Poem writing is a special kind of magic that can really get your creativity flowing. Whether you want to publish a book of poems, enter a poetry contest, or just express your emotions through words on the page, you must first understand what poetry is and isn't. And that's exactly what I'll cover in this article on how to write a poem.
- What poetry is.
- Different types of poetry.
- How to start writing your own poems.
Table of contents
- What is Poetry?
- Characteristics of Poetry
- Different Types of Poems
- Read Poetry Before You Write Poetry
- How to Write a Poem
- Publish Your Collected Poems
- How to Write a Poem: Conclusion
What is Poetry?
Asking what poetry is is like asking what fiction is. There are so many different types of fiction that explore every aspect of humanity. Poetry is very much the same. You could write an entire book on the question of what poetry is (and people have).
But for the purposes of this article, we'll go with a simple definition. Poetry is the aesthetic use of language to evoke emotion in the reader (or listener).
Poetry is a Broad Term
Poetry can tell a story just as clearly as other forms of creative writing. It can evoke feeling through figurative language and imagery or word use alone, without the help of the logic underpinning those words. It can be straightforward or seemingly nonsensical.
Writing poetry can be akin to a science or a free-for-all, depending on how you prefer to go about it. And like all art, good poetry is in the eye of the beholder.
And given that there's something called free verse poetry, that definition is really all you need if you want to start writing now. That's one of the beautiful things about poetry; it doesn't have to be anything specific.
It doesn't even have to rhyme. It can be whatever you write on the page.
But free verse poetry has only been around for a relatively short period in human history. If you want to get to the roots of what poetry really is in all its many facets, there are some things you first need to understand.
Characteristics of Poetry
Poetry is as much about the sound of the words (whether said out loud or in your head) as it is about the words themselves. Poetry uses words to craft images in the reader's mind, to express ideas, and to explore what it means to be human.
But it doesn't just do this through the words and their apparent face value. It does this through many different characteristics. The most common are as follows.
Structure and Form
Unlike free verse poetry, there are certain structures that are common in different kinds of poetry. These kinds of limitations can really help you get creative by searching for the exact right words with the right sounds, helping you put them in the right order.
For example, a haiku is a form of three-line poetry that uses the five-seven-five syllable configuration.
Epic poetry tells the story of a hero going on a journey. Homer's The Odyssey is the most famous example of epic poetry.
Acrostic poetry is a kind in which the first and/or last letters of each line spell a message or word.
We'll get into more detail with the different types below. This is just to illustrate that certain types of poetry have certain structures to be aware of.
Sound and Flow
While I won't get too deep into the technical aspects of poetry, it is important to consider two important characteristics that are near-constants across many poems: Rhythm and rhyme.
Rhythm refers to the cadence of the words and how they sound when spoken. Sometimes called meter and rhythm, this is how the syllables (stressed and unstressed) sound together.
Certain poems have a marked rhythm that seems to carry you through, whether you're reading or hearing it read.
Rhyme refers to the use of similar-sounding words throughout the poem. While many people think of this as ending every line or every other line with a rhyming word, there are many different types of rhyming. You can have a rhyming word at the beginning, middle, or end of your lines—or all of the above.
Different Types of Poems
These are the different forms of poetry. If one of them jumps out at you and you'd like to try writing poems in that form, I advise you to do a little research on the structure and then start experimenting.
Sonnet – These 14-line poems feature a specific rhyme scheme. William Shakespeare is well-known for his English sonnets.
Limerick – These comedic poems are five lines long and feature a specific rhyme scheme.
Villanelle – 19-line poems that make use of repetition and feature a specific rhyme scheme.
Blank Verse – Poems that don't rhyme but have a rhythmic pattern.
Concrete – Concrete poetry arranges words and lines in such a way as to create an image of them that's related to the topic or theme.
Prose – These are poems only in the sense that they evoke emotion through imagery, but they are not written in verse.
Lyric – Unlike a narrative poem, these types of poems don't tell a story but instead focus on emotional feelings.
Haiku – A form of three-line poetry that uses the five-seven-five syllable configuration.
Epic Poems – These tell the story of a hero going on a journey. They're essentially long stories in poem form.
Acrostic Poems – An acrostic poem is one in which the first and/or last letters of each line spell a message or word.
Free Verse – Free verse is just what it sounds like. There are no rules and no specific poetry form you have to stick to. It can tell a story or use more abstract words to describe an emotion or feeling.
There are many other types of poems. You can look up a list of all the different kinds if none of these strike your fancy.
Read Poetry Before You Write Poetry
Reading poetry is the best way to familiarize yourself with poetic form and the different kinds of poetry. Here are just a few resources to get you started.
- John Keats: The Complete Poems
- The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou
- 100 Selected Poems by E. E. Cummings
- Devotions by Mary Oliver
- The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe
- Shakespeare's Sonnets
- A Collection of Poems by Robert Frost
- Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
How to Write a Poem
While the mechanics of writing poetry will vary depending on the form you choose, the tips below should help get you started no matter what kind of poem you're hoping to write.
