah, but there's more to a sonnet than just the structure of it. A sonnet is also an argument — it builds up a certain way. And how it builds up is related to its metaphors and how it moves from one metaphor to the next. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the argument builds up like this: First quatrain: An exposition of the main theme and main metaphor. Second quatrain: Theme and metaphor extended or complicated; often, some imaginative example is given. Third quatrain: Peripeteia (a twist or conflict), often introduced by a "but" (very often leading off the ninth line). Couplet: Summarizes and leaves the reader with a new, concluding image. One of Shakespeare's best-known sonnets, Sonnet 18, follows this pattern: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest, Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. The argument of Sonnet 18 goes like this: First quatrain: Shakespeare establishes the theme of comparing "thou" (or "you") to a summer's day, and why to do so is a bad idea. The metaphor is made by comparing his beloved to summer itself. Second quatrain: Shakespeare extends the theme, explaining why even the sun, supposed to be so great, gets obscured sometimes, and why everything that's beautiful decays from beauty sooner or later. He has shifted the metaphor: In the first quatrain, it was "summer" in general, and now he's comparing the sun and "every fair," every beautiful thing, to his beloved. Third quatrain: Here the argument takes a big left turn with the familiar "But." Shakespeare says that the main reason he won't compare his beloved to summer is that summer dies — but she won't. He refers to the first two quatrains — her "eternal summer" won't fade, and she won't "lose possession" of the "fair" (the beauty) she possesses. So, he keeps the metaphors going, but in a different direction. And for good measure, he throws in a negative version of all the sunshine in this poem — the "shade" of death, which, evidently, his beloved won't have to worry about. Couplet: How is his beloved going to escape death? In Shakespeare's poetry, which will keep her alive as long as people breathe or see. This bold statement gives closure to the whole argument — it's a surprise. And so far, Shakespeare's sonnet has done what he promised it would! See how tightly this sonnet is written, how complex, yet well-organized it is? Now that you know how to write a sonnet, try writing one your own! Poets are attracted by the grace, concentration, and, yes, the sheer difficulty of sonnets. You may never write another sonnet in your life, but this exercise is more than just busywork. It does all the following: Shows you how much you can pack into a short form. Gives you practice with rhyme, meter, structure, metaphor, and argument. Connects you with one of the oldest traditions in English poetry — one still vital today.

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Snuggling Up to the Language of Poetry

