The Ultimate Guide to Writing Poetry for Beginners
Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’ve always had a passion for the sonnets of Shakespeare, the verses of Petrarch, or even the works of Edgar Allen Poe, then you might just be gifted with an inner lyricists.
Poetry is one of the genres of writing that is both different and similar to other forms of creative writing. How can this be?
Well, poetry is a much tighter type of writing compared to a novel or even a short story, but it’s also highly descriptive.
Wait a second, you’re thinking, how do you explain works like the Divine Comedy then?
Here’s the rub:
although there are types of poetry that are considered unrestricted, like free form, poetry is still very much a genre that has rules, just like fiction and non-fiction.
One of the most important rules to know right off the bat: there are forms of poetry, like epics, that are considered relatively outdated. Can you break the rules? Sure. But you better have a really good reason as to why.
So now that you’re more acquainted with modern poetry, it’s time to get a handle on the basics. But with so many different types of poetry out there, and an abundance of theories about what makes a good poem, where do you even start?
Well, it starts with getting to know the types of poetry and identifying which forms pull you. That’s where this ultimate guide to writing poetry for beginners comes in.
Use this article as a beginner’s guidebook. Whether you’re an aspiring artist or a college student that feels way out of their depth, this is a guide that can help you get a little more comfortable with poetry.
Curious to try your hand at a couple of verses? Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
- Part One: Finding Your Form
- Read Lots of Poetry
- Find the Right Genre For You
- Emulate a Poet You Admire
- Know Which Themes/Genres are Popular Today
- Part Two: Crafting a Good Poem
- Imagery, Imagery, Imagery
- Keep Images Simple
- No to Clichés
- Brush Up on the Poet’s Toolbox
- Keep a Journal
- Be Observant
- Write Regularly
- Challenge Yourself
- Think Once, Twice, and Thrice Before You Rhyme
- Part Three: Revise, Often
- Read Your Work Aloud
- Poetry Workshops
Part One: Finding Your Form
The first part of any endeavor is finding your niche. That’s especially the case for poetry. Every poem takes on a certain form, or structure, that helps define the shape, rhythm, and even the subject of that poem.
There are an abundance of forms to choose from and each form comes with its own set of rules. For example, a lyrical poem, like those of Robert Frost, have a very different structure than some of the narrative poems written by Joyce Carole Oats.
Here’s the beauty of poetry:
You don’t have to stick to one kind of form. Pick up any book of modern poetry and you’ll find that most poets write in five, six, or even ten different forms. You can become a master of multiple forms, but its starts with experimentation and getting really good at one or two forms.
Where should you start? Well, it starts with becoming a connoisseur of poetry. Here a few starting points.
Read Lots of Poetry
If you’re a writer you probably already know this rule. The more you read of any style, genre, or subject, the better you’ll get at writing it. Same goes for poetry. Read as much as you can as often as you can. Ideally, you want to be reading not only different poets like these ones on Twitter, but also from different time periods.
The reason you should read from varying time periods, and not limit yourself to modern poetry, is that reading older works, like those of Shakespeare or even the romance period, can give you a historical and philosophical background for your writing. This can be especially important as you progress in your writing, allowing you to tackle bigger and bigger subjects.
Find the Right Genre For You
Like fiction, there are lots of different genres of poetry. You might find that in some genres you excel more than others.
Narrative poetry is one of the oldest forms of poetry around. If you happen to be a fiction writer, or someone who just loves a good story, this may be one of the best places to start when it comes to poetry because a narrative poem is one that tells a story.
Just like a novel, or short story, narrative poems usually have a narrator (or speaker) and follow a sequence of events.
However, the big difference between narrative poetry and fiction writing is that the language is much more condensed. Remember, as a poet you have a limited amount of space to develop the story along with any critical imagery, metaphors, similes, etc.
The thing that sets narrative poetry apart from other forms of storytelling is that the language is much “cleaner,” meaning that there are no unnecessary details or fluff.
Ideally, you don’t want to spend stanza after stanza describing a scene in a narrative poem. However, you can and should focus on one or two key details, like smell, taste, or something visual to highlight.
