How to Write a Poem - Poetry Techniques 2

This is Part 2 of the CWN series on how to write a poem. (Click here to go to part 1).

Poetry techniques - expressing the invisible

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how to choose something to write about, and how to start turning your subject into the poem. The poetry techniques I've recommended all have to do with careful observation of your subject matter. But what if you're not writing about a person, place, animal, plant, or thing, but about a feeling or an abstract concept such as Love or Death? How can you observe and describe something that can't actually be seen or heard?

Here are some suggestions:

1) Think of like looking at the wind through a window. You can't see the wind, right? The wind is invisible. But at the same time, you can see the wind because of its impact on the things that are visible. You see the leaves flapping. You see the surface of a puddle ripple. You see a girl hunched inside her coat, her hair blowing into her face. You see someone try to light a cigarette and the match go out. Abstractions like Love and Death don't look, sound, or smell like anything. But they affect everything around them. And you can describe the places they've touched.


2) Make it specific. Instead of Love, for example, write about "the love between my parents." Then try making it even more specific: "the love between my parents and the silent ways it shows itself when they are eating dinner together." Try relating it to a certain person, place, event. Love, Death, Anger, Beauty -- these concepts do not occur in a vacuum. They are not grown in test tubes. They are experienced by individual people, in particular situations. And our deepest understanding of these concepts is at the human level, through the ways they touch us personally and the people around us. Creating this human connection will give your poem a stronger emotional power for your reader. And it puts your idea in a form where you can observe it carefully and discover aspects of it that have never been described before.

Poetry techniques - meaning and form

I've talked about different kinds of poem content. But what about form?

For very experienced poets, formal aspects of poetry can become second nature, so that they sometimes know right away what form they want to use for a poem. This is probably not your situation. My suggestion is to focus first on your subject and get all your ideas down on paper. Then, once you've written down your ideas, start experimenting with the shape. You can read about poem structure here. Try organizing your poem in different ways and see what happens. Try shorter lines and longer ones; try breaking the lines in various places and observe the effects.

The best form for your poem will depend on what it's about and the mood and feelings you want to create in the reader. The length of the line can make the reader go faster or slower, change the look of the poem on the page, focus attention on certain words. You may decide to incorporate other structural elements such as a certain number of syllables per line, a regular meter, or a rhyme scheme. All of this should work with, and contribute to, the poem's meaning.

Write different versions, then look them over and compare. How do they look on the page? Dense and heavy, or light and delicate? How well does their appearance fit your poem? What about the sound? Try reading them out loud. What is the rhythm like, for example, short and choppy, bouncy, smooth? Are there places where your eye or voice pauses? Are these the right places? Which versions are most interesting to read? Are there any places where the look or sound becomes distracting (for example, if you have one very long line that sticks out too much)?

Poetry techniques - writing and rewriting

Behind most successful poems, there's a huge amount of rewriting. According to Robert Wallace in the book Writing Poems (HarperCollins, 1991), one seemingly simple poem by E.E. Cummings went through more than 175 versions.

Every poet has his or her own way of working -- there's no right or wrong method. But here's one idea for a process that you might find helpful:

1) In the first stage, as I've suggested, you might want to focus your attention on the poem's subject, considering it from different angles, developing strong ideas about it.

2) Then, you can look for the best words to bring it to life on the page, to create a mental picture for the reader that matches the ideas in your own mind. Don't start correcting yourself or editing too soon. That can stop the ideas from flowing. Give yourself time to get everything on paper. Maybe sleep on it, then write some new ideas. When you feel that you've gotten everything down, then take a look at what you've got:

  • Are there words that don't seem quite right for what they're describing? Are there words that don't serve a purpose? If you can remove something without hurting the poem, it's usually a good idea to remove it.

  • Is there anything there that doesn't feel genuine, that's only there because it seems "poetic," to impress the reader? Remove or replace anything that is just "showing off."

  • Are there parts of the poem that you like better than others? Are there parts you should delete? Are there parts that don't quite fit, that should be cut out or integrated better? Is there a particularly interesting part that might suggest taking the poem in a new direction?

3) Experiment like crazy. Try different forms, different angles. Try putting the ideas in a different order. Try everything that you think might improve the poem. You've got nothing to lose -- you can always go back to a previous draft. Compare versions; see what works better and worse. You might decide to combine parts of one version with parts of another. Work to come up with the ideal version of your poem.

Poetry techniques - keep reading

There are certain common problems that often hurt the poetry of new poets. But you can avoid them! Click here to read more in Part 3 of the How to Write a Poem series.

Or choose a link below to read more about specific aspects of poetry.


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