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

At times, language seems spiritual, as insubstantial as breath on a winter's day. Everything seems slathered and permeated with language — it's how we think and how we see. Yet language is also a physical thing, with characteristics and oddities — in sound and shape. To get closer to poetry, you need to fine-tune your sensitivity to language and to its histories, overtones, rhythms, meanings, and suggestions. Noticing the beauty of language Language is what successful poets are good with. Whether they're born or made, poets are language people. If you have a long relationship with poetry, you become more sensitive to language. You start spotting moments of beauty, start feeling the burst of meanings in a single phrase, the punch in a well-turned line. And poetry can show you how to pay attention — both to poems and to life in general. You may start noticing the details, the surprises, the unforgettable images. Whenever you want to speak vividly or imaginatively, you can use language in special ways. When you're hungry, you may say, "I could eat a horse." Now, you couldn't actually eat a horse, and you know it. Somehow you and the people you're talking to recognize that you're being imaginative (not literal) in your language. Your audience switches into that imaginative gear and sees that you're really just saying that you're very, very hungry. In saying you could eat a horse, you're using a figure of speech (that is, any statement or turn of phrase that is not to be taken literally yet has a meaning you and your audience can recognize). These include metaphors (comparisons poets make without using like or as — in fact, any imaginative treatment of one thing as if it were another), similes (comparisons that use like or as, as in "he came in riding like a hurricane"), understatement, overstatement, and other unusual uses of language that poets use to stretch your imagination. Another word you'll hear often in reference to poetry is image, which has many meanings. It can mean simply a vivid picture, or it can mean an especially powerful appeal to the senses. Packing in more meaning with every word With so many special uses of language, poetry can sometimes seem to be nonsense at first reading. But in fact, poets are trying to pack in more meaning per word than people pack in ordinary language. When you say, "Please give me a hamburger and a vanilla milkshake," you usually have one meaning and that's it. You want to be taken literally. But that's not always so with poetry. Poets set up words to resonate with many meanings at once — and often the only judge of all that is you, the reader. How to judge? By paying close attention — but pay attention with an open, playful mind. Look for different possibilities in the words and phrases you're reading. If you find an implication (that is, something the poem suggests without coming out and saying it), great. Try reading this poem, "About Face," by Fanny Howe. At first glance, it may seem close to nonsense, but stay with it, and you'll see that its unusual uses of language pack more possibilities of meaning per word than normal uses of language. You could say that the apparent "nonsense" ends up being supersense! I wrap my bones around my head Speak through the holes It sounds like math is rounding the curves or a mouth is light years ahead of words. Fanny Howe is using words differently from the way people normally use them. People usually speak literally, trying to limit their words to a single meaning. This poem is a tricky one, because so much of it has more than one possible meaning. Look at the title: "About Face." It could mean "a turnaround or reversal." Or, it could indicate that this poem concerns having a face. None of the words in this poem is difficult or unusual. But everything that happens in it is very unusual, starting with the startling first line: "I wrap my bones around my head." The poet can't mean it literally — so you know you're in the presence of a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Well, if the poem is about having a face, the line "Speak through the holes" makes sense, because holes (eyes, noses, and mouths) are what people speak through. Think about speaking for a moment — just the act of using your mouth to make words. People are always speaking through the bones around their heads — they use their teeth, their jaws, and their facial bones to make the sounds of words. So "About Face" may be toying with the notion of what speaking involves. Move on to the next stanza: When I speak, "It sounds like math / is rounding the curves" — two more simple and yet very tough lines. In math, you do a lot of rounding off of numbers, to the nearest tenth and so on. But then instead of rounding off of numbers, Howe gives you "rounding the curves." So speaking can "sound like math" (our guess) because it's always approximating the things people want to say or the things they want to point to in the world. People are always rounding things off — words are often insufficient, so people never actually say the exact thing they want, but they get close: They round things off. "About Face" seems to be pointing out the way speaking doesn't quite do everything people pretend it does. Language does a good job, but it's approximate. So maybe that's how "a mouth is light years / ahead of words" — a mouth is something real, and words are only a bumbling attempt to get at it. No word could ever get all the way. All the word mouth can do is refer to a real mouth — it can't be a mouth or give you one. So a mouth always will remain "light years / ahead of words." (Yet another possible pun: We all are "ahead of words," and we have a head of words — we're thinking words all the time.) Howe has us thinking about having bones in our faces, about mouths, about words, and about what words can and can't do. This witty, quizzical poet has brought together figures of speech to release numerous possibilities about the poem's meaning after you give it just a few moments' consideration.

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Quick Poetry Quiz

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Test your knowledge of poetry by taking this quick quiz. You can learn some cool facts about poets and their works — and impress your friends the next time you get together. 1. Who was the first official U.S. Poet Laureate — Robert Penn Warren, Muriel Rukeyser, Ezra Pound, or Russell Edson? 2. Who was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry — Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, or Mona Van Duyn? 3. What is said to be the longest poem in world history — The Mahabharata; Howl by Allen Ginsberg; Paradise Lost by John Milton; or "Poem #312" by Emily Dickinson? 4. Who wrote the poem "Funeral Blues," which was recited in the movie Four Weddings and A Funeral — Victor Hugo, Amy Clampitt, Pablo Neruda, or W.H. Auden? 5. Which statement about Emily Dickinson is not true? a. She lived at her parents' house her entire life. b. She published fewer than a dozen poems during her lifetime. c. She was left at the altar. d. She was a bread judge at the local cattle show. 6. What did Robert Bridges, Thomas Campion, William Carlos Williams, and Henry Vaughan have in common? 7. Which one of these poets doesn't belong in this group and why? a. Amenhotep b. Léopold Sédar Senghor c. Jimmy Carter d. William Shakespeare 8. True or False: A line of iambic pentameter must have ten syllables. 9. Name the popular film from 1961 starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty that took its title from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Was it Leaves of Grass, Love Canal, Splendor in the Grass, or The Grapes of Wrath? 10. Connect the place on the left with the poet associated with that place on the right: Lesbos Charles Baudelaire Martinique Lorine Niedecker New Hampshire Sappho Paris Robert Frost Wisconsin Lawrence Ferlinghetti Chicago Aimé Césaire San Francisco Carl Sandburg Answers: 1. Robert Penn Warren, in 1986; 2. Sara Teasdale, in 1918; 3. The Mahabharata; 4. W.H. Auden; 5. c; 6. They were all physicians; 7. d (Shakespeare was not a head of state); 8. False; 9. Splendor in the Grass; 10. Lesbos, Sappho; Martinique, Césaire; New Hampshire, Frost; Paris, Baudelaire; Wisconsin, Niedecker; Chicago, Sandburg; San Francisco, Ferlinghetti.

