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Academic Poetry Writing - everybody can write a poem. Or not?

EF_Team [Moderator] 41 / 222 15  
Jan 12, 2007   #1
Poetry. It's not just for depressed Goth kids anymore.

Actually, it never was. All sorts of people write poetry; they just hide it well. That pinched-looking businesswoman on the subway? She's got a composition book at home just full of verse. Your roommate, the math major? Her collection of original works is under her mattress. Everyone has the potential to be a poet. The ones who actually do it are those who have learned the key rule about poetry: It's all about you.

Poetry suddenly sounding more appealing? Good. The biggest obstacle people have to writing their own poems is the misguided belief that it has to sound or look a certain way. These days most people know that poems don't have to rhyme. But only a few have yet figured out that poetry has to fit a certain set of rules. We have a tendency to read a few poems presented to us by well-meaning teachers, friends or relatives and think, I can't write anything that sounds like that. Well guess what? You don't need to. Poetry, from Shakespeare all the way to Langston Hughes, is about words and feelings. The poet's words. The poet's feelings. You have words and feelings, don't you?

Yes, you do. You have quite a few of them. The next step is getting them onto paper. If you are new to writing poems, then forget that you're trying to write one.

No, really. Forget about trying to make it look like what you think a poem looks like, and just write what you feel. And most importantly, forget about trying to write something "good." Trying to be "good" will ruin any art, written or spoken or sculpted in pudding. Just write. And once you've gotten something down there on the page, read it. You now have the ideas that will generate a poem. The poem's DNA makeup, if you will.

The next step is to get what's there on the page into poem form. If it already is, great. But if you're new to poetry, you probably wrote your thoughts down in prose. Prose is, by the way, anything that's not poetry. Which makes poetry - you guessed it - anything that's not prose.

End of lesson.

Just kidding. Actually, getting your poem into shape will take much longer even than we can discuss here. But the biggest step for most poem virgins will be to get your work looking like a poem. No need for iambic pentameter (you know, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") but a poem is, by definition, in verse form. Lines instead of paragraphs. And how do you get your work looking like this, if you've never written in this way? Start by giving each idea, or each image, its own line. "I feel depressed when I have to go to school," for example, can be broken into three distinct emotions: being depressed, being obligated, and school. (If you don't think school is an emotion, it's obviously been too long since you had to go.) Translating from prose to poetry, we end up with something like: "Trudging slowly/ Into the school/ My heart is depressed." (Reminder: those slashes mean line breaks.) It's not Shakespeare, but it is poetry. And it has potential.

So, now you have a poem. Congratulations! You're a poet, and now you know it. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) You will probably want to do some editing, because a written work rarely sounds the way you want it to sound on the first try. That, too, is important to remember. To improve your poem is to get it as close as possible to your idea, and to help it communicate that idea as well as possible. One way to get your poem into a shape that will satisfy you: replace some adjectives with some descriptive examples. "My heart is depressed" changes to "my heart sinks like a dog that can't swim." That, by the way, is a simile. You can find definitions and examples of similes, and many more poetic devices, on many helpful Internet sites. (The best are those posted by schools and colleges.)

So now you know you can write a poem. If you wish, you can learn some more techniques - such as use of simile - that will help your work to be more effective. But the most important task has been accomplished. You have put a poem on paper. Kudos!


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