How to Write a Poem, Step-by-Step
Sean Glatch | December 6, 2022 | 26 Comments
To learn how to write a poem step-by-step, let’s start where all poets start: the basics.
This article is an in-depth introduction to how to write a poem. We first answer the question, “What is poetry?” We then discuss the literary elements of poetry, and showcase some different approaches to the writing process—including our own seven-step process on how to write a poem step by step.
So, how do you write a poem? Let’s start with what poetry is.
What Poetry Is
It’s important to know what poetry is—and isn’t—before we discuss how to write a poem. The following quote defines poetry nicely:
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” —Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove
Poetry Conveys Feeling
People sometimes imagine poetry as stuffy, abstract, and difficult to understand. Some poetry may be this way, but in reality poetry isn’t about being obscure or confusing. Poetry is a lyrical, emotive method of self-expression, using the elements of poetry to highlight feelings and ideas.
A poem should make the reader feel something.
In other words, a poem should make the reader feel something—not by telling them what to feel, but by evoking feeling directly.
Here’s a contemporary poem that, despite its simplicity (or perhaps because of its simplicity), conveys heartfelt emotion.
Poetry is Language at its Richest and Most Condensed
Unlike longer prose writing (such as a short story, memoir, or novel), poetry needs to impact the reader in the richest and most condensed way possible. Here’s a famous quote that enforces that distinction:
“Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” —Samuel Taylor Coleridge
So poetry isn’t the place to be filling in long backstories or doing leisurely scene-setting. In poetry, every single word carries maximum impact.
Poetry Uses Unique Elements
Poetry is not like other kinds of writing: it has its own unique forms, tools, and principles. Together, these elements of poetry help it to powerfully impact the reader in only a few words.
The elements of poetry help it to powerfully impact the reader in only a few words.
Most poetry is written in verse , rather than prose . This means that it uses line breaks, alongside rhythm or meter, to convey something to the reader. Rather than letting the text break at the end of the page (as prose does), verse emphasizes language through line breaks.
Poetry further accentuates its use of language through rhyme and meter. Poetry has a heightened emphasis on the musicality of language itself: its sounds and rhythms, and the feelings they carry.
These devices—rhyme, meter, and line breaks—are just a few of the essential elements of poetry, which we’ll explore in more depth now.
Understanding the Elements of Poetry
As we explore how to write a poem step by step, these three major literary elements of poetry should sit in the back of your mind:
- Rhythm (Sound, Rhyme, and Meter)
- Literary Devices
1. Elements of Poetry: Rhythm
“Rhythm” refers to the lyrical, sonic qualities of the poem. How does the poem move and breathe; how does it feel on the tongue?
Traditionally, poets relied on rhyme and meter to accomplish a rhythmically sound poem. Free verse poems—which are poems that don’t require a specific length, rhyme scheme, or meter—only became popular in the West in the 20th century, so while rhyme and meter aren’t requirements of modern poetry, they are required of certain poetry forms.
Poetry is capable of evoking certain emotions based solely on the sounds it uses. Words can sound sinister, percussive, fluid, cheerful, dour, or any other noise/emotion in the complex tapestry of human feeling.
Take, for example, this excerpt from the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” by Walt Whitman:
Red — “b” sounds
Blue — “th” sounds
Green — “w” and “ew” sounds
Purple — “s” sounds
Orange — “d” and “t” sounds
This poem has a lot of percussive, disruptive sounds that reinforce the beating of the drums. The “b,” “d,” “w,” and “t” sounds resemble these drum beats, while the “th” and “s” sounds are sneakier, penetrating a deeper part of the ear. The cacophony of this excerpt might not sound “lyrical,” but it does manage to command your attention, much like drums beating through a city might sound.
To learn more about consonance and assonance, euphony and cacophony, and the other uses of sound, take a look at our article “12 Literary Devices in Poetry.”
It would be a crime if you weren’t primed on the ins and outs of rhymes. “Rhyme” refers to words that have similar pronunciations, like this set of words: sound, hound, browned, pound, found, around.
Many poets assume that their poetry has to rhyme, and it’s true that some poems require a complex rhyme scheme. However, rhyme isn’t nearly as important to poetry as it used to be. Most traditional poetry forms—sonnets, villanelles , rimes royal, etc.—rely on rhyme, but contemporary poetry has largely strayed from the strict rhyme schemes of yesterday.
There are three types of rhymes:
- Homophony: Homophones are words that are spelled differently but sound the same, like “tail” and “tale.” Homophones often lead to commonly misspelled words .
- Perfect Rhyme: Perfect rhymes are word pairs that are identical in sound except for one minor difference. Examples include “slant and pant,” “great and fate,” and “shower and power.”
- Slant Rhyme: Slant rhymes are word pairs that use the same sounds, but their final vowels have different pronunciations. For example, “abut” and “about” are nearly-identical in sound, but are pronounced differently enough that they don’t completely rhyme. This is also known as an oblique rhyme or imperfect rhyme.
Meter refers to the stress patterns of words. Certain poetry forms require that the words in the poem follow a certain stress pattern, meaning some syllables are stressed and others are unstressed.
