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How do you write poetry?

From time immemorial man has seen the universe in awe. He looked around and wondered what he was seeing. Every once in a while, a speical person would come along and tell them (the world) what he sees and why. That person would tell them in verse or song and it would always be somewhat different from what they had seen. Slowly but surely these speical people put rhyme to reason. Their reason.

Poetry has always been with us, it will always be with us because as man grows on the Earth, as the population grows so does the number that feel the call. These speical people that have an urge to tell the world what they see, feel, know as poetic truths.

Some would argue that the Greatest Age of Poetry passed away with Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. I tell you people everywhere are still writing volumes and volumes of the stuff. Like any other artistic endeavor, fads and movements come and go, but the interest in writing poetry has never faded completely. Indeed, run the word 'poetry' in any good Internet search engine and see how many thousands of hits you receive. Although the quality and caliber of poetry may vary widely, the basic desire to express personal thoughts in an intense and intimate writing style is nearly universal in scope. All of us are familiar with the sentimental poetry of greeting cards, or the image-filled lyrics of our favorite songs. Presidential inaugurations always include a commissioned poem from one of our best writers, and many of our most sacred traditions are enhanced with poetry. There can be no doubt that poetry and the writers who create it are part of our collective consciousness.

But how does one begin the challenge of writing poetry?

To begin with, there are as many forms of poetry as there are writers who create it. Some forms, such as free verse or light verse, are still hugely popular with many readers. Other forms, such as Sonnets or Blank verse, have faded somewhat in popularity, but still worth studying and creating. In short, poetry should never be limited to what is current or popular, but what is most effective for the particular effect a poet wishes to have on his audience. Before starting to write poetry, you should develop a true appreciation for all the forms it has taken over the centuries. Once you have a strong foundation, then you can consider which forms are the most appealing for your particular voice. As for me, I didn't know anything about poetry; it just comes to me and I wrote it down (lucky I guess) but my HTML instructor has handed me a challenge "To Inform Someone About Poetry". So here I am.

For most modern poets, (not me) the 'free verse' style is perhaps the most popular. Never confuse free verse with 'freedom from rules', however, or your poetry will not hold up well under scrutiny. Free verse poetry came about in the late 19th century, with Walt Whitman generally credited with originating the form. Before Whitman, poetry was restricted to certain forms and rhyming schemes. Some poets did very well under these restrictions, including Shakespeare, William Blake and my favorite Saul Silverstine. Formal poetic form generally follows a set pattern, both in rhyme and meter. Analyzing these patterns is called scansion. Most of your studies of poetry in school involved some sort of scanning the individual lines.

If you decide to write formal poetry, you will need to understand two basic concepts of scansion.

One concerns rhyme patterns and the other concerns meter. Most poems written before Whitman have established rhyming patterns that define their form. When scanning for rhyme patterns, we commonly place a letter to represent the end word of each line. The first line ends in A, then the next line is B and so on. Once a word rhymes with a previous end word, however, the letter is repeated. So if a four line poem has two lines that rhyme with each other, then two that rhyme with each other in a different way, we would call the rhyme pattern AABB. If the third line does not rhyme with the others, we would add a C to the mix. A very common pattern in poetry, especially folk songs, is ABCB. Once you have identified the individual line rhyme patterns, you can then apply certain rules of form.

Sonnets, for example, can have a set rhyme pattern of ABABABAB CDE CDE or end with a two line couplet that is separate.

Villanelles, a French form, have strict rhyming schemes along with a repetition of the end lines in each stanza.

You can research all of the different forms of traditional poetry for a better understanding of the rhyme scheme.

The other concern with formal poetry writing is meter. Each line within a formal poem contains a set number of beats, usually two or three syllables. Words are chosen carefully to ensure adherence to the form. These 'beats' have various stresses and accents. One of the most commonly used meters in formal poetry is called 'Iambic pentameter'. The individual beats consist of a short and a strong pulse. You can hear this beat in words such as 'arrest, domain, forsooth'. The accent is on the second syllable. When five of these patterns are repeated in the same line, we call it "pentameter", from the Greek word for 'five'. Other meters may be quadrameter(4) or sestameter(6) or octameter (8).

For quick reference, here are some common names for the individual beat patterns found in formal poetry:

    Trochaic: Accent is on the first syllable of a two-beat foot. TOUCHdown, PROmise, TURtle.

    Iambic: Accent is on the second syllable of a two-beat foot. arREST, doMAIN, forSOOTH.

    Dactylic: Accent is on the first of a three-beat foot. Much like a waltz beat. HAMburger, CELLular, MONitor.

    Anapestic: Accent is on the third of a three-beat foot. gasoLINE, 'to the FRONT!'

    Spondaic: two unaccented beats. grapefruit, heartbreak, cold feet.

Thus endeth the sermon on formal poetry. The sad reality is that most formal styles of poetry have fallen out of favor with modern audiences, so the main focus of this mini-lesson will be on free verse poetry.

