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How I Write Poems

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” ~ Rita Dove

I studied English at Bradley University, a small private school in Central Illinois. I chose English because I was an avid reader/writer and because I didn't know what else I could possibly study. When I finally declared my major at the end of my freshman year, my friends all said, "Finally." I was the girl who wrote poems in the margins of her notebooks during chemistry class and read Anna Karenina over winter break for fun. It was obvious to everyone that I wasn't destined to become a doctor.

I enrolled in a writing workshop in the fall of my sophomore year, and one day, my professor posed a question to the class" "What is a poem?" We were all a bit stumped: a story, but shorter? a thing that rhymes, maybe? a way to convey emotion? a prayer? finally, someone said, "Anything. Anything can be a poem." which is of course not totally correct. My cat is not a poem, although some of the things he does are poetic. Walking across my keyboard in the middle of a sales call, for instance, ingratiating my potential client who has two cats himself.

Poetry is old. But I think poetry is cool because it conveys feeling and ideas in a relatively concise and musical manner. Sometimes, people think poems are hard to understand, and I agree. Some poetry is hard to understand, getting bogged down in adjectives and flowery words and intense innuendo that is probably only clear to the writer. I think a good poem should do a few things:

1. Evoke emotion. Not by telling the reader what to feel, but by showing them or leading them.

2. Be succinct. A poem is not the place to be excessive with details. Words carry weight, but even more so in a poem, where words are limited. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it best, “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.”

3. Tell a story. You can write a poem about frost on your window, but that's pretty uninteresting. What about the frost makes it unique or worth attention? There has to be a reason a poem exists to make it maximally compelling. If there is no reason, there is no story and you might end up with a set of pretty words that mean nearly nothing.

I could tell you about the unique elements of poetry, which are probably worth touching on. Poetry is written in verse, rather than prose, meaning there are line breaks and text does not break at the end of the page. Poetry highlights the musicality of language through rhyme and meter. Not all poetry needs to rhyme, and actually, some of the best poetry doesn't rhyme at all. But how a poem sounds is just as important as what a poem says, and rhyme/meter can help a poem sound good. There are three types of rhymes:

1. Homophones: words that aren't the same but sound the same, like “tail” and “tale.”

2. Perfect Rhymes: Perfect rhymes are word pairs that are identical in sound except for one minor difference. Examples include “plant and rant,” “crate and mate,” and “shower and power.”

3. Slant Rhymes: 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. These are also called oblique rhymes or imperfect rhymes.

Here are my steps to writing a poem:

1. Start with an idea for a story. I sometimes just start with a line. The poem below started with the line, "it's just a shell," and grew into a story from there. Reading widely helps me find words and phrases that are interesting and that might grow into a larger poem. Sometimes, conversations unveil fun words or phrases that later turn into poems. I write down ideas in the notes app on my phone and return to them for inspiration. 2. Word dump. When writing my first draft, I don't think about form or meter or rhyme. I don't break up my lines, or worry if something sounds dumb. I just dump everything and know that I'll edit it later. It's self-sabotage to edit as you go, and I think the word dump phase is the fun part. 3. Settle on a first line. The first part of my editing phase is to settle on a first line. It has to be compelling enough to grab a reader. It has to set the scene. It's the beginning of the story, after all. 4. Edit and edit again. I give my poems many edits. Sometimes two or three, but sometimes ten or twenty. Whatever it takes to make the poem feel complete. The poem below went through ~5-7 edits before I was satisfied. One poetic device I like to use often is repetition, so in my edits I pick out interesting lines and figure out ways to incorporate them more than once. In the poem below, I repeat, "It's just a shell," and "I am wasting my life." Notice how repeating these lines wraps up this relatively short poem in a nice way.

It's just a shell, he said I can't go to bed in the heat of disagreement I found a nautilus shell on the beach and brought it home

he doesn't see it, but it's so beautiful I am wasting my life sitting up at night trying to explain grace to a man who can't understand miracles let's just go to bed, he said but I am too tired to sleep

too obsessed with the daydream of the beach

I watched a pelican dive into a wave catch a fish, and swallow it whole without blinking now I can't stop thinking about metallic balloons polluting the ocean

a pelican grooming itself with a bright red balloon string

hanging from its mouth the sand felt like kisses against my skin I'm in love with not knowing how deep the ocean is tomorrow I will wake up with freckles and the man beside me will wonder why I am suddenly less beautiful and he'll scoff at the shells I collected claim I've neglected him, again so I close my eyes and imagine he has morphed into pelican and we are miles away floating on a warm eastern wind it's just a shell, he said and air is just air the stars are just stars night is just night I am wasting my life

P.S. Sign up for the poem of the day from the Poetry Foundation, read Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke or find your next poetry read here.


Sarah Rose

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