How to Write a Poem (and Why This Will Help You Become a Better Writer)

    Recently, I re-read a little book I created some years ago.

    It’s a book of poems.

    I collected my poems and then ‘published’ them in a book I handcrafted myself.

    It made a special gift for my loved ones.

    I’m not what people call ‘a poet,’ but I do tend to write poems now and then. Especially at key moments of my life.

    The poems I created some years ago trigger memories, emotions and sentiments.

    They are like condensed journal entries.

    Do you write poems?

    Not? Well, maybe you should.

    Writing a poem means paring down your experience to just a few words or phrases.

    This is great training for whatever else you write.

    I know that my own writing has been shaped and improved by writing poems.

    When you write a poem, the challenge is to capture a moment, a feeling or a fleeting thought. Here is one of my poems that invokes a moment when my son, Sebastian, went to visit his new-born half-sister.

    Little Red Car

    He waved to me

    As he got onto the plane

    Lifting his skateboard high

    In his luggage

    The little red car

    For his new sister.

    At the big old house

    He used to play with it

    In his room halfway up the landing,

    Pushing it over the blue vinyl

    With gold flecks

    He was little then

    And liked to crawl into my bed

    At night.

    When I pushed him out of my body

    And gathered him to my heart

    All wet and tiny

    No one told me

    He would become a man

    The very next day.

    Some simple suggestions on how to write a poem

    First of all, it’s important to let go of any ideas of writing a ‘good’ poem. Your poems are memories frozen in time. They don’t need to be important to anyone else.

    Here are a few pointers that make writing poems enjoyable:

    Focus on a particular moment

    Poems work best if you focus on a moment that expresses an emotion or is a metaphor for an idea.

    Such moments occur every day. We just need to notice them.

    Imagine you see a cicada shell on the ground. At that moment you might remember that cicadas emerge from years in the ground – and then only live and sing for a couple of weeks. Here is what Zen poet Basho made of such a moment:

    Shell of a cicada

    It sang itself away

    completely

    The more details you use, the more vivid your poem will be. Sensory details help your readers to identify emotionally with your poem.

    Here are some questions to elicit sensory details:

    If your poem is set in a location, what do you see?

    What colors are there?

    What do you hear?

    What do you taste or smell?

    If a person is the focus of your poem, what details are telling?

    What do they look like?

    What do they say?

    What do they see?

    Here is a short poem with rich details by William Carlos Williams

    This Is Just To Say

    I have eaten

    the plums

    that were in

    the icebox

    and which

    you were probably

    saving

    for breakfast

    Forgive me

    they were delicious

    so sweet

    and so cold

    The fun of found poems

    found poetry

    A found poem uses words from non-poetic contexts and turns them into poetry. It’s like a collage. You can find scraps of sentences in your everyday life and put them together to make a poem.

    Here is where you can find material for your language collage:

    • instruction books
    • recipes
    • scraps of conversations
    • horoscopes
    • textbooks
    • dictionaries
    • graffiti
    • phone messages, notes you’ve written to yourself
    • shopping lists
    • billboards

    Here are two examples of found poems. The first one is by William Whewell who found the following poem in a treatise of mechanics:

     An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics

    Hence no force,

    however great,

    can stretch a cord,

    however fine,

    
into a horizontal line

    which is accurately straight.

    The poet Hart Seely found poetry in the speeches and news briefings of Donald Rumsfeld. Here is one of his tongue-in-cheek poems:

     Unknown

     As we know,

    There are known knowns.

    There are things we know we know.

    We also know

    There are known unknowns.

    That is to say

    We know there are some things

    We do not know.

    But there are also unknown unknowns,

    The ones we don’t know

    We don’t know.

    If you want to create a ‘found poem,’ make sure you carry a notebook around with you. Jot down any interesting bits of language you find. You’ll find that your ordinary life turns into a treasure hunt!

     Editing: the crucial phase

    The most important part of writing a poem is to pare it down to the essential. When you edit your poem, you need to test every word to see if it can be left out.

    If you are lucky, you might end up with just a few words.

    Here is a celebrated poem by William Carlos Williams where most of the content is pared away, and only a few poignant words remain:

    The Red Wheelbarrow

    so much depends
    upon

    a red wheel
    barrow

    glazed with rain
    water

    beside the white
    chickens.

     

     

    What about you?

    Do you write poems? If so, please share your poem so we can all enjoy it.

    Or maybe you have a favorite poem someone else wrote?

    Please share your poems and thoughts in the comment section.

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.


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