How to Write a Poem - Poetry Techniques 1

On these pages, you'll find a step-to-step guide on how to write a poem.

What to write about?

The first step in any poem is coming up with something to write about. Don't feel that you have to choose profound or "poetic" material. Anything can be the subject for a poem. Great poems have been written about such topics as a gas station (Elizabeth Bishop,"The Filling Station"), a clothesline full of laundry (Richard Wilbur, "Love Calls Us to the Things of the World"), and pieces of broken glass on the beach ("Amy Clampitt, "Beach Glass").

It's easiest to write a good poem about something you know well, that you have experienced first-hand, or that you have nearby so that you can observe it carefully. This is because what makes the poem profound and interesting will be the hidden details or qualities you discover, or what the subject reminds you of, your unique perspective. With poems, as with other things (or so I hear), it's not the size that matters, it's what you do with it.

If you're stuck for inspiration, check out the CWN poetry prompts for lots of poetry ideas.

How to write a poem - getting outside yourself

In his book Poetry in the Making, the poet Ted Hughes talks about how to write a poem about an animal. The key, he says, is to concentrate hard enough on the animal, to choose the words that best capture the animal you have in your mind. You can use this approach with any subject matter.

In the beginning, you don't have to worry about "style," about writing in a "beautiful" or a "poetic" way. In fact, if you start to think about "being poetic," it can distract you from what you're actually writing about and hurt your poem. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who was trying to impress you? Then you know how boring this can be. The person is really thinking about himself or herself, not about the conversation. Similarly, if your attention is focused on "being poetic," if you are worrying about what impression your poem will make, then that takes your attention away from the animal or weather or whatever the subject of your poem is.

Even if the poem's about you or your life, try to take the perspective of a careful reporter when you write it down. You should focus on accurately communicating an aspect of your experience, instead of focusing on what impression you are making when you do it.


How to write a poem - expressing your insights

So far, I've talked about paying careful attention to your subject matter. But paying attention is obviously not enough - you also have to communicate your insights to the reader. Here are some tips that will help:

  1. Don't state the obvious. Everyone knows that grass is green, and that snow is cold. If you mention grass, readers will suppose it is green unless you inform them otherwise. It's not necessary to mention the color of the grass unless you have something to say about it that the reader doesn't already know.

  2. But don't force originality. If the grass is actually green, you don't have rack your brain for another way to express the color just to be "different." Keep looking, focus on your subject matter, to find the real details that make it unique, the hidden meaning.

  3. Choose the right words. I'm not talking about words that are "poetic" or "impressive," I'm talking about words that express your subject matter. In his essay about animal poems, Hughes talks about words as if they themselves were living animals, each with a certain appearance and sound and way of moving.

    Think of the words "glow" and "glitter." Both describe light, but different kinds of light. When I see the word "glow," I think of a gentle warm light coming from inside of something. When I see the word "glitter," I think of many tiny pieces of light reflecting off of a hard surface. The word "glitter" gives me more of an idea of motion. The sounds of the words also create different feelings. "Glow" has a soft, round sound; "Glitter" has a hard sound and is broken into two parts, like light that is fragmented or moving.

how to write a poem

How to write a poem - next steps

Click here to go to Part 2 of the series on how to write poetry

Click here for a complete list of CWN poetry pages

You can find more about poetry and how to write a poem on the Library of Congress's poetry page.

The Academy of American Poets also offers a variety of resources on poetry how to teach poetry.

The University of Wisconsin's Writing Center offers tips on how to read a poem.


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