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!