Decide on a Form
Most new poets like to start with free verse poetry because it's less restrictive than other forms. However, if you have a specific kind of form you'd like to stick to, I recommend reading and researching other poems in that form before you start reading.
Pay close attention to the poems that resonate with you. And do some research on the specifics of the form in question.
Once you decide on a form and want to give it a go, follow the steps below.
Decide on a Theme
A theme is the idea or inspiration behind your poem. There's really no wrong theme, nothing that's off-limits in contemporary poetry. Much of the time, a poet will start with a strong emotion they want to explore. It could be love, heartache, rejection, joy, confusion, rage, or any other emotion.
Remember that the point of poetry is to evoke emotion in the reader. And chances are, if you're feeling something, other people can identify with that feeling as well. The trick is finding the right words and putting them in the right order to evoke that emotion from the reader.
Of course, when I say the “right” words in the “right” order, I'm speaking relatively. As the writer, you'll have to decide whether the words you choose are the right ones or not. Only when you're satisfied with the poem is it truly done. And most poetry writing begins with an emotion.
Remember Literary Devices
The whole of the English language (or whatever language you choose to write in) is at your disposal. This includes literary devices used in other creative writing, such as metaphor, simile, irony, and hyperbole.
Feel free to use a literary device or two in your poem. You may use a simile by saying a person you love is like a comfy sweater, always there to provide warmth and a sense of comfort when you need it.
You may use hyperbole by saying that the sense of loss you feel is a death in itself.
Keep these literary devices in mind as you start to write your poem.
Put Pen to Paper
While you don't have to write with pen and paper, I think there's something about writing by hand that helps jumpstart the creative process. Plus, the paper and pen will come in handy later when you do your editing.
So if you have a notebook that you can use as a poetry journal, I highly suggest using it to write and edit.
With your form, idea, and possible literary devices in mind, it's time to get writing. Don't focus on choosing the “right” words at this point. Just let your subconscious take control. Write down whatever comes to mind and see where it takes you. Sometimes you have to get the wrong words out to find the right ones.
This is your first draft. It's about solidifying what you want to say and how you want to say it. And remember that every good poem you've ever read has likely gone through multiple iterations before it was ready to be seen by others.
Don't limit yourself to what you “think” poetry is or isn't. Let your creativity stretch as far as you like, and see what combination of words you can find to express the idea you're trying to get across.
Make Use of Line Breaks
Remember that poetry is different from prose in its use of line breaks. In prose, the edge of the page is really the only thing dictating where one line ends. But in poetry, line breaks can be used as a tool to enhance the poem.
When reading poetry, readers will naturally pause when they come to a line break, and you can use that pause to your advantage, adding depth to your poetry.
If you want your poem to rhyme, adding similar-sounding words before the line breaks is a great way to do it. So even if none of the other words rhyme, you'll still have similar sounds at the end of each line (or every other line, or every third line, etc.).
Not every line needs to end with a punctuation mark, either. If your line continues with a line break but without a punctuation mark of some kind, it's called an enjambed line.
Conversely, end-stopped lines are those that end with a comma, colon, semi-colon, exclamation point, question mark, or period.
You can also use line breaks and lines of different lengths to create an image from your poem, thereby adding more depth and meaning.
Edit and Rewrite
As with any form of creative writing, your poetry writing will flourish with editing and rewriting. Great poetry rarely happens on the first try, so if you're not quite satisfied with your first draft, keep working at it.
Even if you like what you've written, see if you can make it even better by choosing different words, rephrasing sections, changing line break locations, or omitting words.
I suggest using pen and paper so you can make notes in the space around the poem. You can also use arrows if you want to put one stanza (the poem's version of a paragraph) above another or simply rearrange a line.
Make use of a thesaurus to find different words that may fit better into the flow you've created in your poem. Then, once you've decided on all the changes you want to make, go to a fresh page and write the poem again with your changes in mind.
Repeat this process until you've got a beautiful piece of modern poetry you'll either share with the world or keep for yourself.
Publish Your Collected Poems
If you keep at it long enough, you may have a collection of poems you want to share with the world. If so, I recommend self-publishing them on Amazon.
But before you publish, it's a good idea to do some research so you can put your poetry collection in front of customers who are actively searching for your kind of poetry.
There are a lot of different poetry book categories on Amazon, so choosing the right one (along with the right keywords) can help your book show up in search results.
Normally, determining this could take hours of mind-numbing research combing through Amazon. However, I've created a tool called Publisher Rocket for indie authors to save them time during the market research process.
Not only can this tool help you research what categories are right for you, but it can also help you determine the best keywords for your book's metadata and keywords for Amazon ads (if you want to advertise your book of poetry).
Check out Publisher Rocket here.
How to Write a Poem: Conclusion
Whether you aspire to be a famous poet or you simply want to try your hand at poetry writing, there's really no downside to this creative endeavor. And while I didn't cover all the poetic devices (there are books written on the subject), I hope the tips I did share above have given you what you need to start writing poetry today!