Mary K Gowdy
How To Write A Poem - Tips For Beginners
How the hell do you write a poem? You might ask. For most, writing a poem is an intimidating activity. I'm here to help you.
Whether you're here because you've always wanted to write a poem but haven't known how to begin or because your English teacher put you up to this, I’ll explain the basic techniques of writing poetry such as rhyme, form, poetic devices, and more.
I'm know writing a poem can make you feel self-conscious (or scare the shit out of you). So, before we get into any of the techniques, relax. Get rid of any expectations you have—whether of success or failure. You're not going to create a sonnet of the likes of Shakespeare, and that's okay. Don't beat yourself up over it. You're learning. Creating anything requires space from your insecurities and fears so that you can learn and improve.
The first thing you want to consider when writing a poem is:
Common topics include love, loss, nature, and depression.
But poetry isn't bound to certain topics. Poetry can be about anything. Don't feel like you can't write about something because the idea’s not “poetic” enough. Write about what interests you. You can write about your life, thoughts, desires, your likes, your dislikes, an event that may not even include you, or you can make up a story.
A popular spoken word poet, Sarah Kay suggests making a list of 10 things you know to be true and then to pick the one that is least likely to have been written about by other people.
I would also suggest making a list of three topics you care deeply about. What gets you excited? What makes your blood boil? Or what will you rant about to anyone that will listen? Remember: don't confine yourself to an idea that sounds poetic. If it matters to you, it’ll matter to someone else.
The next few things we’ll be discussing are poetic devices you’ll want to use.
Two words rhyme when they end in the same sounds like “ring” and “sing”. Poems will often end their lines with words that rhyme, though they don't have to.
There are several types of rhyme:
Exact (or perfect) rhyme - the final vowel and consonant sounds match perfectly.
In the poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe:
“It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee; And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me.”
“Sea”, “Lee”, and “me” all end in the same “ee” sound and lack a final consonant sound, so both their vowel and consonant sounds match to create an exact rhyme.
Then, in “The Tyger” by William Blake
“In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?”
“Skies” and “eyes” are exact rhymes, and so are “aspire” and “fire”. “Skies” and “eyes” share the same vowel sound of “I” and both end in “s” (which in this case is pronounced like a “z” because English spelling is messed up).
Exact rhymes are pleasing to the ear.
Half (or slant) rhyme - either the final vowel sounds match or the final consonant sounds do, but not both.
In “Not any higher stands the Grave” by Emily Dickinson
“This latest Leisure equal lulls
The Beggar and his Queen
Propitiate this Democrat
A Summer's Afternoon —“
“Queen” and “Afternoon” end in “n” but don’t have the same vowel sounds.
My next example is “A Ladder of Notes” by Yours Truly. (For the record, I only used one of my own poems because I couldn’t find another one I was satisfied with as an example of the vowel sounds matching but not the final consonants. I’m not that conceited—I promise).
“The soft guitar drained the moment of all but The darkness that dragged me inward and then cupped The light so blue below of the city’s ring.”
“But” and “cupped” share the same vowel sound of “uh” but end in different consonants.
Cross-rhyme - the end of the line rhymes with a word in the middle of the line or stanza before or after it.
“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
“Tapping” at the end of the first line rhymes with “rapping” in the middle of the line after it.
Internal rhyme - a rhyme between the end of the line and a word in the middle of the same line.
From Macbeth by Shakespeare
“Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble…”
“Double” and “trouble” rhyme and occur in the same line.
There are many more types of rhyme but they are far more obscure and harder to master. These are the basic types that every poet should have in their arsenal.
The Internet is a helpful tool for finding rhymes. RhymeZone is a website where you can insert a word and it’ll give you others that rhyme with it. B-Rhymes does the same thing but specializes more in half rhymes. *be careful, though, because B-Rhymes will give you words that don't rhyme at all but sound good together.
Meter is the rhythm of a poem. Rhythm is created by the alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables.
Stressed syllables are marked with a /Unstressed syllables are marked with a U
Every word has a particular syllable that is stressed more than the others.
To figure out the stress of the word, here are two tips:
as you say the word, clap your hands on one of the syllables. If you clap on the syllable that’s stressed, it should sound and feel right to you. If you clapped on the wrong syllable, something should feel off and you should try again on another syllable.
if that fails or you still want to make sure, look up the word with Google definitions. You can just google “[insert word] def”. Underneath the word will be its phonetic spelling. There'll be a little dash somewhere.
Whatever syllable it is placed right before is the syllable that is stressed.
In English, verbs tend to be stressed on the last syllable and nouns on the first. You say “There’s a pro-test outside” but “they pro-test against injustice”.
Then, in my examples earlier, the noun po-wer is accented on the first syllable and the verb es-cape on the last.
*This is more of a guideline than a rule. There are several words that are exceptions.*
Determining the stress of a word comes with practice. I used to not be able to tell by myself at all, but I’ve gotten more accurate the longer I've written poetry.
Now, you can start building meters. Meters are broken into units called feet (or a foot). A foot contains 2 to 3 syllables with a particular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.
There are five main types of feet:
Iamb - unstressed stressed
Trochee - stressed unstressed
Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
Dactyl - stressed unstressed unstressed
Spondee - stressed stressed
The meter of a poem is made up of two parts: the type of foot and the number of feet in a line.