The three things you should keep in mind about formal poetry are:

  1. There are a lot of rules concerning rhyme and style.
  2. The best formal poems are the ones that followed these rules precisely.
  3. You are probably going to break every single one of these rules in your own writing efforts.

Walt Whitman honestly felt that the restrictiveness of the classic poetry form was a hindrance to his expression. Those who followed him refined the free verse form, making it the most popular with readers and fledgling poets alike. Finally, the Beat movement, led by poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, brought poetry to the masses. Today's poetry is now being produced by students, doctors, factory workers, homeless people and any other walk of life you can think of. There are numerous poetry societies and amateur critiquing circles all over the world.

So how do you create a good free verse poem yourself? Here are some pointers:

Each of these seemingly inappropriate phrases conjures up clear imagery in the reader's mind. Find your inspiration and be prepared to do a lot of digging and self-examination.

1. Once you've found the subject, you need a framework. Some would-be poets believe that freeverse poetry is completely unstructured. The truth is that good freeverse poetry has an underlying structure, even if it appears buried or haphazardly constructed. In the same way that formal poetry depended on rhythm and rhyme for its power, freeverse poetry depends on tension and release. You may hear the term 'tightness' in relation to modern poetry. This refers to the relative compactness of individual lines or stanzas. This can be very difficult to explain but consider the Pledge of Allegiance for example. You don't simply blurt out the entire pledge in one burst. It has a distinct pattern of short bursts and pauses. Certain words get additional power from this arrangement suchas 'allegiance', 'indivisible', 'liberty'. Your poem should also find this invisible pulse for maximum impact. Find the words that carry the weight of the poem and give them a stronger position by breaking them off from the previous statements. A line that runs from margin to margin has very little tension by the end. This may be fine for more lyrical poems, but if you're trying to express anger or other strong emotion you need to break your lines into short bites. Here's an example of how 'tightening' can improve the power of your poem.

Consider this line first:

Life will hold you down if it gets a chance. I'll take what life gives Me. You see I don't want to miss the Dance.

Fairly evocative, but it reads like any other prose line about life. Here's the same line again, arranged a little more poetically.

Life will hold you down
If it gets a chance
I'll take what life gives Me
You see I don't want to miss the Dance

Not exactly Tennyson, but the idea should be clear. The lines now have some tension behind them, which helps the reader feel a subliminal 'something' that controls the speed of the reading and puts better emphasis on the more evocative words. This is what poets and critics mean by 'tightening'. Whenever you reach the first editing or rewriting stage, you will spend a lot of time working on this very concept.

2. Decide on your intended mood for better control of the language. Once you've examined your topic thoroughly and have hung up some words on the framework, you need to concentrate on tone and mood. This is strictly up to your own interpretation of the subject. Once you've decided the tone and mood of the piece, choose only those words and phrases that enhance that particular mood. A poet's best friend can be a good thesaurus and a rhyming book. You may find that a certain tone does not sustain the entire piece, so be prepared to change the angle of attack.

3. Get as much feedback as you can before beginning any rewrites. Reading poetry is a collaborative process between author and reader. Find out all you can about the reader's reaction to the work as it stands before doing any major editing. This is not always the most pleasant part of creating poetry, because you are opening yourself up to a gamut of criticisms and opinions, some of which can be non-constructive or mean spirited. One should never shy completely away from this process, however, because the benefits of good feedback should still outweigh the sting of negative reception. Online poetry workshops are excellent places to post work that you want critiqued. Your family members and trusted friends should also be able to provide some valuable insight into the relative strengths and weaknesses of your piece. Sometimes writers will store freshly-written poems away for a while, in order to gain a more objective perspective when they finally do start editing.

4. If you want to write better poetry yourself, read everything you can by established poets. Poetry is truly a craft that has been handed down from generation to generation. If you want to learn how to improve your own craft, study at the feet of the masters. Not only should you be familiar with those who have gone before, but you should also see what is being published currently.

You should be able to find at least one published poet who uses your particular style. The idea is to EMULATE, not imitate. Be aware of following trends and fads in the poetry world, because poetry is very cyclical in nature- what may not be in vogue now might be the rage next year. For exercise, try some of the formal poetry styles.

In general, writing poetry is a matter of compressing language to what is most essential. Limit the number of articles and other fillers. Use adjectives sparingly, because overuse can become jarring to the reader. When in doubt, cut it out. Poetry is not chopped prose, so try to avoid 'telling' a story as much as showing the reader just enough information for the story to solidify in his or her mind. A lot of poetry is very subjective and emotional by nature-do not fear using stronger language or more intense imagery in order to get your point across to the reader. What will ultimately sell your poem is a strong 'voice'- that point of view that separates your work from anyone else's. A strong voice doesn't arrive overnight, but it should be your ultimate goal when writing your own poetry.

From Your Heart