Keep in mind, narrative poems can be written like a typical narrative or they can feature lyrical elements like rhyme, rhythm, etc.
Another type of narrative poem is the lyrical poem. As mentioned above, these types of poems typically feature musical elements, including meter and rhyme.
Unlike the broad category of narrative poems, lyrical poems usually have a set structure, which defines them by the number of lines in a stanza or even the number of lines in total.
There are several types of lyrical poems. They include the ode, the ballad, the villanelle, and the sonnet.
An ode is a form of poetry that praises a particular person, concept or place. One of the best examples of ode poetry is the work of John Keats, with works like “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to an Nightingale.”
When it comes to ballads, you may be more familiar with the term under pop culture contexts, such as the love ballads written by famous musicians including Journey. So what is a ballad? It’s a narrative poem written in four line stanzas that features a refrain, which repeats. In pop culture, that refrain is known as a chorus.
A villanelle, which became a popular form of poetry near the 19th century, has six stanzas and nineteen lines. The first five stanzas are comprised of three lines (known as tercets) and are followed up by a four-line stanza (known as a quatrain). It also features two refrains and two rhymes that repeat. Although topics can vary, villanelles are typically used to address darker themes like obsession.
Sonnets are a very peculiar type of lyrical poetry because they come in two forms: the Spenserian (named after poet Edmund Spencer), or more popularly known as Shakespearean, and the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. Both sonnets are typically fourteen lines and begin by establishing a concept, setting, or scenario, and end by responding to the situation or shifting perspective—known as the “turn” or “Vola” for Petrarchan sonnets.
They are also both written in iambic pentameter. However, they differ in their rhyme scheme. Petrarchan sonnets follow an “ABBAABBA” rhyme scheme, while Shakespearean sonnets follow an alternating rhyme scheme of “ABABCDCDEFEFGG,” which ends with a rhyming couplet that usually adds to or refutes the main concept presented.
Typically speaking, language poetry is one of the harder forms of poetry to master both as a reader and a writer. It’s a much more modern form of poetry that can be traced back to the 1970s.
Language poetry focuses on deriving meaning from language rather than traditional imagery. A really good example of language poetry is the work of Charles Bernstein.
If you’ve ever read the Odyssey or the Iliad, then you’re very familiar with epic poetry. Epics are some of the oldest forms of poetry, and can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks.
An epic is a type of narrative poem that usually focuses on the concept of heroism or a major social-cultural event (think the battle of Troy in the Illiad). These tend to be longer works that can span hundreds of pages and that tell a very detailed story.
Over the centuries there have been many types of epics that have been published, including Virgil’s The Aeneid, Beowulf, Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that epic poetry is something that people don’t often read anymore. For that reason, you may want to rethink writing the next groundbreaking epic.
You may be familiar with the elegy if you’ve ever attended a funeral. Simply put, an elegy is a poem that reflects upon and laments the death of a particular person.
However, an elegy can also reflect upon other serious topics such as regret or sorrow. Elegies usually focus on three major topics throughout the poem: lament, grief, and praise for the dead.
One of the cool things about elegies is that they’re not restricted to a particular form. Although they have evolved over the years from the traditional hexameter of the ancient Greeks, they can also be written in free verse or iambic pentameter.
Meditative poetry can have two meanings. The first is in a religious context that focuses on spirituality and prayer. The second follows the idea of meditating, or reflecting, upon a particular subject.
Think of meditative poems as an exploration of a topic or theme. It can be religious, but it can also be social, political, or personal. There’s no exact structure for how a meditative poem should be written and most are written in free verse.
One of the best writers of meditative poetry is Ann Carson. Her work The Beauty of a Husband strictly focuses on meditating upon the idea of fidelity.
Although Haikus are popularly associated with children’s poems, they are far from easy to master. The Japanese form is comprised of seventeen syllables that are broke up into three lines of five syllables, seven syllables, and then five syllables. Traditionally the subject of these poems is nature.
