On November 19, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, Do you think you could write a blog post of poetry? Specifically free-form? Does anyone here have any tips on that?
Katie W. did: I just finished a Poetry 1 class, and these were some of the things I learned.
1) Lines of poetry are not sentences. Don’t try to make them be. (This is one of the hardest things for me.)
2) Sound is very important. Assonance and alliteration can make or break a poem.
3) Syllable count is important even in free verse, to make sure the poem flows naturally.
4) Always read poems out loud and, if possible, have someone else read them to you. You catch all kinds of mistakes that way.
5) Word choice is critical. Always look for specifics, and avoid cliches and overly “tidy” or sentimental endings.
6) A line should end on a strong word and be “a world in and of itself” unless you have a very good reason for it not to be.
7) Find poets you like and read as much of their work as you can find. This will give you not only a better feel for their work, but a sense of what you want to do with your own.
If you have any more specific questions, feel free to ask, but this should get you started.
Writing Cat, I hope you’re still interested!
You all know I love to talk about poetry.
Terrific list from Katie W.! My favorite is #7. to read poets you like (and poets whose work you don’t know and sometimes poets whose work you don’t like, old poems and new poems).
I’m assuming that Writing Cat is thinking of free verse. The Poetry Foundation is a wonderful resource for all things poetry, and here’s its definition: Nonmetrical, nonrhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech. A regular pattern of sound or rhythm may emerge in free-verse lines, but the poet does not adhere to a metrical plan in their composition.
There can (and inevitably will) be rhyme in free verse, but most of the rhymes will be internal, or within the line (just as, for example, free rhymes with be in this sentence). These rhymes are part of the sound or sonic quality of poetry.
Generally, when I teach poetry, I start by asking my students what makes a poem poem-y. A list ensues. Poets call out,
Similes and metaphors
Sounds, like alliteration and assonance
A form, like a sonnet
Evoking feelings and mood
Concision (no unnecessary words)
Word placement (like E. E. Cummings, who scattered words across a page)
You may think of more. Individual poems don’t have all of these. Free verse doesn’t have end rhyme (at the end of a line) or meter. But even when we eliminate those two, we have a lot to work with.
Without meter, our lines can be any length, and they can be consistent or vary. They can end in punctuation (endstopped) or not (enjambed). Punctuation at the end of a line will cause a reader to pause. A reader will probably pause briefly for an important word without punctuation and will rush right on for an unimportant one, like and or the. We can try our lines more than one way and decide what feels best. Reading lots of poems will help us develop our taste.
We can break our poems into stanzas or not. The stanza breaks can come regularly, like every two lines for couplets or three lines for tercets, or more. Or the breaks can be irregular, and we can space them in the way we do with paragraphs when we’re changing direction a little.
We can start all our lines at the left margin or we can vary them. We can strew words and lines around as E. E. Cummings did.
You’ve been taught similes and metaphors, I’m sure. Some, like word choice, can lift a poem above the clouds. Responding to a prompt to write a poem from the POV of a widow whose husband drowned, I recently likened a breaker to a long arm, which also works as an image. I especially love images in poems. A fabulous poet for both images and word choice is Ted Kooser, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006.
A thesaurus is particularly helpful in poetry: to find words that will give us the sounds we’re looking for, with word choice, rhyme and near rhyme or slant rhyme.
A traditional sonnet, which has both, wouldn’t be free verse, but some forms, like an epistolary poem (a letter poem), accommodate free verse. Forms abound, and I go to them for structure and ideas. Many work for free verse. A resource I often use is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett.
Many poems convey a mood and/or a feeling, usually subtly. We don’t generally say straight out that we’re sad or happy. In my widow poem, for example, the speaker of the poem says that she feels “maladapted to air,” which, I hope, reveals her unhappiness and even discomfort with her new state.
Repetition can help a poem feel poemy. Repeating the first word in a line even has a name, anaphora. Here are four lines of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, written in the eighteenth century:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
Be cautious, though. Anaphora can go on too long, leading the reader’s eye to jump over the repetition.
A turn happens when a poem goes in an unexpected direction near the end. Sonnets are known for their turns, and most have them, but this link will take you to a famous example in a free verse poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47734/lying-in-a-hammock-at-william-duffys-farm-in-pine-island-minnesota. The poem also uses images magnificently.
Without concision, our poems are likely to read like prose arranged in lines. Question the necessity of almost every word. As for word choice, we can make ourselves crazy with this one, doubting our choices. I suggest leaning on a thesaurus and not sweating too much. Writing poems and reading poems will help over time.
Here are four prompts:
- Write a free verse poem from the point of view of a person returning home after a natural disaster (hurricane, fire, tornado) hit her house. Cast your eye over the list above and use whatever you can.
