How Do You Write a Poem?
The answer to this question can be as varied as the person answering it. In this blog, I will explain my writing process to give you some ideas of ways you can try your hand at poetry.
Where Do Poems Start?
Many things inspire me and give me the urge to write a poem. That urge comes from wanting to explore something I don’t fully understand, to highlight some sort of epiphany or interesting thought I had, to capture a fleeting moment of beauty, love or happiness, or to process something that has made me sad or angry.
I can be inspired by something as small as a recent spring storm that covered our tulips in snow to something as big as the war in Ukraine. The wonderful thing about poetry is that it’s big enough to hold it all.
Another great way to start writing a poem is to “copy” the style of a poem that you really like and write your own. For instance, I was inspired after reading “Since Unfinished” to write “I’ve Been Writing This Since,” which I will include the first stanza of below. Notice how I give the first author credit in my poem.
I’ve Been Writing This Since
– After “Since Unfinished” by Richard Blanco
I’ve been writing this since my brother
taught me how to write my first cursive word —
cattle, at the kitchen table,
since I was six and roamed the ranch
without a shirt like the hired hands.
I Have an Idea. Now What?
Start writing! Write in a notebook, a journal, a scrap of paper, or your computer – explore your ideas and let yourself write absolutely whatever comes to your mind. Let yourself make associations between things that may not make sense initially. Try to think of a metaphor that can help you explain what you are writing about — compare your feelings or ideas to something concrete – what can we physically experience in our world that mimics what you are feeling or thinking?
What Do You Do With the First Draft?
Once you have your initial musings and ideas, work on expanding your ideas and replacing dull or imprecise words with interesting and surprising ones. You can find words in a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary, or by making a bag of interesting words and sprinkling them on your desk to inspire you, like magnetic poetry. Words can be collected everywhere: from other poems, on vacation, in newspaper articles, in novels, etc.
Make sure your poem has sensory details. Where it makes sense, try adding in colors, smells, sounds, tastes, etc.
Shape your poem with stanzas and line breaks, which are some of the poet’s best tools. Stanzas group your lines together and create pauses and white spaces in your poem. Line breaks can be used to emphasize the words at the ends of lines, to control the speed at which the poem is read (short lines read slower than long lines), and to make the reader pause.
Using words and line breaks, you can also work on crafting the sound and beat, or rhythm of the poem. Part of poetry’s beauty is its sound and rhythm. Some poems are in iambic pentameter and rhyme at the end of the lines, like these lines from my poem, “Fog Over the Monument.”
Other poems might have slant rhymes and a certain number of syllables in each line, or maybe they have some sort of rhyme and rhythm pattern you make up yourself, like in my poem, “Incandescence,” which was published in Pilgrimage. I will include the first few stanzas below.
It must be a shock for dark coal
to wake from its mossy dream
to the sound of heavy hummingbird wings.
It must seem strange to trade in ancient
sunlight beams for artificial bling
that snaps through silver strings
to light our nights while today’s waves
slant through windows, make my swamp cooler
chug and blow through yet another hot summer.
Read your poem aloud and see what sounds, rhymes, and rhythms you hear, and then try to build on them. Reading other poetry trains your ear and helps you craft your own poetry.
You Like Your Poem…Now What?
Share your poem with a friend, join a writing group, or take it to Poetry Night at the Central Library. See what comments you get and decide if you want to incorporate any of the suggestions you receive. Keep revising your poem and repeating this process until your poem feels finished. Then don’t look at it for a while and read it again. How does it sound now?
Your Poem is Finished…Now What?
Once you have your poem the way you want it, congratulations! You can now share it with the world! Submit it to literary journals (I like to find journals by looking at the acknowledgement pages of my favorite poetry books and seeing where those authors published their poems. You can also try www.submittable.com.).
Or, email your poem to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to see what you come up with!
Jill Burkey was Mesa County Libraries’ Artist in Residence during spring 2022 and she is working on publishing her first collection of poetry. For more about her writing and editing process, see this entry of her blog about writing, and check out some of her poems. You can also follow Jill on Instagram @jillburkeywrites or join her email list to keep up with her process of writing and publishing her first collection of poetry as well as things she has learned about writing.