What is “stressed” and “unstressed”? A stressed syllable is the sound that you emphasize in a word. The bolded syllables in the following words are stressed, and the unbolded syllables are unstressed:
- Un• stressed
- Plat• i• tud• i•nous
- De •act•i• vate
- Con• sti •tu• tion•al
The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is important to traditional poetry forms. This chart, copied from our article on form in poetry , summarizes the different stress patterns of poetry.
2. Elements of Poetry: Form
“Form” refers to the structure of the poem. Is the poem a sonnet, a villanelle, a free verse piece, a slam poem, a contrapuntal, a ghazal, a blackout poem , or something new and experimental?
Form also refers to the line breaks and stanza breaks in a poem. Unlike prose, where the end of the page decides the line breaks, poets have control over when one line ends and a new one begins. The words that begin and end each line will emphasize the sounds, images, and ideas that are important to the poet.
To learn more about rhyme, meter, and poetry forms, read our full article on the topic:
3. Elements of Poetry: Literary Devices
“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
How does poetry express complex ideas in concise, lyrical language? Literary devices—like metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, irony, and hyperbole—help make poetry possible. Learn how to write and master these devices here:
How to Write a Poem, in 7 Steps
To condense the elements of poetry into an actual poem, we’re going to follow a seven-step approach. However, it’s important to know that every poet’s process is different. While the steps presented here are a logical path to get from idea to finished poem, they’re not the only tried-and-true method of poetry writing. Poets can—and should!—modify these steps and generate their own writing process.
Nonetheless, if you’re new to writing poetry or want to explore a different writing process, try your hand at our approach. Here’s how to write a poem step by step!
1. Devise a Topic
The easiest way to start writing a poem is to begin with a topic.
However, devising a topic is often the hardest part. What should your poem be about? And where can you find ideas?
Here are a few places to search for inspiration:
- Other Works of Literature: Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s part of a larger literary tapestry, and can absolutely be influenced by other works. For example, read “The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes , a poem that was inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”
- Real-World Events: Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has the power to convey new and transformative ideas about the world. Take the poem “A Cigarette” by Ilya Kaminsky , which finds community in a warzone like the eye of a hurricane.
- Your Life: What would poetry be if not a form of memoir? Many contemporary poets have documented their lives in verse. Take Sylvia Plath’s poem “Full Fathom Five” —a daring poem for its time, as few writers so boldly criticized their family as Plath did.
- The Everyday and Mundane: Poetry isn’t just about big, earth-shattering events: much can be said about mundane events, too. Take “Ode to Shea Butter” by Angel Nafis , a poem that celebrates the beautiful “everydayness” of moisturizing.
- Nature: The Earth has always been a source of inspiration for poets, both today and in antiquity. Take “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver , which finds meaning in nature’s quiet rituals.
- Writing Exercises: Prompts and exercises can help spark your creativity, even if the poem you write has nothing to do with the prompt! Here’s 24 writing exercises to get you started.
At this point, you’ve got a topic for your poem. Maybe it’s a topic you’re passionate about, and the words pour from your pen and align themselves into a perfect sonnet! It’s not impossible—most poets have a couple of poems that seemed to write themselves.
However, it’s far more likely you’re searching for the words to talk about this topic. This is where journaling comes in.
Sit in front of a blank piece of paper, with nothing but the topic written on the top. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes and put down all of your thoughts related to the topic. Don’t stop and think for too long, and try not to obsess over finding the right words: what matters here is emotion, the way your subconscious grapples with the topic.
At the end of this journaling session, go back through everything you wrote, and highlight whatever seems important to you: well-written phrases, poignant moments of emotion, even specific words that you want to use in your poem.
Journaling is a low-risk way of exploring your topic without feeling pressured to make it sound poetic. “Sounding poetic” will only leave you with empty language: your journal allows you to speak from the heart. Everything you need for your poem is already inside of you, the journaling process just helps bring it out!
3. Think About Form
As one of the elements of poetry, form plays a crucial role in how the poem is both written and read. Have you ever wanted to write a sestina ? How about a contrapuntal, or a double cinquain, or a series of tanka? Your poem can take a multitude of forms, including the beautifully unstructured free verse form; while form can be decided in the editing process, it doesn’t hurt to think about it now.
4. Write the First Line
After a productive journaling session, you’ll be much more acquainted with the state of your heart. You might have a line in your journal that you really want to begin with, or you might want to start fresh and refer back to your journal when you need to! Either way, it’s time to begin.
What should the first line of your poem be? There’s no strict rule here—you don’t have to start your poem with a certain image or literary device. However, here’s a few ways that poets often begin their work:
- Set the Scene: Poetry can tell stories just like prose does. Anne Carson does just this in her poem “Lines,” situating the scene in a conversation with the speaker’s mother.
- Start at the Conflict: Right away, tell the reader where it hurts most. Margaret Atwood does this in “Ghost Cat,” a poem about aging.
- Start With a Contradiction: Juxtaposition and contrast are two powerful tools in the poet’s toolkit. Joan Larkin’s poem “Want” begins and ends with these devices. Carlos Gimenez Smith also begins his poem “Entanglement” with a juxtaposition.
