Writing Good Poetry--The Tools of the Adult Poet

When a baby is given a crayon and the baby produces a few red scribbles, the parents applaud and put the “artwork” on the refrigerator. But, when that baby turns four years old, a few scribbles on paper are no longer considered “good,” and does not gain the child a coveted spot on the fridge. By then, the child is expected to attempt to color within the lines and use several different colors in realistic places (blue for the sky, but not for a person’s face, for instance). When that same child turns six, that child is expected to be able to create his or her own art from scratch. He or she may try to draw a family, and the house is basically a square with a triangle roof on top. Dad has one arm that’s way too long, and mom’s head is too small for her body. The family is mostly made up of stick figures, but it’s creative, interesting, and age-appropriate, so the parents put it on the fridge. But when the child turns fifteen, producing art of that same quality would not gain the child any praise because it would seem babyish and immature for a fifteen-year-old.

In the same way, poetry that is produced when a child is eight might be called “good” for an eight-year-old, but it is not good for a fifteen-year-old. Poetry produced by a teenager might be good for a teen, but if an adult produces that same poem, it is not necessarily considered “good.” Yet, for most people, their high school English teachers are the last people who ever instructed them on how to write poetry. So they are stuck with tools that worked when they were sixteen, but seem outdated now that they are adults.

If you are stuck in this limbo, here are some tools that should help you to write better poetry.

1. Pay attention to sounds

Poetry is meant to be read out loud, and poets are fascinated with the sounds of words and how those sounds fit together to form thoughts and ideas. One way to open your ears to the sounds of words is to obtain a blank manila file folder and use it as your portable word repository. Every time you hear or read a word that you think sounds interesting, write it on your file folder. If you want, you can make categories (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. or A words, B words, C words, etc.) but you don’t have to. The words don’t have to relate to each other, and you certainly wouldn’t use all the words together in the same poem. The point is that you start to consider how words sound together.

Some of my favorite words, based on the ways they sound, are:

Blue, Blew

This is just a short list, but you can get the idea. Keep the folder in your car, take it with you to the office, keep it by your computer, take it to the grocery store, and so on. You will be able to start finding words that just sound good to you. Since it’s a file folder, others will just assume it’s something you’re working on, and you won’t seem weird.

Later, when you are stumped while writing a poem, get that word list out and go over the words that sound good to you. Most likely you will be able to find something that will fit in your poem. Even if none of your favorite words are right for that particular poem, reading over words that you enjoy hearing will trigger pleasure centers in your brain, and it will help you to continue working on your project with a positive outlook.

In addition to paying attention to the words you like, you will want to construct and adjust your poetic lines around sound. In a poem, sound and meaning are equal partners.

Are you writing a poem about water? You would probably want to include a lot of “Sh” sounds in your poem, because running water sounds like an "Sh" sound.

So, a line that says:

The Living Waters engulf me and make me scream with joy!

Might sound better if the author revised it to include more “Sh” sounds like this:

Ambushed by the inrush of Living Waters
I shout with joy gushing from my soul!

When a sound is repeated within a small proximity, like the “-sh” sounds above, it is called alliteration.

One useful link to help find words that contain combinations of letters is http://www.morewords.com/. Realize, though, that English has many possible letter combinations for some sounds. For instance, the /f/ sound in fluff is also in enough and philosophy, even they aren’t spelled the same. Since poetry is about sound, using these words in close proximity would get the right effect because they have similar sounds, even though they don't look the same.

2. Pay attention to the rhythm.

In Spanish, the vast majority of words have an accent on the penultimate syllable. But in English, the accented syllable can be anywhere in the word.

Dictionary= DIC-tion-ary not dic-TION-ary or dic-tion-ARY
Computer= com-PUT-er not COM-put-er or com-put-ER
Music=MU-sic not mu-SIC
Attack= at-TACK not AT-tack

When you write lines of poetry, pay attention to where you put your accented syllables. See if you can create a simple rhythm such as TUM-tum-tum-TUM-tum-tum-TUM-tum-tum.

So, a line of poetry that says:

Jesus is my Living Savior who brought me out of hell.

