Poetry - Where to begin?

(For those short on time or patience, the essential part of this posting is at the bottom in bold. Feel free to skip directly to the question, if you like.)

I’ve never been the kind of person who could read or see something beautiful and simply be amazed by it. A pianist’s recital, a painter’s latest portrait, or even listening to the newest U2 song at a crowded concert; I always feel the need to get a personal taste of each respective art after viewing it. I need to learn how to play the piano, draw a portrait, or sing in public. You just don’t get a satisfying enough understanding of a skill until you’ve tried your hand at it, I think.

And, until my attentions came to poetry, that hasn’t been a problem. It’s been great, actually, and I feel like I’ve learned and grown. But poetry… that’s an old foe.

I’ve always felt like I’ve been writing. My imagination churns out plenty between sunrise and sunset, but that’s the familiar friend of prose and non-fiction. And, like most people who fancy themselves writers, I’ve a sizable personal library of other writers’ works. But though they number in the thousands, not a single book of poetry is among them.

These hands have never written a poem. In fact, they tremble at the thought. There is something so deeply frightening to me about writing poetry, and I do not fully understand what it might be. Is that odd?

But recently, I’ve not been able to ignore my growing appreciation for poetry and its interpretation. I can’t overlook the fact that once-hated Shakespeare now engrosses and overwhelms me on a twice weekly basis. I have to admit that just last night I almost sat down and tried to write a poem. I chickened out, FYI.

Fortunately, fear just goads me forward. But perhaps you, dear Dopers, could offer some tidbits of advice that might ease my blind terror. Like a child, I need safety and supervision from the more experienced, and standards and technique might just suffice as training wheels for this ambition.

How does one begin writing poetry?

I know nothing of blank verse, iambic pentameters, or songwriting. Neither the names Irving Layton nor Robert Frost are more than just famous poets to my mind. Their poetry isn’t a part of my knowledge. I’m almost a blank slate, I think, when it comes to poetry. So where does one start? Especially this late in the game. All the poets I’ve ever encountered were writing poems in grade school :smiley:

The best place to begin is by reading. Just as you wouldn’t try to write a romance novel without reading romance novels to learn the culture of them, trying to write poetry without first reading poetry just makes the attempt way more difficult.

Lots of people start writing poetry without liking poetry at all. It’s a weird medium where so many think there’s no skill to it beyond having emotions.

So, to start, read. What should you read? Start with literary journals. For a pretty random list, try here. This is a list of poetry markets based on response rates and times, but just click on the various journals, click through to their websites, and read. This is the best way I can think of to find out what you like and what’s out there. You might even stumble across my work! :slight_smile:

Reading poetry is a good start.

My wife, who’s had over 300 published poems, usually just writes down her feelings, often inspired by an image or thought. She writes free verse and concentrates on the emotions involved. They are based on things that happened to her, or things she read.

I’ve had a few poems published, too, but they were humorous throwaways. My favorite was a sonnet* I wrote for a poetry contest inspired by a sculpture in the art show of an SF convention with the final couplet “For careful wizards never should elect/To battle knights whose armor doth reflect.” There was also my

Basic Poem.

10 Print “em po”;
20 Go to 10

Don’t laugh. I got paid ten cents a word for that. (Or next to nothing, depending on how you count.)

I wouldn’t try rhyming poetry at first; it’s slightly disreputable these days (except for sonnets), mostly because beginners work on the rhymes and ignore the rhythm (you don’t necessarily have to know what iambic pentameter is, but you do need to keep the same rhythm throughout a poem if you are rhyming it). It’s also hard to express raw emotions.

The best advice is to find an image or incident and write about it, trying to use words to provide new insights and create emotions in the reader.

Then market the hell out of it.

*Sonnets are easy – you get into the rhythm (“Is this the face that launced a thousand ships” is my key phrase) and you can spout out lines of iambic pentameter all day.

Bowdlerize something.

You like Shakespeare?

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill:
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse.
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest,
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ costs,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be:
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast.
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take,
All this away, and me most wretched make.

Let’s fix it up for the internet age:

Some glory in their bytes, some in their skilz,
Some in their Macs, some in their ipod touch,
Some in their prowress in on-line game kilz,


Srsly, you practice sonnet form–syllable count and rhyme–without having to come up with a real idea. You can learn to be comfortable with the structure before you tackle something you care about.