- Start With Your Title: Some poets will use the title as their first line, like Ron Padgett’s poem “Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space.”
There are many other ways to begin poems, so play around with different literary devices, and when you’re stuck, turn to other poetry for inspiration.
5. Develop Ideas and Devices
You might not know where your poem is going until you finish writing it. In the meantime, stick to your literary devices. Avoid using too many abstract nouns, develop striking images, use metaphors and similes to strike interesting comparisons, and above all, speak from the heart.
6. Write the Closing Line
Some poems end “full circle,” meaning that the images the poet used in the beginning are reintroduced at the end. Gwendolyn Brooks does this in her poem “my dreams, my work, must wait till after hell.”
Yet, many poets don’t realize what their poems are about until they write the ending line . Poetry is a search for truth, especially the hard truths that aren’t easily explained in casual speech. Your poem, too, might not be finished until it comes across a necessary truth, so write until you strike the heart of what you feel, and the poem will come to its own conclusion.
7. Edit, Edit, Edit!
Do you have a working first draft of your poem? Congratulations! Getting your feelings onto the page is a feat in itself.
Yet, no guide on how to write a poem is complete without a note on editing. If you plan on sharing or publishing your work, or if you simply want to edit your poem to near-perfection, keep these tips in mind.
- Adjectives and Adverbs: Use these parts of speech sparingly. Most imagery shouldn’t rely on adjectives and adverbs, because the image should be striking and vivid on its own, without too much help from excess language.
- Concrete Line Breaks: Line breaks help emphasize important words, making certain images and ideas clearer to the reader. As a general rule, most of your lines should start and end with concrete words—nouns and verbs especially.
- Stanza Breaks: Stanzas are like paragraphs to poetry. A stanza can develop a new idea, contrast an existing idea, or signal a transition in the poem’s tone. Make sure each stanza clearly stands for something as a unit of the poem.
- Mixed Metaphors: A mixed metaphor is when two metaphors occupy the same idea, making the poem unnecessarily difficult to understand. Here’s an example of a mixed metaphor: “a watched clock never boils.” The meaning can be discerned, but the image remains unclear. Be wary of mixed metaphors—though some poets (like Shakespeare) make them work, they’re tricky and often disruptive.
- Abstractions: Above all, avoid using excessively abstract language. It’s fine to use the word “love” 2 or 3 times in a poem, but don’t use it twice in every stanza. Let the imagery in your poem express your feelings and ideas, and only use abstractions as brief connective tissue in otherwise-concrete writing.
Lastly, don’t feel pressured to “do something” with your poem. Not all poems need to be shared and edited. Poetry doesn’t have to be “good,” either—it can simply be a statement of emotions by the poet, for the poet. Publishing is an admirable goal, but also, give yourself permission to write bad poems, unedited poems, abstract poems, and poems with an audience of one. Write for yourself—editing is for the other readers.
How to Write a Poem: Different Approaches and Philosophies
Poetry is the oldest literary form, pre-dating prose, theater, and the written word itself. As such, there are many different schools of thought when it comes to writing poetry. You might be wondering how to write a poem through different methods and approaches: here’s four philosophies to get you started.
How to Write a Poem: Poetry as Emotion
If you asked a Romantic Poet “what is poetry?”, they would tell you that poetry is the spontaneous emotion of the soul.
The Romantic Era viewed poetry as an extension of human emotion—a way of perceiving the world through unbridled creativity, centered around the human soul. While many Romantic poets used traditional forms in their poetry, the Romantics weren’t afraid to break from tradition, either.
To write like a Romantic, feel—and feel intensely. The words will follow the emotions, as long as a blank page sits in front of you.
How to Write a Poem: Poetry as Stream of Consciousness
If you asked a Modernist poet, “What is poetry?” they would tell you that poetry is the search for complex truths.
Modernist Poets were keen on the use of poetry as a window into the mind. A common technique of the time was “Stream of Consciousness,” which is unfiltered writing that flows directly from the poet’s inner dialogue. By tapping into one’s subconscious, the poet might uncover deeper truths and emotions they were initially unaware of.
Depending on who you are as a writer, Stream of Consciousness can be tricky to master, but this guide covers the basics of how to write using this technique.
How to Write a Poem: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice of documenting the mind, rather than trying to control or edit what it produces. This practice was popularized by the Beat Poets , who in turn were inspired by Eastern philosophies and Buddhist teachings. If you asked a Beat Poet “what is poetry?”, they would tell you that poetry is the human consciousness, unadulterated.
To learn more about the art of leaving your mind alone , take a look at our guide on Mindfulness, from instructor Marc Olmsted.
How to Write a Poem: Poem as Camera Lens
Many contemporary poets use poetry as a camera lens, documenting global events and commenting on both politics and injustice. If you find yourself itching to write poetry about the modern day, press your thumb against the pulse of the world and write what you feel.
Additionally, check out these two essays by Electric Literature on the politics of poetry:
- What Can Poetry Do That Politics Can’t?
- Why All Poems Are Political (TL;DR: Poetry is an urgent expression of freedom).
Okay, I Know How to Write a Good Poem. What Next?
Poetry, like all art forms, takes practice and dedication. You might write a poem you enjoy now, and think it’s awfully written 3 years from now; you might also write some of your best work after reading this guide. Poetry is fickle, but the pen lasts forever, so write poems as long as you can!
Once you understand how to write a poem, and after you’ve drafted some pieces that you’re proud of and ready to share, here are some next steps you can take.
Publish in Literary Journals
Want to see your name in print? These literary journals house some of the best poetry being published today.
Assemble and Publish a Manuscript
A poem can tell a story. So can a collection of poems. If you’re interested in publishing a poetry book, learn how to compose and format one here:
Join a Writing Community
writers.com is an online community of writers, and we’d love it if you shared your poetry with us! Join us on Facebook and check out our upcoming poetry courses .
Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists to educate and uplift society. The world is waiting for your voice, so find a group and share your work!
super useful! love these articles 💕
Indeed, very helpful, consize. I could not say more than thank you.
I’ve never read a better guide on how to write poetry step by step. Not only does it give great tips, but it also provides helpful links! Thank you so much.
Thank you very much, Hamna! I’m so glad this guide was helpful for you.
Very inspirational and marvelous tips
Thank you super tips very helpful.
I have never gone through the steps of writing poetry like this, I will take a closer look at your post.
Beautiful! Thank you! I’m really excited to try journaling as a starter step x
[…] How to Write a Poem, Step-by-Step […]
This is really helpful, thanks so much
Extremely thorough! Nice job.
Thank you so much for sharing your awesome tips for beginner writers!
People must reboot this and bookmark it. Your writing and explanation is detailed to the core. Thanks for helping me understand different poetic elements. While reading, actually, I start thinking about how my husband construct his songs and why other artists lack that organization (or desire to be better). Anyway, this gave me clarity.
I’m starting to use poetry as an outlet for my blogs, but I also have to keep in mind I’m transitioning from a blogger to a poetic sweet kitty potato (ha). It’s a unique transition, but I’m so used to writing a lot, it’s strange to see an open blog post with a lot of lines and few paragraphs.
Anyway, thanks again!
I’m happy this article was so helpful, Eternity! Thanks for commenting, and best of luck with your poetry blog.
Yours in verse, Sean
One of the best articles I read on how to write poems. And it is totally step by step process which is easy to read and understand.
Thanks for the step step explanation in how to write poems it’s a very helpful to me and also for everyone one. THANKYOU
Totally detailed and in a simple language told the best way how to write poems. It is a guide that one should read and follow. It gives the detailed guidance about how to write poems. One of the best articles written on how to write poems.
what a guidance thank you so much now i can write a poem thank you again again and again
The most inspirational and informative article I have ever read in the 21st century.It gives the most relevent,practical, comprehensive and effective insights and guides to aspiring writers.
Thank you so much. This is so useful to me a poetry
[…] Write a short story/poem (Here are some tips) […]
It was very helpful and am willing to try it out for my writing Thanks ❤️
Thank you so much. This is so helpful to me, and am willing to try it out for my writing .
Absolutely constructive, direct, and so useful as I’m striving to develop a recent piece. Thank you!
thank you for your explanation……,love it
Really great. Nothing less.
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Writing Poetry: Laptop Vs Notebook
“Having a good balance is the best way to maximize your productivity in the writing process. ” – dimitrireyespoet.com
Where do you find yourself writing most often? In a laptop or a notebook? Personally, these days I’m on both ends of the spectrum and either pen a poem on paper or type it up on the laptop depending on how I am feeling (or if the poem is calling for it!) In my experience, I’ve seen that you can’t really have one over the other because both are helpful. Poetry isn’t like math where there are 3 or 4 ways to get to a solution. The ways in which one can create a poem are infinite, and you’ll find out that you’ll have certain preferences on your own journey. I’ll share with you what I’ve gathered about using notebooks and laptops.
- Notebooks are really cool because they can reflect your style and be as customizable as your imagination. With so many different colors, sizes, and styles you can personalize it to your liking and create your own experience. I’ve seen poets… write in spiral notebooks and prefer the option of tearing away pages… write in 3 subject notebooks where a section can be dedicated to notes, first drafts, then additional drafts.. write in large memo pads… write in composition notebooks that are durable… and write in a makeshift book of folded 8 ½ x 11’s with a cereal box cover.
- This also extends to different writing utensils. The first time I ever noticed the blackwing Palomino was when my professor, Brenda Shaughnessy was using it in class. One day when I asked her about it, she mentioned how she liked the flat top eraser that was interchangeable and was very useful for a serial eraser.
Palomino Blackwing Pencils 12 Pack
3. Although a bit more messy, you can also use different types of ink writing instruments like calligraphy, fountain pens, and quills which all make for a different writing experience.
4. Books are also cool because they’re very low maintenance and compact. You can take them everywhere. They don’t need batteries, wifi, or an outlet and if they’re really small you can put them in your back pocket. You can take them on trains, to class, in an uber, on public transportation and you’ll always have them with you.
