Why write poetry, you may ask? Does anyone even read poetry these days? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding YES! Poetry may attract a smaller readership than commercial fiction but there are many devotees out there, and in particular there are some extraordinary and distinctive female voices. Want proof? The English Poet Laureate, the English Children’s Poet Laureate, the Scottish Makar (national poet) and the Welsh Poet Laureate are ALL women.
But you don’t need to be aiming for the TS Eliot Prize to pick up a pen. Many people use poetry to help express and process difficult emotions and experiences. This type of poetry is sometimes called confessional poetry, although not all poetry that explores personal experiences ends up reading as an explicitly autobiographical poem. You might want to write about losing someone you love, but end up writing about migrating birds, or a smashed glass, or – well anything, you’re the poet! (if you do, you’ll probably be using metaphor – see our guide to poetry basics below).
Writing poems about past experiences can help to draw ideas and memories from your subconscious, and also to allow you to distance yourself from the emotions through the process of structuring them into a poetic form. By stepping back to think about how you can express your emotions as well as feel them one can gain fresh perspective on past events. Many writers find that the early stages of poetry creation are quite cathartic. Of course, you don’t have to write about yourself at all – it’s a popular starting point but there are plenty of other subjects out there!
If you’re unsure of where to begin, a ‘sensory’ poem is a good place to start: close your eyes, clear your mind, and think back to a fond memory from your childhood (starting from a positive memory tends to be a more enjoyable experience and can evoke very powerful imagery). It doesn’t have to be a specific event, it could be a cluster of associations, for example the seaside from a summer holiday, or the smell of pine needles from a Christmas tree. As you recall these, try to focus on all the sensory elements: colours, smells, sounds, texture. Scribble down all that you can, trying to get as much detail as you can from each sense. Once you have done this, take a look at the words on the page. What you see in front of you may not be the start of a coherent poem, but often you will see a few words or phrases that leap off the page, or a pattern emerging, that will make the start of a good poem.
Once you’ve got some strong images or ideas, you’ll have to decide how you want to organise the words on the page (see structure and lineation). You can move things around as much as you like until you like the feel of the poem’s flow (see meter to get an idea of how to create an aural flow in poems). If you’re writing in a specific form like a sonnet you will have to work within its structural constraints, which takes practice, but deciding where to put line breaks and stanza breaks in free verse can be just as challenging!
Most poets go through several drafts before they’re satisfied that the poem is finished. You might find it helpful to put your work to one side for a while and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Once you’ve decided you’re happy with it, it can be really helpful to take it to a poetry workshop (see below) to get constructive criticism from other poets.
Sharing your poems
There are hundreds of poetry groups that you can join in order to share you poems and to get invaluable feedback. The Poetry Society and The Poetry School run excellent workshops and events, and local and regional organisations regularly promote poetry through festivals.
If you want to improve your writing try to read as much poetry – ancient and modern – as you can. Even if you don’t want to read out a poem you can attend workshops and readings (often for free) and listen to what’s going on in the poetry scene. Try out a few groups to find one that most suits your style. You can also listen to a range of poets reading their work for free at Poetry Archive, and sign up to receive a new poem by email here.
Most people start out by thinking of a subject they want to write about. It can be especially difficult in poetry to encapsulate everything that you want to say in such a pared down form as a poem, so it’s a good idea to start with something relatively modest – that doesn’t mean that it has to be un-ambitious, but a poem about a flower can say a lot about other things, like life and death and love, without saying anything directly on those subjects.
This is what you describe (people often refer to imagery as the ‘picture the poet paints’). An image used to stand in for something else, like describing a rose to equate with love, is a metaphor. When you say something is like something else, e.g. a rose is like love, that’s a simile. There are lots of other ways to describe imagery: motifs, allegory, etc.
One of the most important distinctions between poetry and any other type of writing is that the words are structured in a ‘form’ – whether it’s a sonnet, sestina or in free verse. This means that sentences don’t run on until their punctuated end as they do in prose. Instead the poet intentionally creates line breaks to emphasise words and sounds in the poem. Many poetic forms use specific rhyme structures that are expected in certain structures, like the Petrarchan sonnet. There are way too many to go into detail here, but there are plenty of good books and websites that further explain form.
Another classic feature of poetry, although not essential. Historically rhymes were used to make poetry more memorable, such as in Ancient Greece where great epic tales like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey were recounted by heart. Modern poets make much use of half-rhyme (where the two words have a similar sound, but technically are not a rhyming pair, such as rhyming heart with bark). If you find creating rhymes difficult there are plenty of rhyming dictionaries out there to help you out.
Meter describes the sound (or pulse, perhaps) of the poem: meter is about where the emphasis is put on each syllable in each line. Not all poems are metered, but poets use meter to emphasis words and ideas. Meter is described in terms of ‘feet’ (a unit that varies according to the type of meter), and each ‘foot’ has a point of emphasis. The most famous is the iambic pentameter, which is what Shakespeare uses in his plays when characters speak in verse. The word ‘pentameter’ means that each line has five ‘feet’, and ‘iambic’ means that each foot has two syllables and in each ‘foot’ the emphasis is put on the second syllable (i.e., de dah, de dah, de dah, etc.) Wikipedia has a good list of meter here.
Lineation concerns where you put the line breaks and stanza breaks. A stanza is a block of lines with no space between them. There are no restrictions in free verse on how you lineate your poem, although most poets use the line break to emphasise important words and avoid ending lines with weak words, like conjunctive words. Poetry with no line breaks is called prose poetry.