As promised, in honor of the release of my book A Thousand Little Words, I decided to write a blog highlighting tips on poetry writing.
In my opinion, poetry writing is the most artistic and liberating form of creative writing. You can write in the abstract or the concrete. Images can be vague or subtle, brilliant or dull. Write in form, using patterns, or write freely, letting your conscience (or subconscious) be your guide. You can do just about anything in a poem. That’s why poetry writing is so wild and free: there are no rules. Poets have complete liberty to build something out of nothing simply by stringing words together. All of this makes poetry writing alluring to writers who are burning with creativity. A poet’s process is magical and mesmerizing. But all that freedom and creativity can be a little overwhelming.
Often times, people get stuck before they even begin. I believe you first need to find the answers to these questions:
"What should I write poems about?"
"How should I decide the right form for my poem?"
"What are common poetry problems that affect the work of new poets, and how can I avoid them?"
"People say it's not the size that matters, but what you do with it -- how does this relate to poetry?"
Today’s writing tips include various tools and techniques that a poet can use. But these tips aren’t just for poets. All writers benefit from dabbling in poetry. Read a little poetry, write a few poems, study some basic concepts in poetry, and your other writing (fiction, creative nonfiction, even blogging) will soar.
Below, you’ll find ten writing tips that take you on a little journey through the craft of poetry writing. See which ones appeal to you, give them a whirl, and they will lead you on a fantastic adventure.
Tip 1: Capture a Moment
One trap I can sometimes fall into is that I try to write the big poem or the poem filled with ideas (like love, hate, etc.). What always works better, for me anyway, is to focus on one moment that expresses an emotion or works as a metaphor for a bigger idea.
Tip 2: Use Images
“BE A PAINTER IN WORDS,” says UWEC English professor emerita, poet, and songwriter Peg Lauber. She says poetry should stimulate six senses:sight,hearing,smell,touch,taste, and kinesiology (motion).
“Vacuum cleaner’s whir and hum startles my ferret” (hearing)
It's important to be a camera. Make the reader be there with the poet/speaker/narrator.
Tip 3: Describe Something or Someone
Specificity strengthens a poem, and it’s hard to get more specific than throwing all your attention toward one thing or person. The only trap with these poems is that they can sometimes read like lists.
Tip 4: Respond to Something
Response poems have been around forever. In fact, an argument could be made that all poems are response poems. To what could your poem respond? For starters, you could respond to another poem, a piece of art, something someone said to you, a cool-looking car, etc. Nothing is off limits.
Tip 5: Use Someone Else’s Line
This is kind of like eavesdropping, I suppose, but there are poems that will take a line from another person’s poem and make that the first line. In this tradition, it is also good form to mention the poem is “after (poet’s name here).” How this can help is that you’ve already got a great line out of the way–and just need to write the rest of the poem.
Tip 6: Select Your Words
Choose and explore the right words: don't be afraid to turn to a rhyming dictionary or a thesaurus. But remember: a shorter poem may mean less breathing room for your fanciest vocabulary words.
Tip 7: Pick A Style
Use poetic devices to enhance your poem’s meaning. Short poems can be great ways to showcase extended metaphors. Then again, something brief and straightforward can have a lot of impact too!
Tip 8: Avoid Clichés
Stephen Minot defines a cliché as: “A metaphor or simile that has become so familiar from overuse that the vehicle … no longer contributes any meaning whatever to the tenor. It provides neither the vividness of a fresh metaphor nor the strength of a single unmodified word….The word is also used to describe overused but nonmetaphorical expressions such as ‘tried and true’ and ‘each and every'” (Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction and Drama, 405).
Cliché also describes other overused literary elements. “Familiar plot patterns and stock characters are clichés on a big scale” (Minot 148). Clichés can be overused themes, character types, or plots. For example, the “Lone Ranger” cowboy is a cliché because it has been used so many times that people no longer find it original. A work full of clichés is like a plate of old food: unappetizing.
Clichés work against original communication. People value creative talent. They want to see work that rises above the norm. When they see a work without clichés, they know the writer has worked his or her tail off, doing whatever it takes to be original. When they see a work full to the brim with clichés, they feel that the writer is not showing them anything above the ordinary. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this paragraph is chock full of clichés… I’ll bet you were bored to tears.)
Clichés dull meaning. Because clichéd writing sounds so familiar, people can complete finish whole lines without even reading them. If they don’t bother to read your poem, they certainly won’t stop to think about it. If they do not stop to think about your poem, they will never encounter the deeper meanings that mark the work of an accomplished poet.
Examples of Clichés:
busy as a bee
tired as a dog
working my fingers to bone
on the horns of a dilemma
blind as a bat
eats like a horse
eats like a bird
Tip 9: Get Some Space
Take a break before editing. You'll want a fresh start when you look at your writing with a critical eye.
Tip 10: Use Metaphor and Simile
Use metaphor and simile to bring imagery and concrete words into your writing.
A metaphor is a statement that pretends one thing is really something else: Example: “The lead singer is an elusive salamander.”This phrase does not mean that the lead singer is literally a salamander. Rather, it takes an abstract characteristic of a salamander (elusiveness) and projects it onto the person. By using metaphor to describe the lead singer, the poet creates a much more vivid picture of him/her than if the poet had simply said “The lead singer’s voice is hard to pick out.”
A simile is a statement where you say one object is similar to another object. Similes use the words “like” or “as.” Example: “He was curious as a caterpillar” or “He was curious, like a caterpillar” This phrase takes one quality of a caterpillar and projects it onto a person. It is an easy way to attach concrete images to feelings and character traits that might usually be described with abstract words.
Note: A simile is not automatically any more or less “poetic” than a metaphor. You don’t suddenly produce better poems if you replace all your similes with metaphors, or vice versa. The point to remember is that comparison, inference, and suggestion are all important tools of poetry; similes and metaphors are tools that will help in those areas.
I believe that poetry is the most exquisite form of writing. And anyone can write a poem if they want to. In today’s world of fast, moving images, poetry has lost much of its appeal to the masses. But there are those of us who thrive on language and who still appreciate a poem and its power to move us emotionally. It’s our job to keep great poetry writing alive. And it’s our job to keep writing poetry.