Writing Poetry

Note: This is a talk I gave at a writing group in 2010 on my poetry writing process. I’ve made some minor changes for publishing here.

First Draft

Getting the Words Down

How I write poetry: I always start a poem with an image. Sometimes, I see something that strikes me. Sometimes an image just pops into my mind. Sometimes I use a prompt. I prefer picture prompts or short, two or three word prompts. Looking at the striking object or the prompt, a phrase and a general feeling will come to me. I usually use that first phrase as the first line of the poem. Then I build on that line with more lines, using the general feeling as a guide to them. Usually, for longer poems, I’m telling a story.

After a line or two, I have a sense of which form I want to use for the poem. I want to mention here a few things about forms. I have a set of forms I like to use. If I read a poem in a new form I like, or read about a new form, I usually try to write a poem of my own using the form to see if it fits my style. Using forms really improved my poetry, because a form is a pattern, and provides patterns that are pleasing to the reader. I’ll talk more about specific forms in a moment.

Occasionally, I won’t pick a form after the first couple lines. I’ll write the whole poem in free verse, then go back and fit it to a form. I usually do this when I’m not sure right away what I’m trying to do with the poem. I’ll discuss a little more about how I do this later.

I often go back as I write and change already written lines to fit the further lines, and how the poem is developing. This is a little tricky sometimes, because with or in addition to the form, I always try to have a syllable or meter pattern going on. Some forms are defined by these patterns, some are not, and if I’m using a form without a pattern, I try to make sure I create one of my own.

Once I have a poem, I read it again as an editor, making sure that it flows the way I want it to. Sometimes, especially if I’m just dashing something off for practice, I’ll leave it here. Otherwise I’ll keep working on it. If I’m not happy, I set it aside. I don’t always finish a poem in one sitting. I write notes to myself about where I see the poem going, and what I hear in it already, and then I set it aside. I’ll come back and work on it more later.

Punctuation in Poetry

Just like Prose

A period is a full stop, a comma is a pause before a new phrase or idea. A long dash is used as a pause, but not a full breath like a comma. Or think of it like this: A period is to start a new idea entirely, a comma is to insert a new idea without finishing the old one and a long dash is to add a comment to the idea. And just like prose, colons set off lists, and semi-colons separate the items of the list if commas are used within the items. These last two are used rarely. Also, avoid the temptation to punctuate the end of every line. The end of a line (and a stanza end, too) is a natural break, and a pause, so you don’t need to add anything unless it fits naturally.

Form and Meter

Meter

First, a little about meter. Mary Oliver explains it much better than I can,  so this is from page 36 and 37 of her book, A Poetry Handbook. Emphasis hers.

  1. In metrical verse, each line of the poem can be divided into feet, and each foot into stresses (syllable sounds), to reveal the overall rhythmic pattern.
  2. The process of dividing a line into its metrical feet and each foot into its individual parts is called scansion.
  3. An iamb, or an iambic foot, is one light stress followed by one heavy stress.
  4. Five iambic feet strung together create an iambic pentameter line.

Be sure and read the book for the wonderful examples — when I read them, the lightbulb just went off.

Poetic Forms

The forms I share here are just my favorite forms that work best with my writing style. There are lots of other forms out there, some of which I have tried. Each poet needs to work out for herself which forms work best for her. You can find forms by searching on the Internet, or in books. I particularly like Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms by Babette Deutsch and A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver. Both these books have lots more information on poetry than just the forms, and I highly recommend both of them.

Haiku

Three lines, using syllable count. I like it for writing short descriptions of an object.

5

7

5

Pantoum

A repeating form. It’s a French adaptation of a Malaysian form. It’s good for telling stories, particularly ones with repeating themes. Each stanza is four lines. After the first stanza, each stanza’s 1st and 3rd lines repeat the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza. The final stanza uses the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza and the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza, as couplets, either the lines of the preceding stanza and then the lines of the first stanza, or vice versa. I letter the stanzas, and number the lines, so I can keep it all straight. There are usually 4 or 5 stanzas, but there can be as many as the author likes. No rhyme or meter is necessary, but I often try to use a meter (either the same one for all lines, or alternating. Using an alternating meter pattern means the pattern will reverse in each stanza, e.g. tetrameter/trimeter in the first stanza becomes trimeter/tetrameter in the second, and so on.) You will see variations on this form, particularly in the final stanza. When repeating lines, you can change a word or the tense, or change punctuation, but each repeated line needs to be essentially the same as the original.

A1

A2

A3

A4

B1 A2

B2

B3 A4

B4

C1 B2

C2

C3 B4

C4

D1 A3 or D1 C2

D2 A1 D2 C4

D3 C2 D3 A3

D4 C4 D4 A1

Rictameter

A nine line poem using syllable count in a pattern:

2

4

6

8

10

8

6

4

2

The first and last lines are identical. I like rictameters for describing a scene, or a brief story.

Syllabic Verse

From Mary Oliver: “The number of syllables in each of the lines in the first stanza is exactly repeated in the following stanzas. . . . Because of the strictness of syllable-count, and the inevitable variety of stress-pattern, syllabic verse creates a music that is highly regular and at the same time filled with engaging counterpoint.” I like syllabic verse for subjects that do not lend themselves to repetition and yet I want a regular pattern to fit the story to.

Writing a Poem

I want to walk you through my process of writing a poem with an actual example of a poem I wrote in response to a specific prompt: a photo of a blue lake among sand dunes and it was supposed to be a four line poem.

It started out:

Cool water, shaded

A blue gem hidden between sand dunes

What a precious treasure.

It was only three lines and a little dissonant and without pattern. I decided to use a meter. Changing the first line to

Cool water, shrub-shaded

was more descriptive and in iambic trimeter (three feet per line). The middle line was in iambic tetrameter (four feet per line) and I decided that would fit the rhythm I wanted better. So I rearranged the lines, looking for tetrameter, resulting in:

A blue gem among sandy dunes

Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,

Cool water for thirsty drinkers

What a precious desert treasure.

But ‘precious’ is too long, so I changed it to ‘lovely.’

A blue gem among sandy dunes

Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,

Cool water for thirsty drinkers

What a lovely desert treasure.

You’ll note that the poem goes straight from disorder to tetrameter. I couldn’t have done that a year or so ago, but when I started trying to use meter and syllable count in my writing, the easier it became. Now I just need to have a meter or syllable count in mind, and the lines will usually match what I want, or be very close.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Teen Writing Prompt 561 | TeenGirlsthatWrite

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: