How to Write Poetry

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About: I like sleeping far too much for my own good.

Ever wondered how to write different styles of poetry? While the content of the poems is up to you, there are a variety of common styles that you can use.

Poetry, like other forms of creative writing, can be a great way to propose ideas, convey emotions, and entertain the audience all in one.

Important disclaimer: This is not, nor does it purport to be, the ultimate authoritative source about poetry. This is only a basic introduction to a variety of common styles of poetry. The goal of this Instructable is: to hopefully inspire those who have never written poetry before to try their hand at it and teach them enough to be able to do so, to encourage those who have tried some styles of poetry to expand their repertoire and try some of the others, or just shed a little more light about the subject of poetry and introduce the casual observer to the works of some very famous (and very talented) poets. Who knows? Maybe you'll like some of their poems enough to try your own.

Picture courtesy of http://www2.rccsd.org/RKeim/KEIM'S_POETRY_PAGE.htm

Step 1: Free Verse

Very simply, poetry does not have to rhyme. While there are many more concrete styles of rhyming poetry, poets sometimes feel that non-rhyming poetry can express ideas in ways that rhyming can't. Neither rhyming or non-rhyming poetry is better than the other--it is a matter of personal preference.

Being unconstrained by a rhyme scheme may make it easier to find the right words for your thoughts; however, it is not necessarily easier to write non-rhyming poetry. Quality non-rhyming poetry requires as much effort and skill as good rhyming poetry.

Non-rhyming poetry is a blanket category: within it, there are many more specific types of poetry.

First, we will look at free verse, which is essentially no-rules poetry: no rhyme scheme, no meter, no syllable limits. The poet abides by his or her own boundaries while writing. The best way to get an idea of free verse poetry is to look at a few examples:

Earth, My Likeness
by Walt Whitman

EARTH, my likeness,
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth,
For an athlete is enamour'd of me, and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligi-
ble to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs.

There is no given meter (or arrangement of the words in the line), and no rhyme scheme, yet Whitman manages to put strong emotional sentiment into his words. When writing poetry, you want to put your thoughts into words in whatever way you think most adequately displays them.

Let's look at one more example of free verse poetry:

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Look at the original version because the formatting is crucial. Notice the tabs he uses--you should not feel forced to line everything up. You are allowed to arrange your poem in any manner you see fit. This can include determining which words are capitalized and which are not--the first word of every line does not always have to be capitalized. The best way to approach free verse may be to just get all of your ideas down on paper and then try to rearrange them to make them flow and give them maximum impact.

Check out these authors for more ideas of free verse (not all of their poems are free verse, though):

Ezra Pound
Walt Whitman
Carl Sandburg

Step 2: Blank Verse

Poetry that doesn't rhyme doesn't need to be free verse, though. Many poets keep a structured meter pattern but do not rhyme the lines. This is usually called blank verse. The fixed meter usually means a set number of syllables per line and/or a consistent pattern of stressed syllables. If you are looking to make your poetry flow well and sound consistent, using meter is often a great way to do this.

Let's look at some examples: The first 13 lines of Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning:

But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
I'll work then for your friend's friend, never fear,
Treat his own subject after his own way,
Fix his own time, accept too his own price,
And shut the money into this small hand
When next it takes mine. Will it? tenderly?
Oh, I'll content him,--but to-morrow, Love!
I often am much wearier than you think,
This evening more than usual, and it seems
As if--forgive now--should you let me sit

This poem follows pentameter--each line has ten syllables.

Another (a long one):

Birches
by Robert Frost

This is iambic pentameter: iambic means that every other syllable is stressed, starting with the second syllable. So the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables of every line are stressed.

If you like blank verse, check out "Paradise Lost" by John Milton or
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Step 3: Haiku

The haiku is a very simple and popular form of poetry, originating in Japan. A haiku is made up of three lines, with the first having 5 syllables, the second 7, and the third 5 again. Haikus are often centered around nature or related themes.

The sea at springtime.
All day it rises and falls,
yes, rises and falls.

by Buson

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

by Natsume Soseki

The earliest haikus were written in Japanese, so the translated versions sometimes do not keep the 5-7-5 syllabic count.

Step 4: Rhyming Couplet and Quatrain

A rhyming couplet is a set of lines, back to back, that rhyme. Usually they have the same meter so that they appear as a coherent whole.

Example: Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is written in rhyming couplets. (Beware, though: it is in Middle English).

From the prologue:
Singing he was, or fluting all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May.

This couplet is in iambic pentameter.

A rhyming quatrain is a set of four lines that follow a rhyme scheme. The rhyme schemes could be:
AABB--(the first and second lines rhyme with each other and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other. In other words, a pair of rhyming couplets together)
ABAB--(the first and third lines rhyme with each other and the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other)
ABBA--(the first and fourth lines rhyme with each other and the second and third rhyme with each other)
ABCB--(the second and fourth rhyme with each other).