5. There are a few drawbacks to notebooks, though. Inevitably, a notebook is only as neat as their writer. My writings are hieroglyphs. If anyone were to get a hold of my notebook, they’d spend half of the time trying to code messages in between my various scratched out lines and letters-written-darker-atop-other-letters.
6. Lastly, the bigger problem is what happens if you lose this notebook? What happens if you leave it on the train or at a reading? Suddenly, without a cloud, online history, or even a desktop recycling bin, your work is lost for good.
All in all, notebooks are solid objects. When using them, you’re in contact with paper and pens or pencils. When you’re reading your notes or writing your poems, you’re doing so in the beautiful book where the words were handmade by you. There is almost a spiritual energy that is created when you write into a book that is solely yours and it almost feels ritualistic. That’s the gasoline that can get me through poetry writing on some days— and when I’m consciously thinking about that, I write with more intention.
Laptops / Desktop Computers
- I love laptops because writing programs are so helpful and can literally help you at any stage of the draft/ revision process. There are at least 10 reasons why laptops are super helpful when writing and here are a few: you can delete, add, copy, paste, and move around your poem without needing to start writing the whole thing all over again or making random stars and arrows to different locations.
- Also if you’re a fast typer like me, it’s easier for your mind and the poem to keep up with one another. Sometimes the ideas are flowing faster than what I can pen down on paper and you can run the risk of forgetting a great idea.
- Yet, I can be the first to admit that laptops can be distracting. You can be looking up information online and all of a sudden a cute video of kittens pops up on the side of a blog and suddenly I’m— the poet— is down a rabbit hole. 2-3 hours and several kitties-riding-T-rexes-though-space later and you’ve totally forgotten why you even opened up the internet in the first place
- If your notifications are on, this is another thing that can easily distract you. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, email, and other notifications can all deter you from the momentum developed while writing a poem and can stunt your activity.
In short, notebooks and laptops are both beneficial. You’ll want to use technology to its full advantage, but you also shouldn’t be a slave to technology— meaning that you should be able to produce on paper if technology isn’t around. Having a good balance is the best way to maximize your productivity in the writing process.
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Writing About Poetry
View in pdf format, get to know the poem.
Describe the poem: Before you begin to organize your essay, read the poem aloud several times, noting its structure, meter, recurring images or themes, rhyme scheme – anything and everything which creates an effect. Paraphrase the poem: Again, before you begin to organize your essay, make sure you understand the language of the poem. Poetry, particularly from other time periods, often contains confusing syntax or vocabulary. Put into your own words those lines or phrases which are especially difficult. Resist the temptation to brush over the lines or phrases which seem unintelligible; these can be the most crucial parts of the poem. The Oxford English Dictionary is a good resource for defining difficult vocabulary.
How the Poem Works
Analyze the poem: Since your analysis should make up the bulk of your essay, approach it with care. Knowing that you will not be able to address every aspect of the poem, select the elements which work together to create special effects. Look beyond the surface meaning of the words and start to think about how the techniques used in the poem add depth to its meaning. How do the elements work together? Do they complement each other, do they create tension, or both? Think in terms of cause and effect and look for relationships within the poem itself. For example, if you see a pattern of imagery which suggests something about the speaker, look at other areas of the poem for more evidence along the same lines. In poetry, form and content are inseparable, so you must not overlook the relationship between what the speaker says and how he or she says it.
Interpret the poem: Using your analysis of how the poem works as your evidence, interpret the poem – answer the question, "So what is this poem all about?" In the interpretation, you bring together your analysis of the elements in the poem and show what they mean to the poem as a whole. You may suggest an interpretation of the speaker's state of mind, the poem's subject, or the nature of the experience which the poem creates. For example, does Poe's "The Raven" describe a dream? A drug-induced hallucination? A recollection? Why do you think so? What evidence, from your analysis, supports your idea? The main argument of your paper should begin to take form as you struggle with this process.
You have great freedom in interpreting a poem, provided that your assertions are solidly linked to your evidence. Interpretation that does not align with your analysis will be invalid. In the words of M. H. Abrams, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry , "There is no one, right interpretation of a poem – but there is one which is more right than any of the others."
The multi-faceted nature of poetry demands that you know where you are going before you begin to construct your written argument, which is why the description and paraphrase stages are so important. Your selective analysis emerges from them in the form of an argument that is limited to a manageable set of ideas. After you have thought through these stages and taken good notes, you should be ready to begin writing your essay.
Constructing Your Paper
Thesis: Review your notes. Look for patterns and themes. Formulate a thesis statement that will allow you to explain the relationships and the effects of elements in the poem. If you can, indicate in the thesis the areas or features of the poem important to your argument (a pattern of imagery, for instance, or a series of crucial lines). Remember, your thesis statement must argue a point; instead of simply saying that a poet uses certain poetic devices, you must give some indication in your thesis as to how those devices work and what they do to the poem's meaning. You do not need to go into elaborate detail in your thesis, but do show the relationship between the poem and your argument.
