This is Part 1 of a two-part series on poetry tips: Tips for building your poetry skills.
Part 2 in this series will discuss: Tips for self-editing your poetry.
Tips for building your poetry skills:
- Read lots of different kinds of poetry, both old and new, in order to improve your own work.
- Read newly published poetry to keep you aware of what is going on in the poetry world.
- Read and reread every syllable aloud. How do the sounds create “music” and connect it to the story?
- Listen deeply to the intonations you can create from words when you put them in different orders. Which order produces the sound you’re striving for? If the words you’re using don’t work, try other words instead.
- Read out loud–other people’s poems and your own poems. Have other people read your poems to you and listen to how their voices interpret what you’ve written. Ask them for their thoughts and reactions.
- Choose the perfect words that speak your truth within yourself, and will thus do the same for your readers. Learn to use a thesaurus and a dictionary in tandem to pick the most precise, meaningful words and phrases.
- Try experimenting with a variety of poetic forms or patterns, actually counting the syllables, following the stanza rules, and following the rhyme structure. Even if you “don’t like writing rhyming poetry,” it is an amazing way to develop your sense of rhythm (and rhyme). Form acts as a skeleton for poems and gives them shape. Even if you prefer to write free-form poetry, practising with a variety of forms will improve your work so much. Write new poems modelled on poems you’ve enjoyed, following the structure closely. Look through back issues of Writer’s Digest Magazine; in the “Poetic Asides” column, each issue features a different kind of poem structure and explains clearly, with examples, how to write in that format.
- Always keep a copy of the original format of each poem you write (and the original of your published edition) so you can go back to your first intentions if you need to, and so you can remember how your poem developed. (And with the “saved” date on the files, you have copyright back-up in case someone tries to steal your poem).
- Poetry is concise with condensed, economic, precise language. Cut out unnecessary words (like prepositions, adjectives, adverbs) and lines that “explain” what the poem means. The words you choose should carry their own weight and not require extra interpretation in the poem. Use just enough words. At the same time, make sure your cuts are effective. You are creating a picture in words; don’t lose the colour, emotion and sensuousness by cutting too much.
- As in prose writing, use strong, precise verbs. Don’t depend on adverbs to strengthen your verbs. Similarly, avoid overuse of participles and gerunds (-ing verbs). Some writers think these kinds of verbs “sound more poetic” — and occasionally they do. Occasionally.
- Stop thinking like a prose writer. What is the essence, the core, the heart of what you are trying to say? That is your poem. Cut the rest.
- Readers place more emphasis on the ends and beginnings of lines as they read, even in non-rhyming, free-form poems. Sometimes it is effective to place the emphasis elsewhere–such as placing a period in the middle of a line. This needs to be done carefully but can provide a pleasant surprise, create unexpected rhythm and sound, and create focus on particular words and ideas.
- Try to read poetry–yours and that of others–as music. End rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance and consonance all contribute to this effect, so don’t toss aside traditional poetic forms. Learn from them. Read poems aloud at different times, in different places, when you’re in different moods, and with different emphases. Even try reading them in different voices and/or listen to others read them.
- Some people think that poetry should be abstract, and pride themselves on using words and phrases that “let the reader interpret it their own way” or that they think are more “emotional.” While there is a place for this kind of poetry, surprise yourself with the effects you can create by replacing abstract words with more specific and concrete words and imagery. Remember: images! pictures! senses! You’re creating poetry, right?
- Practice, practice, practice. While modelling your poetry on that of others, you need to keep at it until you develop a voice that is in some way uniquely yours.
- Do you think it is a lot easier to dash off a poem than to try writing a whole story? Think again! Poetry is a “craft” and to be really successful, requires the effort and knowledge and experience of a crafts-person. It can be fun to “play around” with poetry, but if you are serious about it, be prepared to work hard and become the best poet you can be.
- Sometimes, we do just write poems for “fun” or for “lighthearted reading” or for “humour.” We might think we can just dash off a poem like this, simply for readers to enjoy and smile. But, just as with prose, humour can be difficult to carry out successfully. There is good reason for the fact that certain poetic forms, such as limericks, have developed to make humour and fun work in poetry. Rhythm and rhyme are important aspects of the “sound” of humour. If you want to write light-hearted, humorous poetry, listen to stand-up comedians (without watching their body language). How do they use “sound” and “voice” and “rhythm” to create humour that really works? Can you translate that into your poetry?
- How is the flow of your poem? Have you maintained the tension? What “story” are you telling? (And yes, you should be telling a story–and it should have a “story arc” in the same way that a prose story should. Your focus might be on expressing an emotion or drawing a picture–but those are stories in themselves. Stories have tension, and they have effective and imaginative responses to that tension. Does yours?
- Read your poem multiple times before you try to alter it. Fully experience it. Feel it, step into it, invite it into yourself, live with it. Then you’ll make changes that really work.
- Just as in prose writing, “get it all out” in that first draft, then use your revisions to make cuts or additions, improve word choice, develop ideas, create images, and so on.
- Be clear on your intention for your poem. Does the direction you’re taking fit with your intention?
- Imagery is an important aspect of poetry. While you will use similes and evocative language to create pictures, it can be very effective to choose an over-arching metaphor that gently winds throughout the poem to help your reader identify the meaning of your piece.
- Print out a copy of your poem and take it places with you. Look it over whenever you’re doing things that don’t require your full attention–while you’re out for a walk, waiting at the doctor’s office, on the bus, and so on. Read it both silently and aloud. “Feel” it in your mouth, in your lungs, in your breath. Bring the poem into your ordinary life to create a living connection with it.
- Consider writing your poem by hand–and even editing it by hand. Poems are “living” things in a way that prose sometimes isn’t. The physical connection of handwriting provides a physical, living link that typing often misses. Another advantage of writing by hand is that you can more easily observe the development of the poem as you cut, add, move things around (use arrows!), change words, etc. Space out your original draft so you have lots of space for working on revisions. Consider using a different ink colour with each revision so you can really see the development of the piece.
- Try writing (and then editing) in different environments–in silence without distractions, in a more active environment where you are forced to really focus deeply (but in which you might at the same time come up with some important new thoughts), with different kinds of music, in a bright or a dim light, indoors or outdoors. What helps you most? Do the results differ according to what you’re writing about?
Don’t forget to check out Part 2 in this series: Tips for self-editing poetry
What other poetry writing tips would you like to share?
We’d love to hear them! Please add them to the comments 🙂