After you read some more poetry, start writing it by imitating what the poets you like are doing. Dudn’t matter if you understand them fully. No one does, not even themeselves. Just imitate. Say “I’m gonna do what this here Herrick dude does,” and write about how beautiful your girlfriend’s clothes look on her, or “…this here Ginsburg dude,” (that would probably be your boyfriend’s clothes, though). Try to copy their styles, their ways of thinking, their verbal tics, their insights.

Dudn’t matter that your first few attempts are unpublishable, and probably unreadable. Fact, it’s better if you accept that right off, and feel liberated to make mistakes, or just flat out copy images and not worry about being accused of plagiarism. (Because no one’s going to read this stuff? Right? Ever, right? Right. That’s the attitude.) You’re learning how to write by figuring out slowly what those poets you like actually do. It’s tedious sometimes but it’s also fun. So have fun.

You might want to try Stephen Frye’s The Ode Less Travelled. It’s a brilliant book, and if you actually stick to the exercises, lo and behold, you will be writing poetry.

Absolutely. Just what I was going to recommend. Here’s a link to the book. It’s witty and fun to read, but unless you’re already an expert, you’ll learn a lot about how poetry works. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to write poetry or who just wants to read it with more appreciation.

Isn’t Fry’s book one of those “it’s only worthwhile if it’s in meter and everyone else is lazy and sloppy and not ~True Poetry~” books? I might be mistaking him for someone else.

And then move on to rewriting Ginsberg in the style of Keats. Or vice versa!

Crocodiles and Boulevards, I know of one beginner poetry board, but they are (in my opinion, and I used to be a moderator there) extremely unpleasant. There are lots of more advanced boards that I would highly recommend, but probably not yet. In any case, if you want to check them out, send me a PM.

High School anthologies of poetry are often an excellent starting point.

Hey, thanks for the great advice, folks. I figured reading the relevant literary history of poetry would be a solid start, but I’m still curious as to whether there are any authoritative introductions already written for novices like myself. Then again, sometimes organic is the way to go.

I’ll be checking my local library for some books of poetry and also those links provided, thanks. I wonder if I’ll be able to find Frye’s book there. Ah well, I need to dust off my Amazon account anyhow. Thanks again, folks.

Well, no, not exactly; but he definitely comes out against laziness and sloppiness, and he believes that too much, though not all, of modern, meterless, formless poetry is “worthless arse-dribble.”

(The complete rant is on p. 172-178.) He spends most of the book talking about meter, rhyme, and poetic forms, and I’m pretty sure he believes that these are things that every serious poet ought to know about and have in his or her toolbox, whether or not he or she chooses to use them in a particular poem.

Sure, Sturgeon’s Law applies to poetry pretty well.

But I’m suspicious of him. I’ve run across far too many people who attempt to make the argument that free verse is “prose with line breaks.” I write in received and nonce forms quite a bit, but the hidebound metricists need a punch in the kisser. :smiley:

To my mind, working within a structure helps. Free verse is easier to write, but much harder to write well.

Working with a structure can help me get going, but I’ve read too damned many horrible, or competent but banal, sonnets to agree with your latter point.

jsgoddess: Can’t argue with that, exactly, but bad free verse bugs me more than bad sonnets :slight_smile:

And not to go all pedantic and medieval on your asses, but a good principle is the “arrow in your quivers” argument: it’s one thing if a poet knows forms backwards and forwards but chooses not to work in form, but another one entirely if he or she is clueless and/or incompetent and goes straight to free verse. You might be amazed at all the arrogance I’ve encoutered from people claiming to be poets over the years who can’t distinguish their asses from a villanelle, but feel free to offer such noble criticisms like “That seems to ramble…this doesn’t flow right…the mood is off in this one.”

Poetry is not a river–it’s a craft with skills and techniques and methods, any of which you can reject completely, once you understand it and know why you’re rejecting it. This sometimes takes years of practice and experimentation, but most of the people working in modern formless verse just assume they were born poetic and dispense with all that stuff. Very few poets, in my experience, haven’t worked extensively in form at some point even if their work doesn’t show that on the surface.