- Look up your horoscope for today and use it in a free verse poem.
- Read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Watermelon” here: https://silverbirchpress.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/ode-to-the-watermelon-poem-by-pablo-neruda/ and write a free verse ode, a poem of praise, to an inanimate object.
- Ask more poetry questions here.
Have fun, and save what you write!
21 Responses on “Free (Verse)”
Katie W. says:
Does anyone else have trouble with fight scenes feeling choppy? I can read all sorts of great examples (like Timothy Zahn’s books and the Ranger’s Apprentice series), but I just can’t replicate them. Here’s an example from one of my WIP’s.
“Impervious lunged forward, hoping to catch Umbra’s throat in a single move, but Umbra leaped backward into the air, countering with a huff of flame that spilled over the older dragon’s face.
They circled for over a minute, gaining the height necessary for an aerial battle, before Umbra abandoned her position to dive for Impervious’ spine. She slashed at Umbra’s folded wings, twisting out of the way as she did so, but the blow didn’t connect. Umbra turned, smacking Impervious in the neck with her tail as she did so, and swiped at the joint between her front leg and belly. She missed, and Impervious took the opportunity to kick her in the head with both back paws, claws extended. Umbra tried to stab the joint with her horns as her head flew backwards, but they skidded across reinforced scales.
Her ears rang from both blows, and she pulled back, trying to clear her head and regain the height she’d lost. Impervious tried the same swipe she had, and Umbra turned on her side to avoid it. Her back legs sliced Impervious’ shoulder open in the same moment Impervious’ claws sank deep into her front left leg, scratching bone. Her momentum tore the claws free, leaving a curtain of blood in their wake, but Impervious grabbed both of Umbra’s back paws in her teeth, the twisted one digging into the side of her mouth. Umbra hit her in the neck with her tail, knocking the breath out of the older dragon, and she released her, blood dripping from her mouth.
They resumed their climb, and Impervious came in from Umbra’s left side, seizing her wing in jaws that were stronger than stone, even as they dripped blood. The wing crumpled under the force of the blow, and she slammed into Umbra’s side, sending them tumbling through the air. Umbra tried to free herself, but only succeeded in twisting her wing into positions it was never meant to hold. Impervious’ jaws tightened, and Umbra heard the distinctive crunch of teeth on bone as pain raced through her body. She screamed, convulsing in an attempt to make the pain stop, and her twisted paw sliced across Impervious’ throat, killing her.”
Something about it just feels off, probably the choppiness I mentioned earlier, but I can’t figure out how to fix it. Any advice?
Christie V Powell says:
Hello Future Me on Youtube did an excellent video sequence on fight scenes. Here’s one of them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKkKNKUK_GE&t=179s
I like the detail and description you have. You might want to break up some of the blow-by-blow.
From Hello Future Me’s video: “Not every moment of a fight needs to be detailed. Detail is required where the power balance shifts (one side seems to be winning, but then it changes to the other side), when characters get further or closer to their goal, or in important character or narrative moments.” In other moments, you can use creative or generalized language to pass over some of the details. There’s a lot of other things in there that I think you’d find useful.
Gail Carson Levine says:
I like the writing! Your verbs are terrific!
I agree with Christie V Powell about trimming.
I don’t know if either of these dragons is an MC, but what may be missing is which one to root for. I’d like to be more in the mind and heart of one of them or of an onlooker who cares a lot about the outcome. I’m not sure if I should be sad or glad about Impervious’s demise.
I agree with what the others said. It’s a great scene. Even if I haven’t ever seen a dragon fight, I have no trouble picturing it. My advice though, is to look at point of view – which might be just another way of saying what Gail said. If one of the dragons is your POV character for this scene, give only the details that she experiences. For example, we know what Impervious hoped in the first sentence, which is a mental action. A little further down, we know that Umbra’s ears are ringing – something that only she can know. A few other indicators of POV include sensations, like pain, and actions that the other dragon wouldn’t be able to see because of current position. This might mean cutting some great details, and you might end up with one dragon slamming into the other without the reader having seen her turn. But that will actually make it more realistic, and ironically, it could make it easier to follow. On the other hand, if POV is someone watching the fight, you’ll want to leave in both dragons’ actions, but take out both dragons’ thoughts and feelings (and probably insert the thoughts and feelings of the watcher).
I would suggest shortening your sentences for a more action-packed feel. You can still include almost every move and detail, but by breaking up and varying the length of your sentences, the scene should feel faster or more connected, like a chain. I’m not sure what the rules are for making new paragraphs but you could also keep the scene moving by having our eyes jump between characters/actions. I think the movements and details you have chosen to include are strong. The only thing I would change is making the scene read more like a movie instead of a play-by-play.