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How to Read a Poem Aloud

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Poems are designed to be read aloud — you'll get a better experience and understanding of the whole poem. Try these tips for reading poetry out loud: Read silently first. Note surprises and unfamiliar words. Establish a positive, conversational tone. Follow the music. Don't rush. Pause for emphasis. Treat line endings with care, pausing briefly or raising your tone of voice. Repeat for best results.

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A Crash Course in Poetic History

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Poems represent some of the greatest works of literature assembled. Peruse these noteworthy poems to see some of the early creations and how poetry evolved: The Odyssey by Homer Rubaiyat XII by Omar Khayyam "Farewell" by Chao Li-hua Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare The Inferno by Dante Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" by Emily Dickinson "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats "Walking Around" by Pablo Neruda "Requiem: 1935–1940" by Anna Akhmatova "Song of the Initiate" by Léopold Sédar Senghor "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath "Under a Certain Little Star" by Wislawa Szymborska "Monster Mash" by David Trinidad

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How to Figure Out the Narrative of a Poem

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Many poets are also storytellers, and as storytellers, they, too, use all the elements of narration. When reading narrative poems consider the narrative elements: Speaker (also known as persona): This is the imaginary person who "speaks" the words in a poem. Some poems feature speakers as full-fledged characters with names and histories. But for the sake of discussion, imagine all poems as having speakers. Setting: This is the time, location, and physical environment in which a story takes place. Situation: This word refers to the circumstances or state of affairs at a given moment in a poem or story. It can also refer to the circumstances in which a character finds himself or herself at a given moment. Plot: This term refers to the deeds and events in the story, which are organized toward a particular emotional or moral end. Character: This word refers to the fictional representation of an imaginary person. A character is really a bunch of words that spurs us to have a mental image of a person. Interpret narrative poems — or any poetry, for that matter — by paying attention to what the poem says and your responses to it. Build a bridge of speculation between the poet's words and suggestions and your reactions. Interpretation is often the best part of poetry.

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How to Write Open-Form Poetry

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Open-form poetry rejects the organization and structure found in traditional poetry such as sonnets and haiku. Open poetry — including chance poetry, Surrealism, and free verse — use experimental techniques that blast open the possibilities of words on the printed page. The open form is a form. When you use the open form, you start to impose on your poem — and yourself — all sorts of rules. You won't know what they are until you get there, however, because each poem is its own form. Think of open-form poetry as a way of thinking — an especially intense awareness of every single aspect of the poem, from subject and tone to music and rhythm, from the physical shape of the poem to the length (in space and in time) of the lines, from the grammar you use to the parts of speech. When you write an open-form poem, try to be very conscious. Everything in the poem, every feature, every aspect, must have a reason for being there. Be conscious of the following: Economy. Cram as much energy as possible into each word. Cut everything that doesn't absolutely need to be there. Grammar and syntax. Are you always using complete sentences? Well, that's fine — but you could also do it another way. Decide whether you have a reason to write in complete sentences for this poem. If you can come up with a reason, fine. If not, consider alternatives — bursts of words, single words, word fragments. And who says you have to use "proper" grammar? Or punctuation? Try breaking a few rules, if that improves the poem. Parts of speech. Some teachers say you shouldn't use adjectives or adverbs; they prefer nouns and verbs instead. That's an excellent starting point: Use only the words you need. If all you're doing is prettifying something, forget it. Use adjectives only when they're surprising ("your green voice"), contradictory ("aggressive modesty"), or give information the reader simply can't get elsewhere ("It was a Welsh ferret" — how else would we know a ferret was Welsh?). Rhythms. Look at the rhythms in your lines. Does the rhythm of the line contribute to its meaning? Anything sing-songy? If so, is it good that it's sing-songy? Often, open-form verse falls into iambs (a group of syllables consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in "alas!") and dactyls (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed, as in "penetrate"). Don't let this happen unless there is a reason for it. The physical lengths (the number syllables and the actual length) of the lines you use. Avoid falling into exactly the same lengths. Every length should have a reason behind it. The length (in time) it takes to read each line aloud. If each line takes about the same number of seconds, figure out whether there's a reason for it. If there isn't, consider other shapes and lengths. Line endings. Poets realize that line endings carry a certain emphasis or pressure. Your lines should end where they end for some reason. The way a line ends — where, and after what word or punctuation mark — should be the best way to end. Do you want a pause there? What's going to happen when your readers go to the next line? Something unexpected? Some surprise? Read a lot of open-form verse, and you'll notice that poets use a great deal of enjambment, winding the words around the ends of lines in gorgeous and meaningful ways.