Your first paragraph should make your reader comfortable with the poem by identifying the poet, offering a brief, general description of the poem and, most importantly, leading into the thesis and development of the argument by narrowing and limiting the subject. It may be helpful to imagine the introduction as a funnel, initially appealing to your reader from a wide perspective and then swiftly directing him or her into the body of your essay. Avoid sweeping, abstract statements or statements which you cannot concretely link to your thesis. The more quickly you get away from the general and focus on the specific, the sooner you will engage your reader.
The Development of Your Argument
The approach you undertake in your thesis determines the organization of the rest of the essay. Some arguments lend themselves to a linear presentation. For example, if you choose to trace the development of the speaker according to the recurrence of an image throughout the poem, you might want to go through the poem chronologically to show how that image changes in significance from line to line or stanza to stanza. You need not limit yourself to such a presentation, however. Many poems are difficult to explain chronologically; some poems are better suited to a non-linear argument which reflects cycles or other patterns in the poem. If you organize your argument according to the patterns you choose to address, your argument might move through the poem several times, according to the instances of the images and their contextual significance. For example, one word may have a formal relationship to numerous other words in the poem. The word "snow" has a relationship to the word "flow" in that they rhyme, and to the word "ice" in that they are both associated with winter. To discuss the significance of these relationships, you may find yourself jumping around the poem. That's fine, as long as you make your argument clear and keep your thesis in sight.
Each paragraph should consist of a point which is credible, relevant to your thesis, and analytical. Remember that you are arguing for a certain position and need to convince your reader of that position. At the beginning of each paragraph, tell your reader the focus of your argument in that paragraph by starting with a topic sentence. The rest of the paragraph should address the assertion with convincing evidence. The effectiveness of your argument depends heavily on how well you incorporate evidence into your paragraphs.
You cannot create a compelling argument without evidence to back it up, but you must present that evidence in the context of your own argument. Merely including a line or a passage in your paper without linking it to your argument will not be convincing. Try incorporating your evidence into a "sandwich" of information which will allow your reader to receive the full impact of the lines. Before the quotation, describe the evidence in terms of the poem. Where is it located in the poem? Is it part of a pattern? Let your reader know what he or she should be looking for. After the quotation, if the passage is particularly difficult to understand, you should explain problematic syntax or vocabulary. Then, you must analyze the quote and show how that quote supports the claims you are making in your thesis. This is the most important part of your paper; it is where you make your interpretation clear to the reader and where you prove your thesis. Don't assume that the quotation will speak for itself—it is your job to explain it.
Be sure to cite your evidence properly. Citing from a poem is different from citing from a prose text. Because the line form of poetry is so important, you must indicate where lines end by separating them with a slash mark "/". If you are quoting more than three lines, single space the passage, indent, and present the passage as it appears in the poem. Follow the quotation with the appropriate line numbers enclosed in parentheses (see English Department handout on use of quotations and citations, available from the department office and the Writing Center).
Conclusions take many forms. In your conclusion you can emphasize crucial ideas, raise questions about the poem, or connect the poem to other literary works or experiences. This is where you can offer your interpretation of the poem, which by now should be convincing to your reader since you have presented your evidence in the body of the paper. You may raise new ideas in a conclusion, provided that they are solidly linked to the development of your argument. Remember, you have flexibility, but your conclusion should flow naturally from the body of your paper.
- If you have the choice of which poem to write about, pick one you like.
- Read the poem aloud. Your ear will notice things your eyes miss.
- Notice the way the poem looks on the page. The form of the poem may reveal something about the way it works.
- Be careful to make a clear distinction between the poet and the speaker. Even in poems that are written in the first person, you should be careful not to assume anything about the speaker that the poem itself does not suggest.
- Let your interpretation follow your analysis – avoid making unsupported assertions.
- Be selective with your evidence. Limit the length of your quotations to a workable size. Passages longer than a few lines will be impossible to explain in a single paragraph.
Enjoy the Poem!
Poems are artistic expressions that demand that you appreciate them before you begin to reduce them to something explainable. Often, the most brilliant elements in a poem are very subtle and will be felt before they are understood. Remember, you are not just explaining what a poem does, you are explaining what it does to you. You are the medium in which the poem comes to life. Writing about poetry offers you a special opportunity to interact with a work of art.
by Seth DuCharme '92
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Writing About Poetry
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This section covers the basics of how to write about poetry, including why it is done, what you should know, and what you can write about.
Writing about poetry can be one of the most demanding tasks that many students face in a literature class. Poetry, by its very nature, makes demands on a writer who attempts to analyze it that other forms of literature do not. So how can you write a clear, confident, well-supported essay about poetry? This handout offers answers to some common questions about writing about poetry.
What's the Point?
In order to write effectively about poetry, one needs a clear idea of what the point of writing about poetry is. When you are assigned an analytical essay about a poem in an English class, the goal of the assignment is usually to argue a specific thesis about the poem, using your analysis of specific elements in the poem and how those elements relate to each other to support your thesis.