Ex: Impervious lunged forward, hoping to catch Umbra’s throat in a single move.
Umbra leaped backward into the air, countering with a huff of flame that spilled over the older dragon’s face.
They circled for over a minute, gaining the height necessary for an aerial battle.
Umbra abandoned her position to dive for Impervious’ spine.
(Impervious?) slashed at Umbra’s folded wings, twisting out of the way.
Umbra turned, smacking Impervious in the neck with her tail and swiping at the joint between her front leg and belly.
I’m happy you posted this because I am actually into free verse poetry right now. 😀
Me too! I find it relaxing
Beth Schmelzer says:
Wow, what an excellent post, both the question and the answers. Poetry helps me feel unstuck. My fav contemporary poet is Billy Collins. Highly recommend his books. I also loved that Dragon fight scene except it exhausted me because it was so long. Listen to Gail’s suggestion. Beth
Hi, does anyone have advice on how to pace the process of characters falling in love? In my WIP my two main characters are going to develop crushes on each other soon after they meet, and they both don’t know what to do about it for a while. But I’m having trouble deciding what an appropriate time would be for them to act on it. Personally I love when characters are in love in books, and I love affection and all, but that often causes me to speed up the process of falling in love, and since my WIP is the first book of a series I don’t know what I should do.
Christie V Powell says:
If you’re into outlining, you can get this “romancing the beat sheet” on any image search online.
That’s mainly for a standalone romance book, but it might be worth looking at.
I’ve seen a couple other systems that I’ve found useful. One is a series of stages in a relationship found in “Writing The Christian Romance” by Gail Gaymer Martin (I don’t write Christian romance specifically, but I wanted a book that would stay “clean and wholesome”, and I figured Christian would do that). Her stages are:
Awareness–the couple meet and/or notice one another. They are curious and intrigued.
Interest– The couple may still be in denial, but they feel a desire to be around one another more often.
Attraction–the couple weights the pros and cons of a relationship,and are constantly thinking about each other. The first kiss might come up in this stage.
Falling In Love– The characters express that they love one another and make plans for their relationship to be permanent.
Another list I have found useful is a list of physical stages of romance, put together by author Gina Larsen (I’ll leave off the fourth section for this blog). The idea is that you make sure these happen in this order, or with only a little rearranging.
Meet cute stage: 1. Eye to body. 2. Eye to eye. 3. Voice to Voice.
Tease stage: 4. Hand to hand. 5. Hand to shoulder/arm. 6. Hand to waist.
Kissing stage: 7. Face to face. 8. Hand to Head. 9. Hand to body.
So, if you like systems, those might help. If not… follow your heart, I guess?
Miss Maddox says:
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! ?❄?
Melissa Mead says:
Yes, and goodwill to all!
Christie V Powell says:
You too! Happy holidays to everyone!
Gail Carson Levine says:
Yes! Merry Christmas, and happy holidays!
Melissa Mead says:
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Miss Maddox says:
Does anyone have any tips on how to write good sci-fi? I’m currently working on developing an idea I have for a sci-fi story, but I’m new to the genre and I don’t entirely know where to start. It takes place in a futuristic universe on another planet, and follows a girl searching for a hidden secret in the universe. There’s lots of cool technology and aliens and space stuff.
I think I’m mostly having trouble with the worldbuilding. There’s just so much to do with this one that I hardly know where to begin.
Katie W. says:
If you want to learn from a master, Timothy Zahn is your guy. Most of his stuff is high school and up, but his Dragonback series (which is, in fact, sci-fi) is middle-grade. As for knowing where to start with worldbuilding, your first step is probably making a list of questions you need to answer. There are about fifty gazillion of these on the Internet, but if you already have trouble knowing where to start, it might be better to make your own, focusing on the questions you need to answer in order to write the story. For example: What’s the hidden secret? How is it hidden? What kinds of cool technology do you want to put in? How many races of aliens do you want to have?
And the most important question of all: How much research do you want to do? Obviously, you don’t want to break any scientific laws (unless you decide your universe doesn’t have said law), but you don’t need to be researching every last little thing that comes up. And honestly, vagueness in sci-fi is your friend, especially if you’re going futuristic, since if you don’t explain how your ship’s engines work, you can make them do whatever you want and nobody can say it’s impossible.
Miss Maddox says:
Thanks! This is really helpful! I’ll definitely use these tips.
April Halprin Wayland says:
Gail, this post is thorough and tremendously helpful. I’m going to send it ahead to students in my January Pottery for Children. Namaste
Gail Carson Levine says:
I’m so glad!