Monometer--1 foot Dimeter--2 feet Trimeter--3 feet Tetrameter--4 feet Pentameter--5 feet Hexameter--6 feet
And so on, but rarely anything longer than pentameter is used.
To get the name of the meter, you add the name of the type of foot to the name for the number of feet in the line.
Type of Foot + Number of Feet in the Line
Iambic Pentameter is a common meter, especially in sonnets.
In “Sonnet 130” by Shakespeare, each line has 10 syllables divided into five feet—each with an unstressed and stressed syllable.
"My mis / tress’ eyes / are not / hing like / the sun;
Co ral / is far / more red / than her / lips’ red;"
Another meter is Anapestic Tetrameter in “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron. Each line is divided into 4 feet of 3 syllables (unstressed, unstressed, stressed).
"The As sy / rian came down / like a wolf / on the fold
And his co / horts were gleam / ing in pur / ple and gold"
3. Alliteration, Consonance, and Assonance
I've grouped these three poetic devices together because they're similar. They all are about the repetition of sounds.
Alliteration - the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words. Often, the words are right next to each other, but they don't have to be.
In Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
“We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.”
The alliteration of the “w” and “s” occur in adjacent words. However, in another line:
“For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky”
The “s” is again alliterated, but there are words separating “sky” and “sea”.
Consonance - the repetition of consonant sounds. What makes it different from alliteration is that it doesn't have to occur at the beginnings of words.
In “Twas later when the summer went” by Emily Dickinson
"Twas later when the summer went
Than when the cricket came,
And yet we knew that gentle clock
Meant nought but going home.
‘Twas sooner when the cricket went
Than when the winter came,
Yet that pathetic pendulum
Keeps esoteric time."
“M” is repeated several times in the middle or the ends of words: “summer”, “came”, “home”, “pendulum”, and “time.
Assonance - the repetition of vowel sounds.
In “Sonnet 55” by Shakespeare:
"Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents"
“Princes” and “outlive” have similar short “ih” sounds. Then, “shine” and “bright” also have similar “I” sounds.
“After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost
"Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear"
The “eh” sound is repeated.
Repetition of sounds are beautiful for the ear to hear and the tongue to say. These devices help bring about language’s beauty.
4. Simile and Metaphor
Both simile and metaphor compare two unlike things. The only difference is that simile uses “like” or “as” and metaphor does not.
In “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns
"O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune."
He uses the word “like” to compare his “luve” to a rose and a melody.
But in “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson
"“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -'"
She compares “hope” to a bird without using “like” or “as”. Instead, she describes it as having “feathers” and “perching” and “singing the tune”, which are all characteristics of birds.
I once defined poetry to a friend as words that make you see something in a different way. Similes and metaphors can reveal new connections between ideas that your audience may have never realized. However, they are easy to overuse. It’s best to keep in mind that they are not the only thing that makes poetry poetry. And since their purpose is to reveal new connections, don't use one that doesn't say anything new. It's unnecessary and cliché.
Repetition can include the repeating of words, phrases, whole lines/stanzas, or the repetition of grammatical structures. This poetic device can likewise be overused. When a phrase, etc. is repeated, it should have a slight variation in meaning or reveal something new in every situation it is repeated.
Then, the repetition of structures is called parallelism. This device can apply to phrases and whole sentences. It can tie two ideas together or contrast them. Whatever it does, the brain likes similarities like these, so using them in your poem will make it sound more pleasing.
An example of repetition occurs in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light…
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Throughout the poem, the two lines are repeated but are not repeated together until the end, so we don’t get the full message to the speaker’s father before then. The repetition ties the poem together in a circular way, like a maze with the full message at the center. The ending is a revelation of something you already knew.
Then, an example of parallelism occurs in ”How Do I Love Thee?" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise."
The parallel structure ties the ideas together so they build on one anther to emphasize the speaker’s point of what her love is like.
We’ve covered the main poetic devices: rhyme, meter, alliterations and co., simile and metaphor, and repetition. The last thing to discuss is form.
There are two main camps concerning form: formal/traditional poetry and free verse.
Formal poetry follows a preset form like a sonnet or a haiku that has rules for writing it. But, formal poetry can be as simple as every line having the same meter.
Free verse has no rules, no rhyme scheme, no meter that you have to follow. You make the form up yourself.
A lot of people suggest staring out with free verse as a beginner poet, but I would suggest you try to write a simple formal poem like a sonnet (if you think a sonnet is hard, try writing a villanelle. *SPOILER ALERT: you’ll end up tearing your hair out*).
Free verse is very easy. . . to write badly.
It’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of just writing a prose piece with line breaks. Formal poetry already has poetic qualities like rhyme and meter built in, so no matter what, your poem will sound like one. Once you’ve written enough to develop your skills, then you’ll be better equipped to create that poetic quality outside the guidelines of form.
That’s everything you need to know to write a good poem. Remember: you’re just starting out so don’t expect perfection. Relax and enjoy the process of creation. Poetry is a fun way to express yourself if you let it be fun.
Thanks for reading! If you have any poems you’d like feedback on, post them in the comments. I’m happy to help.