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Why You Should Read Poems Aloud

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

When you read poetry aloud, read it as though you were delivering the poem to an attentive audience. Why? Here are the three most important reasons you should read poetry aloud: Poets design their poems to be read aloud. The earliest poetry was oral. People chanted it, sang it, recited it — and they still do. From its earliest forms to the poems being written today, poetry has kept its close alliance with speaking and singing. The music of poetry — that is, its sounds and rhythms — isn't just for the eye and the mind, it's meant to be given voice. In fact, as they write, most poets imagine someone reading their poems aloud. Poetry is supposed to be a living thing, and poets write accordingly, with an audience in mind. You'll experience the whole poem if you read it aloud. Poems read aloud are different animals from poems read silently. A big part of poetry is sound and rhythm — and the best way to get the full impact of these important elements is to put them into action by pronouncing them with your own throat, lungs, teeth, lips, and tongue. Sound and rhythm don't exist just for their own sakes, either; they exist to give you pleasure (because humans naturally like music and rhythm in poetry) and lead you to the poem's meanings. Commas, spaces between words, line endings, and other pauses may hint at melancholy, hesitancy, or passion. Punctuation has its traditional functions (exclamations! questions? wistfulness . . .), and it often also is used in unexpected ways — or not used at all. You may miss all these signals if you don't read aloud. You'll understand and remember more if you read aloud. Memory and understanding are everything. If you remember something and understand it, it takes up long-term residence inside your brain. And then you can use that knowledge as a building block to discover more and more about the world of poetry.

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Understanding the Tone of a Poem

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The tone of a poem is the attitude you feel in it — the writer's attitude toward the subject or audience. The tone in a poem of praise is approval. In a satire, you feel irony. In an antiwar poem, you may feel protest or moral indignation. Tone can be playful, humorous, regretful, anything — and it can change as the poem goes along. When you speak, your tone of voice suggests your attitude. In fact, it suggests two attitudes: one concerning the people you're addressing (your audience) and one concerning the thing you're talking about (your subject). That's what the term tone means when it's applied to poetry as well. Tone can also mean the general emotional weather of the poem. Sometimes tone is fairly obvious. You can, for example, find poems that are absolutely furious. The Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid didn't care for mercenary soldiers (men who fight not because they believe in a cause, but because someone is paying them to fight). Here is MacDiarmid's very angry "Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries": It is a God-damned lie to say that these Saved, or knew, anything worth any man's pride. They were professional murderers and they took Their blood money and impious risks and died. In spite of all their kind some elements of worth With difficulty persist here and there on earth. Poetry is already so packed with emotion that seeing a poet swearing right at the start may be a shock, but MacDiarmid does exactly that. He makes the disturbing move of insulting the dead soldiers, calling them "professional murderers." Usually, people try not to speak ill of the dead, but evidently MacDiarmid thinks so little of the mercenaries that he feels justified in insulting them. In the last two lines, he implies that, with such evil men in existence, human goodness persists only "with difficulty." These clues lead you to MacDiarmid's tone and his attitude toward his subject: contempt. Sometimes you can pick up tone from clues in what a person says or writes, as in this untitled poem from the classic Chinese poet Liu Tsung-yüan: From one thousand mountains the birds' flights are gone; From ten thousand byways the human track has vanished. In a single boat, an aged man, straw cloak and hat, Fishes alone; snow falls, cold in the river. This poem conveys a tone of melancholy: The birds have abandoned the mountains, and the footprints of human beings (which are signs of human presence) have "vanished" from thousands of roads. The old fisherman you see at the end is all alone, and the word "single," used for his boat, conveys loneliness. The last image is wintry indeed, with snow falling all around him. Taken together, all these elements create an atmosphere of melancholy. Sharpen your awareness of tone. You'll see it in direct statement, to be sure (as when MacDiarmid cries, "They were professional murderers"), but tone can also reside in: Images and how they are presented The implications of a statement or story The very music and rhythms of a poem

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