Might be improved if you try to consider the rhythm of the accented syllables:

Jesus is living and active; He carried me out of my misery.

When you read the second line, you get the TUM-tum-tum-TUM-tum-tum rhythm.

JEsus is LIVing and ACTive; he CARried me OUT of my MISery.

Using a good thesaurus will help any poet to find words that have similar meanings but different stressed syllables. Microsoft Word has a built-in thesaurus under the Tools pull-down menu (go to Language when you pull down the menu). There are many other thesauri online that are more extensive, as well as hard copies available at most bookstores and libraries.

There are other rhythms you can use, such as TUM-tum-TUM-tum-TUM-tum or even a more complicated tum TUM-tum-tum-tum-TUM-tum-TUM-tum-tum-tum-TUM-tum-TUM which mixes two different rhythm patterns into one. You can get creative as you practice. Realize, though, that the rhythm you choose will affect the complexity and length of words you have available that can fit into that rhythm.

3. Can you sing your poem?

Not all poems make good lyrics to songs, and not all song lyrics are good poetry. Getting beyond that fact, before you declare a poem “Done,” go into the shower, close the bathroom door, and try to sing it or rap it. This will help you to judge the length of the lines and make adjustments in the meter of the poem.

Look at the following draft of a poem:

I eat Your Word for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
I love to hear from You, my Lord.
I am listening. Speak to me.
Let me know your will for my life.

The first line has 11 syllables, compared to the next lines which are each 8 syllables. If you were to try to rap it or sing it, you would have to rush that first line then them tempo would be off. Perhaps an improved draft of the poem would be:

I eat Your Word at every meal,
I love to hear from You, my Lord.
I am listening. Speak to me.
Let me know Your will for my life.

Every poet writes first drafts with some lines that are long and clunky. Good poets go back and revise their work so that the lines fit into a pattern more easily. That’s not to say that every line needs to have exactly the same amount of syllables. Some good poems establish patterns such as 8 syllables, 10 syllables, 7 syllables, 8 syllables in each four line stanza. So, the next stanza will have the same 8-10-7-8 pattern, and the next will as well.

One trick to help write a poem with good meter is to start with a song you know and write lines of poetry about a different subject that match the lyric lines of the song.

This may seem childish, but many famous poets use this approach. There's no telling what went through Emily Dickenson's head as she wrote her extensive chache of poems, but every single one of them can be sung to the tune The Yellow Rose of Texas. The song predates her by a few years, but whether or not she knew the song is debatable. Nonetheless, she used the same pattern to create a plethora of poems on many different subjects.

For the sake of example, you probably know Lord, I Lift Your Name on High. But, I want to write a poem about my children, so I will change that first part to:

I know my children are bright,
They like to write and do their math.
Their vocabulary’s high,
Why don’t they like to take a bath?

I wrote that poem by using the lyric lines to Lord, I Lift Your Name on High, and you can sing it to the first four lines of the song. When you pay attention to the syllable lengths of each line, it is called meter.

Of course, that little poem above is humorous, but it’s not polished because I haven’t gone through and played with/fixed the rhythm or the sounds. It takes a lot of time, plenty of drafts and revisions, and lots of false starts to write good poetry. It’s not easy when you consider everything that goes into a poem, but these are things that mark great poetry and set the good apart from the bad, or the adult apart from the childish. As you read poems by other people, consider whether or not they paid attention to sound, rhythm, and meter. Studying other people's poetry will help you to become a better poet. Read one poem every day and think about how the poet used or didn't use these tools. For this month's poetry corner, click here. You can also find links at the bottom of the poetry corner to previous poems we have published here. Then, as you write your own poems use these techniques as tools to help you create better quality poetry.

Look here for our prior Master Classes:

The Five C's of Songwriting

Experimenting with Abstract Landscapes, May 2009

Preparing for Excellence, April 2009

It Builds Character, March 2009

Labanotation, February 2009

Singability, January 2009

Avoiding Cliches, December 2008


Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that I do remember my high school English teacher talking about these things, but I forgot about them until I read them here again.

tools for english language said...

Thank you for an insightful and useful post. The web is a better place with you writing!

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