Emulate a Poet You Admire
This doesn’t mean you have to become a communist like Pablo Neruda or commit to the life of a seamstress like Emily Dickenson. But you can try to emulate their style. Try using dashes in your poetry or experiment with musicality.
One of the best exercises to do is to pick a poet you’ve been reading and try emulating their writing technique. These types of exercises are so important because you can learn so much about the craft of poetry by doing them.
Like to try your hand at a poetry exercise?
Here’s one: pick a poem you’ve read recently and try to emulate its form and even rhythm as much as possible. Do your best to restrict yourself to crafting a poem that’s similar in language and style, but not in subject.
Know Which Themes/Genres are Popular Today
Let’s be honest, Chaucer is beautiful—but if you try to write a poem in Middle English no one will understand you. Similarly, while the poetry of the romantics is considered some of the best, currently, it’s considered one of the most out dated forms of written poetry. While you don’t want to put a limit on your creativity, it’s a good idea to get familiar with the school of contemporary poetry—especially if you hope to get published.
Part Two: Crafting a Good Poem
Now that you have a good grasp on the kinds of poetic form you’d like to explore, it’s time to get your hands dirty with a few verses. But before we begin, there are a few things you should note about the process of crafting a poem.
One of the biggest mistakes first-time poets make is that they often get caught up in exploring a particular idea or subject without grounding the exploration in “tangible” images. Of course, while not all poems have to be grounded in imagery, such as language poetry. You really have to think through your purposes for writing a poem in a certain way or even selecting a particular form.
For example, you don’t want to write a poem about death in the form of a sonnet unless you’re choosing to be satirical about the death (which depending on the context maybe inappropriate) because the musicality of the poem will be off.
Another mistake you want to steer clear of is choosing images that are too abstract. For instance, using a “river of love” as an image is much harder to picture for your audience than a river that caresses the bank as the water ebbs and flows. One is much easier to picture than the other. Ideally, you want to select these types of concrete details as you write over abstract concepts.
If you’re truly serious about writing poetry think of the following tips as your poet’s toolbox that will help you construct a great poem.
Imagery, Imagery, Imagery
Unless you’re writing a language poem, don’t underestimate the power of imagery in your work. Just like fiction is dependent on solid descriptions, so is poetry. One of the best things to do when writing a poem is to select a specific image and expand upon it.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a nostalgic poem about your childhood. Choose a place, smell, or sound that reminds you of your childhood and expand upon it. A great example of this Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll.”
Keep Images Simple
On another note, keep in mind that the space in which you are writing is typically limited to a few stanzas. The last thing you want to do is overdo the detail.
In most cases, imagery is where readers will draw meaning from your poem, so be very selective about the images you chose to include. Only chose a few scenes to describe and be thorough, but precise in your descriptions.
No to Clichés
Avoid Clichés like the plague. This is another instance where understanding the rules of modern poetry will be critical. Unless you’re being satirical or humorous, clichés will bore your reader because they’re already familiar with the imagery or idea.
Additionally, using clichés has a tendency of introducing drama, or melodrama, into your poem. That’s another thing you want to steer clear of. Rather than dripping your poem in emotion, try using images that will evoke emotion.
Brush Up on the Poet’s Toolbox
Poems are really one of those forms of art where you have to depend on your tools in order to convey meaning.
Symbols are especially important within poetry because they can help you to explore abstract ideas in a concrete way. A symbol can be anything from a place, word, action, or object. However, commonly it’s an object or word.
Once again, the key thing to keep in mind about symbols and imagery is that you don’t want to overdo it. When it comes to symbols and the meaning associated with them, less is more.
Metaphor and similes are forms of comparisons. Similes use “like” or “as” to make the comparison, whereas within a metaphor the comparison is innate. For instance, the saying “easy as pie” is a simile, while the saying “love is a battlefield” is a metaphor. The meaning pulled from it isn’t literal, but rather symbolic.
Within poetry you can also run into another kind of metaphor, called an extended metaphor. These are comparisons that go on for an extended period, which can be anywhere from a few lines to several stanzas depending on the poem.
