Poetic Considerations

On January 1, 2020, Alyce wrote, How do you write songs and poetry? I’ve tried, and if it’s not a haiku I can’t manage. I just can’t seem to get more than a couple rhyming lines out, usually not even that. I can memorize poetry just fine, and make any rhymes I want (one of my characters blurts out anything that rhymes with the word she’s actually thinking of). I just can’t make those rhymes make sense most of the time. Or if I can, they don’t come out the way I want, and they don’t pass the message I want (or anything, really, they’re just a lot of impressive-sounding nonsense). Does anyone have any suggestions?

Erica wrote back, Why do you find a haiku easier than other poetry? If you can write haikus fairly easily, then I would recommend trying either limericks or free verse next, depending on what your precise difficulties are. If your problem is just that your rhymes don’t make sense, try either blank verse or free verse for your poems.

I’m with Erica on trying poetry that doesn’t rhyme.

Songs are a different matter. They should use meter, and, usually, rhymes. I say they should be metrical because meter provides rhythm. And rhyme helps with rhythm too. There is no law. If a song or poem works, it works.

Meter means a regular sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I just looked online for a link that lays out kinds of meter in a straightforward way, but the subject is complicated, and I couldn’t find a site that I thought is perfect, but please google poetic meter and see what you get.

I’ll take a short stab at it, though, using iambic meter as an example. In iambic meter, an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. In this line from Shakespeare, I’m capitalizing the stressed syllables:


Another term you should know is poetic foot. A foot is the unit of stressed and unstressed syllables. So in the sentence above, a HORSE is a foot. The second a HORSE is the second foot. Notice that a foot can end in the middle of a word, as in the third foot above, my KING. dom is in the next foot. There are five feet in this Shakespearean line. A five-foot iambic line is said to be written in iambic pentameter, pentameter for the five feet.

The ballad form may be something Alyce and others will take to. Each stanza has four lines. The first and third lines have four iambic feet, second and fourth three iambic feet. The second and fourth lines rhyme; the other two don’t.

Trochaic meter uses a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Feet aren’t always two syllables long, either. An anapestic foot, for example, is three syllables long, two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.

If you come up with your song’s melody first, you can figure out the beats and find the words to go with them.

Another way to get rhythm is to take a poem or song that already has a rhythm you like. Analyze the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables and follow them in your own poem or song with different words.

A thesaurus is great for finding words with the stresses we’re looking for. For example, suppose in our poem somebody goes crazy, but the first syllable of CRAzy is stressed and we need the second syllable to be the stressed one. The thesaurus will offer us inSANE as an alternative.

For rhyme, there are rhyming dictionaries. I use RhymeZone online: https://www.rhymezone.com/, which offers near rhymes too, like rhyming street with free. Near rhymes, also called slant rhymes, are often just as good or even better than exact rhymes. Better because there are more words to choose from. The ear will pick up the similarity in sound even though the match isn’t exact.

In general, simple rhymes work best even in sophisticates songs and poems. Complicated rhymes can seem forced. And simple ones make the poet’s life easier.

But, returning to the beginning, in poetry one does not have to rhyme! Most contemporary poems don’t. There are other ways to achieve poem-iness.

Image is a tool of poetry. Doesn’t have to be a beautiful image either. For example, someone stretching to reach a high shelf can add a poetic note.

Sonic elements also contribute. Alliteration–the repetition of initial letters, like blue bowl–makes a sound pattern that pleases the ear. Same for assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. This also works for internal perfect rhyme or near rhyme, rhyming words that aren’t at the end of the line.

Repetition is a poetic device too: words or phrases that keep coming up. Some poetic forms add structure without rhyme, generally by using repetition. I love pantoums (they don’t have to rhyme but can), which repeat specific lines in stanzas. Triolets operate similarly. Wickedly hard is the sestina, which repeats the last word in a line according to a sequence. The tritina is sestina-light, because it follows the same principal with many fewer lines.

By studying her poems I discovered (or think I have) a strategy used by one of my favorite poets, Lisel Mueller (high school and up). She’ll pick a theme for a poem and explore it in different ways (reminds me of my beloved lists). For example, in her poem “Necessities” she considers a different necessity in each of five longish stanzas. Each necessity is italicized: A map of the world; The illusion of progress; Answers to questions; Evidence that we matter; the old things first things.