So why would your teacher give you such an assignment? What are the benefits of learning to write analytic essays about poetry? Several important reasons suggest themselves:
- To help you learn to make a text-based argument. That is, to help you to defend ideas based on a text that is available to you and other readers. This sharpens your reasoning skills by forcing you to formulate an interpretation of something someone else has written and to support that interpretation by providing logically valid reasons why someone else who has read the poem should agree with your argument. This isn't a skill that is just important in academics, by the way. Lawyers, politicians, and journalists often find that they need to make use of similar skills.
- To help you to understand what you are reading more fully. Nothing causes a person to make an extra effort to understand difficult material like the task of writing about it. Also, writing has a way of helping you to see things that you may have otherwise missed simply by causing you to think about how to frame your own analysis.
- To help you enjoy poetry more! This may sound unlikely, but one of the real pleasures of poetry is the opportunity to wrestle with the text and co-create meaning with the author. When you put together a well-constructed analysis of the poem, you are not only showing that you understand what is there, you are also contributing to an ongoing conversation about the poem. If your reading is convincing enough, everyone who has read your essay will get a little more out of the poem because of your analysis.
What Should I Know about Writing about Poetry?
Most importantly, you should realize that a paper that you write about a poem or poems is an argument. Make sure that you have something specific that you want to say about the poem that you are discussing. This specific argument that you want to make about the poem will be your thesis. You will support this thesis by drawing examples and evidence from the poem itself. In order to make a credible argument about the poem, you will want to analyze how the poem works—what genre the poem fits into, what its themes are, and what poetic techniques and figures of speech are used.
What Can I Write About?
Theme: One place to start when writing about poetry is to look at any significant themes that emerge in the poetry. Does the poetry deal with themes related to love, death, war, or peace? What other themes show up in the poem? Are there particular historical events that are mentioned in the poem? What are the most important concepts that are addressed in the poem?
Genre: What kind of poem are you looking at? Is it an epic (a long poem on a heroic subject)? Is it a sonnet (a brief poem, usually consisting of fourteen lines)? Is it an ode? A satire? An elegy? A lyric? Does it fit into a specific literary movement such as Modernism, Romanticism, Neoclassicism, or Renaissance poetry? This is another place where you may need to do some research in an introductory poetry text or encyclopedia to find out what distinguishes specific genres and movements.
Versification: Look closely at the poem's rhyme and meter. Is there an identifiable rhyme scheme? Is there a set number of syllables in each line? The most common meter for poetry in English is iambic pentameter, which has five feet of two syllables each (thus the name "pentameter") in each of which the strongly stressed syllable follows the unstressed syllable. You can learn more about rhyme and meter by consulting our handout on sound and meter in poetry or the introduction to a standard textbook for poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry . Also relevant to this category of concerns are techniques such as caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (continuing a grammatical sentence or clause from one line to the next). Is there anything that you can tell about the poem from the choices that the author has made in this area? For more information about important literary terms, see our handout on the subject.
Figures of speech: Are there literary devices being used that affect how you read the poem? Here are some examples of commonly discussed figures of speech:
- metaphor: comparison between two unlike things
- simile: comparison between two unlike things using "like" or "as"
- metonymy: one thing stands for something else that is closely related to it (For example, using the phrase "the crown" to refer to the king would be an example of metonymy.)
- synecdoche: a part stands in for a whole (For example, in the phrase "all hands on deck," "hands" stands in for the people in the ship's crew.)
- personification: a non-human thing is endowed with human characteristics
- litotes: a double negative is used for poetic effect (example: not unlike, not displeased)
- irony: a difference between the surface meaning of the words and the implications that may be drawn from them
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
What Style Should I Use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing about poetry. First, when you analyze a poem, it is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs. Second, you will want to make use of numerous quotations from the poem and explain their meaning and their significance to your argument. After all, if you do not quote the poem itself when you are making an argument about it, you damage your credibility. If your teacher asks for outside criticism of the poem as well, you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. A third point to remember is that there are various citation formats for citing both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources. The most common citation format for writing about poetry is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format .
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How To Write Poetry for Beginners
Getting started writing poetry can seem daunting. We have heard that there are so many "rules" over the years when it comes to good poetry, and while there are certainly rules that make good writing in fact good, poetry is one of those forms of writing that can be much more subjective and "looser" in terms of the rules. However, there are certainly things anyone can do to improve their poetry writing, and this is a worthwhile place to start for beginners who want to take on poetry so they have guidance when they might not know how to approach a poem.
For beginners, and anyone who needs a refresher about poetry writing (or even general writing guidelines) the below points will go a long way in leveling up those poems or give you a place to start if you're ready to get those ideas on paper.
1. Read poetry
Many of the points about writing good poetry for beginners on this list will speak to the art of writing as a whole. Stephen King once said , If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or tools) to write. Reading and paying attention to the writing of others that you admire is a great way to get you thinking about the poetry you'd want to create yourself. Even when you read casually without dissecting the work, it is having an impact on you and being absorbed, even if subconsciously. You can also of course read poetry in a less casual way to truly study the craft, pick up on what other poets are doing with their sentence structure and language, their descriptions, their unique choices with words, etc. This might get you thinking about the types of poems you want to write whether it be in terms of subject matter, sensory details, literary devices, rhyme scheme and structure, and so on. Reading is always the most important thing any writer can do to improve and be inspired. Often when a writer is stuck or experiencing writer's block, the best advice is to read. Inspiration will come soon enough.