Within poetry, rhythm is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that make the musicality of a poem. Usually when we discuss the rhythm of a poem we are referring to its meter.
If you’ve read the works of Shakespeare than you’ve probably come across one of the more popular types of meter, which is iambic pentameter. Meter is the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem. In some cases, such as Shakespeare, meter is very pronounced and you can quickly identify it. In other cases, a meter can be much more subtle and hard to catch unless you’re listening carefully.
There are several types of meter in poetry. They include:
There’s an abundance of meters to choose from, but the ones on this list happen to be the most popular in the English language. Although you might not run into a whole lot of meter in modern poetry, some writers still use it, and it’s definitely the mark of a master poet.
If you want to try your hand at a few metered poems, one of the best things to do is begin by studying works that use metered verse. As you go along, mark each syllable as stressed or unstressed.
The more you do this, the better your ear will get at identifying which syllables ought to be stressed or unstressed depending on the meter. Over time, this will make writing in a particular meter much easier.
Often, when people think of rhyme they might think of Dr. Seuss. However, poetic rhyme has been around since ancient times and still continues until today. There are two main types of rhyme to keep in mind:
- End rhyme: This is the most popular type of rhyme, where the last word of a line rhymes with last word of a following or preceding line. Examples of this include Shakespeare’s sonnets and Dr. Seuss.
- Internal rhyme: Internal rhyme is a much more complex and difficult type of rhyme to manage because it requires that two—or more— words within the same line rhyme. One of the masters of this type of rhyme actually happens to be rapper and musician, Eminem. Many of his lyrics feature this type of internal rhyme throughout, such as the song “low down dirty” when he says: “It was predicted by a medic I’d grow to be an addicted diabetic, living off liquid Triaminic pathetic.
- Caesura vs. Line Break:
One of the key elements of any poem are pauses; not only do pauses allow the reader to take a breath before beginning the next line or word, but—if done right—they can also add meaning to your poem.
For example, take Emily Dickenson’s dashes. In a lot of cases those dashes can serve as an implication or even a sort of pregnant pause that adds another layer of meaning to her poems.
Two of the most important types of pauses within poetry are the Caesura and the line break. A caesura is basically the use of punctuation in the middle of a line. This can be a comma, a dash, semicolon, or even a period. The other type of break is the line break, which is basically where one line ends and another begins.
As a poet, there are a few choices you have to think about while you’re writing. The first choice is if, when, and where you plan on using a caesura. Sometimes you might just add a caesura because it makes the poem flow better. In other circumstances, you may add a caesura for the sake of creating a choppy rhythm.
It all just depends on how YOU chose to handle a particular subject in your poetry. The other choice you’ll have to make is in regards to where your lines breaks will take place. Ideally, you want to keep your lines about the same size, but sometimes an irregular break can serve a purpose.
Enjambment is somewhat of the opposite of a caesura or a line break. An enjambment is when one line continues into the next line without a pause. The use of a enjambment forces the reader to speed up, which can also add a layer of meaning, especially if you write a poem that uses regular line breaks but features one or two enjambments.
Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound close enough together that it almost seems to create an echo. This is one of those tools that’s not always easy to use and, for readers, it can sometimes be hard to pick up on depending on the vowel or diphthong used.
The key to becoming a pro at assonance is to practice pairing words together that have the same vowel sounds. One of the best examples of this literary device: Pink Floyd. Just take a look at this line: “Fleet feet sweep by sleeping geese.”
- Repetition/ Refrain:
Repetition is another one of those literary devices that can be especially important in a poem because it adds emphasis. There are several types of repetition that you can choose from as a poet, but the two most popular tend to be:
- Anaphora: repeating the same word at the start of a stanza.
- Anadiplosis: repeating the last word in a line or stanza.
Another key aspect of repetition is the refrain, which is a repeating line that reappears multiple times throughout the poem.
The key thing about alliteration is that it can add a layer of musicality to your poem as well as meaning. Alliteration is the repetition of a particular letter or sound that comes at the beginning of words that are close in proximity. For example, take this famous tongue twister:
Peter Piper picked a bag of pickled peppers
Here, the alliteration is the repetition of “p” sounds throughout the sentence.
