Sunday, February 17, 2019

7 Things I Learned from Writing Poetry

This post is not a how-to guide for writing poetry. Rather, it is a compilation of a few things I have learned while writing poetry. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of these things are rules but rather a couple guidelines that I have followed during the writing process.

I wasn’t always a poet. In fact, I like to claim that if it weren’t for a certain philosophy class I took in uni, I wouldn’t have taken an interest in poetry at all. As I struggled to understand modernism and postmodernism and why even philosophers don’t understand it (seriously, why???), I wrote a very odd performance poem about madness.

Thus, my interest in writing poetry was born.

Sure, I probably would’ve come to write poetry in a different way, seeing as how I took a creative writing class the next semester, but I like to think fondly back to that ridiculous poem. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about reading poetry and certainly a lot about writing it. Here are just a few facts about the latter.

1) Not all poetry is nonfiction.

This little tidbit I picked up from my creative writing class. Poetry is tied to emotions and metaphors, but that doesn’t mean you have to experienced them to write about them. When I wrote “Puddle”, I wrote about the melancholy change that comes with nature in comparison to a break up. But here’s the thing—I’ve never dated before much less had a break up.

So how did I write the poem? I just made it up.

Novels in verse even come in many different forms from contemporary fiction (Saving Red) to historical fiction (Blood, Water, Paint) and from classics (Paradise Lost) to memoir (Brown Girl Dreaming). Stand alone poems are no different. Some of them may be fact while others pure imagination.

2) Metaphors are fun to experiment with.

They’re probably one of my favorite parts of poetry. Comparisons that might sound forced or confusing in prose make for some excellent poetry, and readers don’t need everything spelled out for them. Though I still strive for simplicity with each poem, I like being able to overlay lines or phrases with multiple meanings and explore metaphors by asking questions like “How can I say this in a way that’s not cliché?” and “What shows and evokes emotion in the reader without outright stating it?”

For example, when writing “Heartbeat”, I played with emotions like unease and fear and mashed them up with imagery from Mount Saint Helens with its lakes where pine trees still lie beneath the water and the sulfur pools from Yellowstone National Park.

please don’t ask me to relax, for still I
feel the avalanche, lifeblood of this sphere with its
veins of ash and fire pulsing to drumbeats
in the deep
—excerpt from “Heartbeat”

3) Structured poems are challenging but rewarding.

I’m not much of one for sonnets (too sappy), and I still can’t write a villanelle (help!), but every now and then I try my hand at something other than my usual free verse. Typically, I’ll write something in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables in each line and the stress being on every second syllable. It’s got a nice rhythm.

The hardest part is finding words that fit the meter and still have the poem make sense. Sometimes, I’ll play around with the order of words and see if I can rearrange the sentence and still have it make sense.

My friends and I, we’d build small forts to hide
pretending tales were life with every stride.
Like sweets, the sap did cling to child’s small hands
and time blew through the trees with open fronds.
—excerpt from “Pine Trees”

4) Even free verse poetry has its guidelines.

I’ve been told
in many a book review
that writing poetry
is not just
hitting enter.

Which is why I’m not going to write this whole section and pretend it’s a free verse poem. It’s not. Even though free verse poems can be vastly different from structured ones, they still differ from prose in complexity and imagery and spacing, you name it.

My biggest struggle is with line length and whether to break apart certain phrases or keep them together. Even more recently, as I read and record poems for my monthly posts, I’ve come to discover just how important rhythm, punctuation, and line length are for ease of reading. “Small Talk” isn’t a bad poem visually if I may say so myself, but man was it hard to read aloud with so few pauses! If you happen to find my poems with more commas or pauses, it’s for reading ease.

5) I can’t force myself to write a poem.

A lot of people say that you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, that you just have to write. And I agree for the most part. Except when it comes to poetry. I’ve tried forcing myself to write poems instead of just letting the lines flow. Each time, I’ve wanted to set the final result on fire.

Maybe that means I’m still an amateur at writing poetry. Maybe not.

Either way, I usually have to wait for the poem to come to me. Inspiration takes many different forms, but for me, more often than not, it’s nature. If you haven’t already noticed, a lot of my poems tend to be nature poems. That and I tend to write the best poems in my head while I’m exercising. All my best exercising I do hiking through the woods, biking to work, or jogging through open fields.

6) Even poems may require multiple drafts.

I never post a poem or send one out for publication without first running it by my lovely critique partner, Faith. Back in university, we used to tear each other’s poems apart a lot more—maybe there’s something about reading them in person that makes it easier to examine or maybe we’ve both gotten better at writing. Now we continue to review each other’s work, from blog posts to poems, and I find it’s helpful not only to have somebody make sure I used the write word but also to ensure I made sense.

7) Poetry is meant for sharing.

The more I read and write poetry, the more I come to understand this one. Poetry isn’t just meant to be read quietly in a living room or alone in a sunny field. It’s meant to be shared and discussed. As I mentioned when I attended my first book reading/poetry night, sharing poetry with a group and hearing their favorite poems helped me better understand my readers. I also like it when I’m reading and a family member is around and I can share a line or maybe an entire poem with them. It makes reading that much more enjoyable.

Let’s chat! Any fellow poets out there? What’s your take on writing poetry? Reading it? What’s the last poem you wrote/read? Links welcome!


Literary references: Sonya Sones’ Saving Red, Joy McCullough’s Blood, Water, Paint, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming


  1. Villanelles are so difficult! But I find them really rewarding, and I love the repetition.

    And I'm the same! I can't force myself to write poetry at all, but I absolutely adore writing it when I feel motivated/inspired.

    1. I like the repetition too! Thanks for the comment, Faith!