Again, quatrains usually have a given meter so that they sound like they flow together.

Some examples: The Hippopotamus by Ogden Nash (my favorite poet of all time)

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us,
And yet in moments dank and grim,
I wonder how we look to him.

Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!
We really look all right to us,
As you no doubt delight the eye
Of other hippopotami.

Note the AABB rhyme scheme.

Here's Look Back on Time with Kindly Eyes
by Emily Dickinson

Look back on time with kindly eyes,
He doubtless did his best;
How softly sinks his trembling sun
In human nature's west!

This is an ABCB rhyme scheme.

The couplet and the quatrain can be used as building blocks for your poems, as we will see next.

Step 5: Sonnet

A sonnet is a poem in iambic pentameter made up of fourteen lines. The Elizabethan, or English, sonnet uses quatrains and a couplet following this given pattern:

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

It is three individual quatrains followed by a couplet (GG).

Shakespeare was an extremely prolific writer of sonnets, and some of his are extremely famous. Let's look at Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?"

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Notice that each line has ten syllables and every other syllable is stressed. Reading it aloud will help you identify these traits.

The other type of sonnet is the Italian Sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet. It follows a rhyme scheme of:

ABBA ABBA CDE CDE

This sonnet remains 14 lines all in iambic pentameter. Let's look at "Thou Art Not Lovelier Than Lilacs" by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,--no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,--I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,--with moonlight so.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink--and live--what has destroyed some men.

Some poets rearrange the rhyme scheme of the last six lines in their sonnets, so be on the lookout when reading them.

Other famous sonnet writers are John Donne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Step 6: Limerick

The limerick is a five line poem that has a very distinctive rhythm. It follows a rhyme scheme:
AABBA, with the first, second, and fifth rhyming lines being longer than the third and fourth. Limericks are often comical (and sometimes dirty).

This one, from Wikipedia, is very appropriate:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
In space that is quite economical,
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

Reading it aloud will give you a sense of how limericks sound. Limericks can be great fun to write and they have plenty of comic potential. See more of Edward Lear for some of the origins.

Step 7: Villanelle

The villanelle is a less common and much more difficult form, but it yields very interesting results. It follows a complex scheme of ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA (and no space between last two lines) with the first line repeated as the third line of the second, fourth, and sixth stanzas. The third line is repeated at the end of the third, fifth, and sixth stanzas.

Let's illustrate this with a very famous villanelle, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The lines "Do not go gentle into that good night" and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" are repeated in the mentioned pattern, and all of the opening lines of the other stanzas rhyme with them. The middle lines of each stanza rhyme with each other. A very tough style to work with, but it can yield great results.

Step 8: Final Advice and Strategies

Just a little advice before you begin writing--say what you've written out loud! It will help you figure out what sounds good and whether or not the poetry flows well.

Similarly, if you are trying to write in meter, one of the easiest ways is to read the line out loud and see if the stressed syllables fall in the right places while counting total syllables with your fingers.

Writing in fixed meter, though, is very difficult and often time consuming. Trying to write in iambic pentameter is probably not the best place to start; only get there after you are comfortable with keeping lines consistent in terms of number of syllables only.

The best styles to start with are haiku or simple couplets and quatrains. If you give each rhyming line in the couplet/quatrain the same number of syllables without worrying about where the stress falls, it should sound relatively coherent.

If you want a little more of a challenge, you could try free verse or limericks. Free verse is very much in its own category: some people swear by it and others hate it. Try it, see if you like it after a few attempts, and proceed from there.

The hardest of those mentioned here are the sonnet, blank verse, and the villanelle. Again, fixed meter is not easy--so if you are trying these make sure to be patient.

There are other styles besides these as well, and you can always invent your own. If something strikes your fancy, go for it. Poetry should act as a way for you to get an idea across, convey emotion, or put thoughts into words in a way that makes them poignant and entertaining. Poetry often is more memorable than prose, and it can stick in the mind of the reader or the listener for a long time.

When writing, you want to find a quiet place where you won't be distracted. Allotting yourself a given amount of time (during the time of day in which you prefer to write) sometimes helps a writer be more productive.

If you want to check out more good poets and interesting poems, look at these this site:
Shel Silverstein, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Edgar Allen Poe, Edward Arlington Robinson are great poets to check out, as are all of the ones mentioned on previous pages.

Other sources to look at and sources I used to help me with this are:
Wikipedia
Poemhunter
Project Gutenberg (a great source for full-length texts)
Walt Whitman Archive
And all of the pictures:
1234567

Enjoy the poetry!

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55 Discussions

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WilliamB395

11 months ago

Let me know if this is too dark.