- Structure/Layout of a Poem:
Another critical element of any poem is its structure. This not only includes the poem’s form, such as literary, narrative, etc., but also the actual physical appearance of the poem. Most poems you’ll run across will be linear, which means that they appear as one or multiple stanzas that follow each other in consecutive order.
However, that doesn’t always have to be the case. You can get playful with the way your poem is laid out, depending on your subject. A good example of this: concrete poetry, which is a poem that’s been written to take a specific shape, like that of a tree, an apple, or even a pyramid.
Another one of the key parts of any poem is a stanza. Traditionally stanzas are broken up into a set of lines, which are listed as follows:
- Couplets: two lines that typically rhyme.
- Tercets: three lines.
- Quatrains: four lines.
- Sestets: six lines.
- Octave: Eight lines.
In free verse, you may not be restricted in the exact amount of lines in each poem. As a beginner, however, you may want to try limiting yourself to a particular stanza structure in order to maximize your use of language.
Remember, sometimes less is more, and especially as a beginner you can learn so much by placing certain restrictions upon yourself.
- Ending your Lines:
Something that plenty of beginning poets and even teachers can overlook is how a poet chooses to break up their lines. When it comes to line breaks, try challenging yourself to end each line on a noun or verb, rather than a preposition.
The reason for this is twofold: ending on a preposition can actually add a choppiness to your poem that you may not intend, while ending on a verb or noun adds an additional layer or significance because it’s the last word your audience will read before moving on to the next line.
That’s not to say that you can’t ever end a line on preposition, but definitely think hard about the purpose behind the action before you do it.
Keep a Journal
Any writer should do this, but poets stand the most to benefit from keeping a journal. The reason? You can refer back to the images you see or the ideas you write down later on in your poetry.
As we noted earlier, poetry is all about imagery. The more observant you become of the world around you, the more unique and “eye-catching” your imagery will become.
The more you write and the more time you dedicate to the craft, the better a poet you will become.
You may be a really great free verse poet, but have you ever tried to write a lyrical poem? What about a Haiku? Try writing different types of poetry. Sometimes, restriction brings out the best in us creatively speaking.
Think Once, Twice, and Thrice Before You Rhyme
This is another instance where being familiar with the school of contemporary fiction will help. Rhyming is another one of those things that’s typically considered outdated, unless you’re really really really good.
Part Three: Revise, Often
Just like any type of writing, poetry can benefit from going through the stages of drafting and revising. Don’t forget, poetry is all about trying to create a meaning within a limited amount of space and words, so the more you revise the better your poem can get.
But after you’ve taken the time to write a poem, where to begin when it comes to revision? Here are a few tips to help you identify those weaker areas of your poem.
Read Your Work Aloud
Poems sound different when read aloud. Because of their structure, language, and meter, they tend to come alive. Whether you’re reading your own work, that of a colleague or friend, or a poem written by an 18th century master, make sure you take the time to read it aloud.
When it comes to revision, reading aloud will make any areas that feel choppy or awkward really pop out.
With fiction, workshops tend to be hit or miss. However, when it comes to poetry, you should definitely attend a workshop. Especially as a beginner you need the input of your peers. Since poems are meant to be read aloud, you also need a forum where you can do comfortably.
There’s a lot you stand to gain by revising your poetry. Typically, the more you revise the better your poem will become. Think of it this way: a poem is written in layers. The first layer is just the idea. The next layer you might add more refined imagery. The third time around you may work on the musicality. Typically speaking, poems can go through many drafts, just like a novel or short story.
Even if you have no intention of becoming a legendary poet, there’s still a lot that any writer can benefit from practicing poetry.
Remember, poetry teaches you to embrace concrete images over abstractions and to use precise and tight wording to explore an idea. That kind of restriction can be a benefit to your overall creativity, as well as the overall quality of your writing.
But it starts with having the courage to pick up a pen and dabble a few lines of verse.
Looking for advice on writing fiction? Be sure to take a look at our Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Novel.
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