Learning to write poetry

So, I’d like to try my hand at writing poetry. Not for profit (hah!) or even publication, but just for the compositional muscle-stretching exercise of it. I like good poetry (though my reading of it is sadly incomplete and inconsistent), and I’d like to think that I have some modest way with prose, but I’ve never made any serious efforts at verse, and my not-so-serious attempts have been less than inspired. (Though I put a couple of rather bracing limericks upon the wall of the bathroom at Insomnia Cafe.)

So, exactly how to do you go about obtaining a grasp of what “good” poetry is and how to create it? Certainly, I could open up a volume of Blake or Poe and ape the style, but I’m looking for more of an approach to learning how to write in my own diction.

Any suggestions?


Well, starting to write would be a good idea. It’s no different than any other type of writing (well, at least the learning isn’t IMO).

Once you finish a few poems, put them away and don’t look at them for weeks. When you’ve given it enough time, look at them and see if you still like them. If so, start showing them to others. If not, figure out what you don’t like about them and try not to do it in your new poems.

Easier said than done though.

Eventually, you will have to show them to someone else, so find people whose opinions you respect and who will give you honest feedback.

Chairman Pow is right on the money. The key to writing good poetry - or good anything - is twofold: expose yourself to tons of it, including things you don’t like but that have artistic merit, and write all the damn time.

It’s not really a matter of practicing skills, although knowledge of the craft can’t hurt. But you will learn the craft eventually if you keep at it while keep your self honest in your criticism of your work. You need to learn to be a dispassionate critic and a passionate creator.

For the record, I’m not a poet but a songwriter. But both require a very similar outlook and respond to the same process in the learning of them. My wife is a poet, however and works in a very similar matter.

Keep a notebook. Record everything you see whenever you can. Record your thoughts, play with words and the sound of them. It will become habitual, and very addictive. You will find yourself doing it all the time, often at inappropriate times to the amusement of your friends and family.

And write something every day, even if it’s just a couple of words. They’ll turn into poems when they’re ready.

I’m partial to The Poet’s Handbook, by Judson Jerome.

If you would like to expose yourself to a lot of mostly contemporary styles that are gentle, spirited, thoughtful and well-written, get a copy of a collection gathered by Garrison Keillor. It’s called (I think) Good Poems. These are the poems he has been reading on the radio each day. Your library should have a copy. It’s also out in paperback.

Make note of the ones you like the most and why it is that you like them. That may give you a sense of your own style.

Carry a little notebook with you and write down phrases or word combinations or possible subjects as they occur to you.

Play around with words and rhythms.

Write about things in your life – even mundane things.

Let words flow. You can shape and polish and rearrange later. No one is looking over your shoulder.

Read your words aloud. Notice how the words sound together.

…and revise them. Read your own work as though you were new to it, and revise it mercilessly. This above all things. A poem is not “finished” until you have deliberated the choice of every word in the poem. Then show them to people. Everything2.com is a website which has no mercy for bad poets – and often has no mercy for good poets – but if you want to know what you’re doing right and wrong, a harsh critic will be better for you than a love-fest. If you get the sense that your audience is not criticizing your first works, find an audience that will.

Read the work of others, and when you find an author you like, figure out why you like his or her work. Get a copy of Perrine & Arp’s Sound & Sense and read it cover to cover. You don’t have to do the exercises, but they’re helpful. They teach you what’s been tried before, what’s been done to death, and what still works. Norton’s Anthology of Poetry (probably in its seventh or eighth edition by now) is a good collection of the “classics” with an extensive modern section – it should give you an idea of what time periods you like, which authors you like, and so forth.

I usually advise people who are new to writing to start with training wheels and write in one of the classical forms (haiku, sonnet, sestina) or even blank verse, rather than free verse, and have even ranted against poets who think free verse “straight from the heart” can ever be as good as the same emotion, “straight from the heart”, but polished and crafted into a perfect vessel.

You can find a few of my poems on Everything2; in addition to contributing, I’m an editor there who works with new poets. I’ve only had one of my poems published (discounting self-publication and school publications) but I’ve written hundreds. Of those, there are about twenty that I consider good, and maybe five that I’m really proud of.

Your best bet is to join a good writer’s group- I had a lot of luck with poetry classes at my college.

A good group is one where people read their poetry, and then respond- without any defence or rebuttles by the author- to each poem with what they think it was about, what the strong parts were and what the weak parts were. If your poem is about the confusion of modern man, but everyone else thinks it’s about how your mom eats everything good in the 'fridge, you really need to know that. Your audience needs to “get” your poem (otherwise, why share it?), and without testing it out you may never know if they are. Then you have a plan for rewriting.

It’s also inspiring to see what others are doing, and critiqueing your peers poems can put you in touch with your own sensibilities and help you push your limits.

Focus on imagery and compression.

The first thing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to write poetry is for them to discover what poetry is and what it isn’t. It is an art and a craft. It isn’t their innermost thoughts and feelings spewed out in unthinking words. You might laugh, but in my experience as a moderator at a couple of different poetry boards, that distinction is lost on most people.

Good poetry comes from the brain, not the heart, the liver, the spleen, or the right pinkie finger.

The next step? Read. Read any poetry you can get your hands on. Read prose. Read instruction manuals. See how the writer conveyed information, painted word pictures, or used metaphor.

Then comes the writing. Of course, you needn’t wait to get started writing, though it’s likely you’ll find that the more you read, the more informed and advanced your own writing will be.

Then comes the revising. Usually, you’ll want to get some input from someone who will be honest about your poem. Even if it’s just a confirmation that yeah, this is good, or yeah, this is bad.

There is so much misinformation and crazy faux mystique about poetry writing. It drives me crazy, and it’s why I sound cranky when in reality I think it’s super that you want to try your hand at a very underappreciated art form.

Do you promise to share your work? :slight_smile:

Oh yeah? What about one of the most famous poems in the galaxy:

Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning by Master Grunthos the Flatulent.


Seriously, this thread has a ton of great advice. And I echo jsgoddess - there’s a ton of crap out there, but what really matters is that you want to write poetry.

From there it’s just a matter of writing and learning to really utilize criticism (external and internal) as a tool to help you develop what you are trying to express.