2. Ask what the story of your poem is
All writing should have a story. This may be your starting point, or it may unfold after you begin with a detail, image, or literary device . If you don't start with building the story, then be sure to ask yourself what story you are telling once you have the poem drafted. This will inform where to take it next. While reading beautiful words and conjuring images is appealing, the story is where the emotion lies and where the reader will find connection.
3. Start small
For beginners, starting small can be much less daunting. A short poem of a few lines or even less is a good way to get the creativity flowing and become familiar with the poetry form. Try writing a haiku or even a brief reflective idea that may either stand on its own or become incorporated into a longer poem later. Some of the most impactful writing can be short and simple but contain a lot of depth. Simply getting started can be more than half the battle, so don't think you have to write a long narrative to make meaningful poetry. Quality outweighs quantity every time.
4. Write first, edit later
Nothing kills creativity like editing as you are writing. The first draft can (and often should) be full of liberties and mistakes and writing that doesn't even make sense because getting the creative ideas out is what first drafts are all about. Editing is a much more technical part of the writing development, and it can impede the creative process. Don't think about how the poem isn't perfect or you can't find the right word or description just yet. Just write first, the refining and perfecting will come later.
5. Read your poems out loud
Reading out loud helps you pick up on the way the words sound and flow together in ways that you may miss or not realize while reading silently. This can allow you to see if your word choice is working well, if your sensory details are hitting the way you intended, and if your story and point is coming across in the way you envisioned. Reading aloud is important for any type of writing and should always be part of the editing process. This allows you to hear your poems from a reader's point of view.
6. Utilize literary devices
Using tools like metaphor, simile, personification, allegory, and so on goes a long way in writing, but especially with poetry. Poems are often known for being deep or even interpretative. These devices lend to that and invite the reader to think deeply and draw their own conclusions or link their own experiences to what they feel through the use of these devices.
7. Use sensory descriptions
Sensory descriptions are one of the most important aspects of good writing. They are about showing versus telling. This comes down to emotion, thoughts, feelings, and even expressing ideas in simpler ways without outright telling the reader in stiff language. Every few lines ask yourself if these are verses the reader can see, smell, hear, feel, and taste firsthand. If the answer is no more often than not, then you will want to infuse your lines with more sensory descriptions. Always look to appeal to the senses, and this can also go hand in hand with utilizing literary devices. When the two work together truly powerful writing can emerge.
8. Express emotion
As noted, poetry is often known for being deep, philosophical, and interpretative. Even the simplest poems when done well will hold great emotion. If you are using sensory descriptions and "painting" with your words, as well as using appropriate literary devices, and telling a story then the emotion should automatically be felt. This step of good poetry writing results from a culmination of other executed steps that will take the poem to the next level and give it the needed depth.
9. Try writing structured poems that follow a set of rules and patterns
While free verse poetry has risen in popularity in the modern era , there are so many different types of poetry out there that serve as a great starting point for beginners. Some writers tend to do better when they have parameters they must stay within, plus it's a great challenge to get the creative juices flowing. Look up the different forms of poems like haiku, villanelle, quatrain, and so on , all with their own set of rules (number of lines, rhyme scheme, meter, etc.) to familiarize yourself with poetry in all its possible forms. Being able to incorporate versatility into your writing is always valuable, even if you do end up gravitating toward free verse poetry. Free verse has no set of rules in terms of rhyming, meter, and so on, but sticking to the other pointers of what makes good poetry is still important to create words — emotions and story — that will resonate with your reader.
10. Write what you know
Writing what you know doesn't necessarily mean only sticking to topics you know about, though many writers find that's most suitable to them while some want to research and explore new worlds. Writing what you know means there should be an emotional truth that you have experienced and has been part of your life. Even fictional poems, or any work of art, will have pieces of the artist within the creation. So not only should you appeal to emotions with the story you create, but it should contain truths that are part of your experience in one way or another.
Poetry is one of the forms of writing where you can take the most liberties, and many will agree that lots of different types of works can be considered poetry, whereas that isn't necessarily the case with other writing like a novel. Although poetry tends to allow the writer to be freer, there are rules that should always be followed to execute good writing. Along with reading other poets, you should look to connect with poets as well and have a few critique partners available. It's one thing to share writing with people that are part of our everyday lives, but if they aren't writers themselves then their feedback may not be the biggest help to aid your growth as a poet. So, after you get started following these steps, developing your poems, and familiarizing yourself with your voice and form, join a community that will take you to the next level! Now you have the tools you need to begin, and remember not to agonize over the daunting feel that starting can bring. Simply write and worry about refining and infusing emotion, sensory details, literary devices, and editing later on. The hardest part is always getting started, but once you do you'll be on your way to surpassing beginner status in no time.
Header photo by Thought Catalog .
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