Thread: Poetry Guide
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Old January 12th, 2011 (6:21 AM). Edited January 12th, 2011 by Astinus.
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Advice for writing poetry

Written by ~Ozy~

The Art of Poetry: I don't know what to tell you here. Poetry is personal to both the poet and the reader and cannot truly be defined. I'm hardly an authority on the subject, but here is what I believe: Poetry is almost entirely emotional. Thus, a poem should inspire an emotion in the reader, and reflect the emotional state of the poet at the time of writing it. I also believe that poetry cannot be forced, in a way that poetry rules the poet (or, at least, the IDEA of the poem does) and that it can only be written when the muse strikes, beats you upside the head, stabs you, or ties you up and leaves you for dead in your basement, whatever you prefer.

Now, onto the other stuff. First, a brief talk about...

Revision: Yes, I know. I sound like your English teacher. Nasty, eh? Who wants to revise? The answer is relatively simple. Your readers do. Good poetry is not like taking diction from the divine, whatever you may consider that to be. Good poetry takes time, effort and a careful consideration of every word. Remember, you don't have as much space as in a story, making every word count all the more (unless you're writing an epic, in which case I commend you). After your basic spelling and grammar checks, you might revise another ten times and only change one or two words each time. You also might eliminate entire stanzas, scrap the entire thing or rewrite it from the ground up. In short, if your poem is reviewed you should be able to defend everything you have done. The critic might be right, but it shouldn't be an automatic thing. You should make your poem stronger with each successive draft, more interesting to read and more emotional.

Point 1: Word Choice This is a major problem I see in many of the poems posted here. The language simply doesn't interest me. In general, it is repetitive and bland, or in some cases annoyingly over-the-top to avoid the former problem. I cannot emphasize how carefully your words must be chosen to be meaningful both to yourself and to the reader.

Point 2: Mechanics Your poetry should be free of punctuation, spelling, and grammatical errors. Period.

Point 3: Rhyming, Rhythm, and Meter Poetry can rhyme. It can have beautiful pentameter, or hexameter, or whatever and have a word-perfect rhythm. It can also do none of these things and still be poetry. What is most important is that your poetry feels natural. If you sacrifice meaning, or use limited and repetitive words for the sake of rhyme your work seems very amateurish. If the rhyme or rhythm come, they come. Don't make them.

Subsection A: A Brief Guide to Poetic Meter Consider the most basic meter, iambic pentameter. This consists of five poetic feet per line. A poetic foot consists of two syllables, either unstressed-stressed or stressed-unstressed. The former is considered iambic, the latter is trochaic. Thus, a line of poetry written in iambic pentameter would consist of ten syllables, five unstressed and five unstressed with the unstressed coming first. This is the most popular meter because it closely mirrors natural English speech.

Trochaic generally has a much more emphatic and forceful nature and can be much more difficult to write in.

Of course, pentameter is not the only meter. It runs from (at least, in terms of easy writing) tetrameter (six syllables, three poetic feet) to septameter (fourteen syllables, seven poetic feet). So, by way of example, a line of iambic quatrameter would read:

Within the ages of time lay

Subsection B: The Difference Between Meter and Rhythm This is a somewhat abstract point for two more concrete things. Rhythm and meter are indeed linked. When governed by a set of rules, rhythm becomes meter, however, if you switch meters, or write in no particular meter consistently, your piece has a rhythmic structure free of meter.

Point 4: The Necessity of Imagery This is another pet peeve of mine. Poetry that lacks strong imagery simply isn't interesting to read. Images, particularly the more natural, visceral ones have great power to influence emotion. Consider the following lines of poetry.

It was morning shared between us two.
You held me, and I loved you.
Above the horizon crept the sun.
His heated fire lacked the passion of your arms.
Now, I admit that neither set is particularly good poetry, but the latter provides a stronger reaction, no? It conveys the scene and the details of it without saying, "This is what I mean. Here." That simply does not influence the reader in a meaningful way. Cheesy example, but did having blatant messages of free will crammed down your throat every 30 seconds in The Matrix: Reloaded convince you of your own freedom or was that something that a simple image of defiance could have shown you and had a much more profound effect?

Point 5: Playing with Language Yes, I know I spoke strongly in favor of mechanics earlier, but there are times when simply stepping a little outside the box can have a very intriguing, positive effect on your work. An odd sentence structure or image can help draw the reader into the poem. Consider the following lines from Flames by Billy Collins.

as his paws, the size
of catcher's mitts,
crackle into the distance.
Now, grammatically, "stretch" would make more sense. However, the onomatopoeia gives the image of dry grass and tinder underfoot, and alludes to the title, and the fire that seems inevitable. Try being a little playful sometimes instead of rgidly adhering to every inane rule of language. (Yes, yes, I know, I know. I spoke against this before, but consider this an exception.) You'd be surprised at the impact this can have.

All right, I'm done lecturing now. I hope reading this has been moderately valuable to you. Most of all, I hope you continue writing poetry and improving. I know I have a long ways to go myself. Thank you for your time. As a last note, I suggest you read the following poets:

Billy Collins
Robert Frost
H.P. Lovecraft
e.e. cummings
Charles Bukowski
Saul Williams
Percy Bysshe Shelly
George Gordon (Lord Byron)
W.B. Yeats
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
William Wordsworth