We can do something similar, approach the poem we’re trying to write by looking at its topic in as many ways as we can think of. Let’s say the topic is escape. We can ask, escape from what? And we can come up with alternatives: our house, our thoughts, a conversation, the world of cause and effect. What do we have to say about each of these? We can ask about methods of escape and apply the same process. Same for destination, what we’d take with us. And so on. We don’t have to use everything we come up with, but as long as whatever we come up with connects with our topic, our poem will be coherent.

Poetry is a big subject, so I’ve only scratched the surface. A book that I use again and again to help me find forms to hold my poetic ideas is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett. If you check it out, look at the chapters on meter and rhyme, which are in alphabetical order: Foot, Rhyme, and Rhythm.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a poem with escape as its theme, and try the method I propose above.

• Write a ballad about a particular escape, because ballads usually tell a story. Here you’ll be using rhyme.

• Write an entirely new poem that uses the same meter as William Blake’s “The Tyger.” You don’t have to write as many stanzas as he did, or you can write more, and you can decide whether you want your poem to rhyme. (I’ve always wondered how Blake pronounced symmetry.) Here’s the poem, which is in the public domain:

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Great post! And “Tyger, Tyger” is one of my favorite poems. I love the imagery.

    On an unrelated note, I’m writing a story where my MC can change the surface tension and density of the water around her. This gives her the ability to walk on water and to breathe underwater. How else might she use these abilities? In particular, how could she use them offensively?

    • That sounds cool! I’m writing my own story where the MC can manipulate water, to the point of being able to breathe underwater, but her powers don’t work on salt water and she can’t manipulate water that happens to be inside someone. (She can dry herself off with her magic, but she can neither drown someone nor save them from drowning.) Maybe your MC could, say, increase the density of the water droplets someone’s breathing in so it starts filling their lungs, or she could increase the surface tension of the puddle her opponent’s standing in so their feet get stuck. On a different note, I know that the adjective describing the ocean is “marine”, but does anyone know if there’s an adjective to describe a river? With the MC I mentioned above, her people spend most of their time on boats in the river, but describing them as a “river-going” or a “river-based” culture seems awkward.

    • AuthorOfVirtue says:

      What do you mean by offensively? Maybe she could increase the density so much that she could bend or squeeze things.

  2. Dancer and Writer says:

    I love the “Tyger, Tyger” poem. I think I read it recently. It is probably one of my all time favorites. By the way, both story ideas are neat. I would read them.

  3. Does anyone have any advice on writing spooky/Halloween stories? I’ve been in the mood to write some recently, but I’ve never written any, and wouldn’t know where to start, or how to convey the general fall vibe I’d want too. If it helps, I’m thinking more short stories, probably not longer then a few thousand words.

  4. I’m thinking of doing NaNoWriMo for the first time. Does anyone have tips for coming up with ideas? Or just tips in general, like how to succeed.

    • I did it once, and won, though I found it stressful. Basically, I used Dragon Dictate and just let my mouth run. Only about a quarter to a third of the final product was actually usable, but it did prove that I CAN produce lots of words in a hurry if I need to. For the idea, I started a sequel to a previous book.

      Good Luck!

    • I’ve done it once and I did not win. Not even close. But I did try it again over the summer, and my word count was smaller, and I did win that. What I’ve learned is to be flexible. I’m planning on doing it this November, but again, going for a smaller word count. It really depends on where you are in your writing journey and how much time you have. I have school and an unholy amount of homework, so I’m not holding myself to the typical word count. If that is what works for you, do that. Also, don’t stress about the quality of your writing. The point of NaNoWriMo is not to write a good story, its to write a story that can later be edited.

    • I’ve done NaNoWriMo twice and won both times. The thing that I used the first time, before I knew how to motivate myself, was word crawls. They’re basically a storyline that will tell you to write a certain amount of words at each point. It’s usually small, like 200 words, or 500 words. Sometimes you can find a daily word crawl that you can go back to each day. They have word crawls for everything, like a Harry Potter word crawl, a Dnd word crawl, a daily NaNo themed word crawl, video games or movies, etc.
      The other thing I do is to pick a story to work on months in advance. Just the fact that I can’t write it until November gets me excited. That motivation will stick with me through the first couple weeks, and by then I’ll have enough progress to ease through week three and four.
      In general, just find the thing that motivates you and use it to your advantage.

  5. AuthorOfVirtue says:

    I’m writing a pirate book and I’m putting lots of made up sea shanties in it. Do you have any ideas for what some of them could be about? Also, I’m writing some sea shanties about captains and their ships. Do you have any made up (or real) captain and ship names I could write about?

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