It wasn’t long ago that I was afraid to write a poem. I wrote fiction, and I was not afraid to write a poetic line here and there. But the prospect of going out of my way to actually write a standalone poem was daunting. I had tried my hand at writing poems when I was younger, but I was always too constrained by trying to get eight perfect syllables in the line and a rhyme at the end of every line that my poetry felt stagnant. I tried again a time or two once I understood a little more about how to create a coherent thought, but the constraints of a strict form still forced me to write to fit the form rather than to write to get my point across.
I knew that poetic forms existed that allowed the poet to deviate from regular rhythm, meter, and rhyme, but I still did not quite understand what made a free-verse poem any more than prose written in verse form. And my English teachers did not help to alleviate my confusion about this point. I was told the proper way to read a poem was to read from punctuation to punctuation ignoring the line breaks. Since I was taught to ignore the line breaks they seemed arbitrary. I could not get my mind around this sticking point because for me nothing about writing is arbitrary. So I gave up on trying any more poetry because it made no sense to me.
But at the same time my fiction writing became more poetic. I began to use dense imagery coupled with alliteration to bring out emotions in my fiction. The wind through the leaves in the trees was no longer just a small detail to add to the realism of the story I was creating. It was a clue to the emotion of the character strolling below those trees. The long moaning breeze shifted the branches of the willow if the character was sad, or the quick shifting blasts of wind whistled and rattled a jaunty tune through the branches overhead if the character was elated. But for some reason I did not know how to translate this type of writing into verse, or at least I was afraid to try. But I got over my fear by forcing a confrontation. I signed up for a poetry writing class. Instead of trying to explain exactly what constitutes a poem, my instructor gave specific instructions for creating our first poem that allowed me to create a short and concise poem that would not be too daunting for a beginning poet. And I will list the instructions for anyone who may need that extra nudge to begin down the path to becoming a poet:
This is a subject poem. Think about someone who you have seen from afar or have met in passing and come up with a purely fictional history for him or her. Choose someone who you don’t fully relate to like the homeless man in town or the mean old lady from church that no one talks to and write their story as you imagine it.
Make the poem between eight and fifteen lines in length. This length allows you to start with a short poem of less than one page in length, but you have enough space to let yourself explore the working of your poem. In this initial drafting of the poem, you want to free yourself to write anything that comes to mind.
Don’t worry about trying to rhyme.Try to focus the language you use as much as possible. Try to use the most specific descriptive words possible. Use sensory and action words as much as possible. Use words that invoke the senses. Use sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell words to describe your chosen character’s short history. Use active verbs whenever possible.
When drafting the poem, remember to read the lines out loud to hear the natural rhythm of the language you chose. Remember that the beginnings and endings of each line are accentuated and beginning or ending lines at different spots can change both the rhythm of the poem and the meanings of the lines themselves.
Once you are finished with the first draft, read it out loud to friends and family and ask them to discuss their most and least favorite parts of the poem. When you have their perspectives on your poem, you can begin the revision process. At this point you can begin to second guess every single word choice you made or not. And during this revision process you can disregard the eight to fifteen line limit and make your poem as long or as short as the poem requires. Just don’t get too caught up on perfecting this first poem just yet. I know there are plenty more poems you are just itching to try out now that you are no longer afraid.
Feel free to link your poems back to this post so I can see what you have come up with.
What do you think? Was this post helpful? What advice would you have for first time poets?