Standing in silence

Never knew I was there

Seeing the violence

In the mirror , that stare

Hatred grew stronger

each and every day

Take it no longer

Now make you pay

For the years I prepared

and all that I lost

No more to be scared

I will pay you the cost

Now as you're sleeping

I come to you're room

Then quietly creeping

You'll know the truth soon

Now the knife drops

From over my head

Your heart finally stops

At last you are dead

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ewcrewewcrew

Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

I've got another one:

Here I lie,

With nothing
left.

There you
die,

Of life
bereft.

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BrianD266ewcrew

Reply 1 year ago

I like the brevity! We've all been there..

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TerrylSky

1 year ago

images and images in this space

i imagine what i feel and want to say

i feel that i want to convey

what i imagine i feel

what i feel and want to say and write

i express what to me is real

1 reply
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BrianD266TerrylSky

Reply 1 year ago

I like the free spirit of this. The inscape of your imagination..

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Donseke

2 years ago

am trying this. my first poem, comment on it

life is so simple yet complex

with such chances yet unknown, you gave me.

always expecting everything yet nothing

being perfect and good, just a wish

with much strength and joy, hope lies in expectation

life is being you

thank you - be you

love is selfless in action

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GarrettSmoot

2 years ago

There is a poetry contest that I plan on joining. I need help on a topic though. Last year I did "Friendship Is Magical."

1 reply
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I am idocolerve
I converge, I lure, I achieve, to soar in what?
To be someone I would look up to and excel .
Emerge as a one of a kind idosyncratic.
The more challenges blown on to me the more I can wash away. Come at me, I'm not frighten. Let me show you what your wrongs convert me to be idosyncratic. I converge, I lure , I achieve, to be me the hardest challenge to be thrown on this sphere.

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PianoCatMc

3 years ago on Introduction

I don't know if this poem I wrote is good. could you tell me?

If I could make a wish it would be for people to not see me cry

I know that's stupid but....

I don't want people to worry about me

I don't want people to cry with me

I don't want people to think its there fault

I don't want them to see my tears

I cry because think I'm..

useless

stupid

ugly

weird

but then I see everyone...

Who loves me

Who believes in me

who think i'm smart

who understand me

these are the people who help me keep going

2 replies
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TravenSPianoCatMc

Reply 2 years ago

your poem is actually not even that bad

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DuaneW8PianoCatMc

Reply 3 years ago

From my experience your writing is well thought out..the only thing i can see is a small spelling error. the idea is good..THERE should be Their ..something small so don't sweat it.

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GiselleMarks1

2 years ago

It is always good to make decisions

by Giselle Marks

It is always good to make
decisions

Right or wrong, a work is best begun.

Surgeons
must make their first incisions.

If
you truly want to achieve your visions,

Ideas
are nothing until something is done.

It
is always good to make decisions.

Procrastination
makes sad divisions.

The
first step eats up those miles run.

Surgeons
must make their first incisions.

Blood must flow, we
make revisions.

Any action is preferable
than none.

It is always good to make decisions.

Life is just a
series of collisions,

Don’t put those
bullets in a gun.

Surgeons must make their first incisions.

Switch off all of
your televisions,

Live life to the
full, don’t let it rerun

It is always good to make decisions.

Surgeons must make their first incisions.

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alissa2

2 years ago

and just a btw the title kinda mixes with everything else

The poem starts at

You pick up a pencil.

And the title is What to write.

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alissa2

2 years ago

For the end I decided to do this:

You draw because in drawing

You can do great things.

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alissa2

2 years ago

This is my first poem! Please tell me if it is good! Or even if it is bad!

What to write?

You pick up a pencil,

You stare at a blank page,

What shall you write?

Your pencil starts to move,

In various ways.

You draw.

You draw, because in drawing you can do what your imagination says

But in poetry, you can master great things.

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snakeo

2 years ago

As I lay beneath the night sky

Gathering thoughts of all your lies

I feel my heart turn black with hate

As the stars shine so bright

I will have no sympathy

You won’t find no sympathy here…

I once envied you

Now I want to destroy you.

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ShelbyH10

2 years ago

I'm not sure how i feel about this one, its been years since ive written poetry. But i needed to get somethings out. Tell me your thoughts on it please.

In the beginning

I was engulfed

In love, passion, desire

I could feel you

Your soul vibrated with mine

Your happiness was mine

But you changed

Bitter

Awful

Violent...

You yelled, screamed

You brainwashed

You commanded, i obeyed

I was a puppet

A shadow of what once was

Empty

Alone

Confused

I stayed

You're all i know

Brainwashed

You pushed, I ran

I never came back

I'm free, from you

But not from myself

I'm trapped

Brainwashed

You broke me

I don't know how to start again

You still control, without a word

I still follow old commands, even though you're gone

Brainwashed

Never the same...

But i'll never give up

You made me weak

But i can be strong

I am strong even if i am

Brainwashed

~SCH