October 25, 2006

Would you like to write a poem?

This is not a lesson is how to write ANY poem, but a guide to writiing a specific poem, one about someone you like. It is a program I came up with last year to help a friend break a writer's block by setting up a step by step procedure to work one's way to a decent poem. It is NOT how I write, but I would in fact use it to jog myself into writing if I were having difficulty. That said, please feel free to take it or leave it. If it helps, fine, if not, that's fine too. Please feel free to ask questions if I have not fully explained myself!


Answer these 6 questions in one ordinary prose sentence each.

1) Choose a person you love, a friend you adore and respect and admire. What attributes do you see more of than her or his faults?

2) What particular quality or trait do you like most in this person? What does he or she do that most endears them to you?

3) a) What reveals this trait, that is how does this trait show itself, by good deeds, fatness, a crooked nose, baggy pants, composting toilet, adopting children

b) What does this trait do that you admire it so? What does it accomplish by being what it is?

c) What is the significance or meaning of this trait, to you or to others? You can answer this in any way you choose.

4) How has this trait changed you and/or others? Try for something not obvious, something that takes the reader by surprise, or sums up the rest of the sentences with an AHA!


Observe the arc or movement of the poem you are writing (Here, it’s broadly, a person I love, what I love about him or her, three aspects of the trait that I love, and the effect it has on me, how it changes me). Answer the 6 questions in any way you want to without editing or caring what it sounds like. EVERYTHING can be changed later.

A) Take those 6 sentences and rewrite them or write others, using the originals as guides, that are fresh and more eloquent to answer the questions but try to keep the same info already provided by the first set of sentences. If you wish, however, info may be added or dropped. Anything and everything written before may be changed. The first words were just placeholders to give you a sense that you had the bones of the piece down.

B) Work on those sentences as prose sentences until they please you and say what you want them to say, more or less, but NOT perfectly. DO not forget the value of metaphors and similes. They are particularly useful in poetry, where indirection is highly valued.

C) Arrange sentences 1 to 6 in order on the page either in a list or paragraph. Now try to break this into a poem form, however you think the poem should be. Remember, the last word in a line is the important word and how it connects to the following first word can be an opportunity for word play, but the last word in a line is NOT always the end of a sentence. The trick is to know where to break the sentence into phrases that are meaningful. Good, when you are done, this is your first draft of a poem. Now GO TO BED. DO NOT WORK ANY FURTHER!

D) When you get up the next day, look at the poem fresh and read it through. Does it make sense? Does it sound good? Is there a “surprise” or a snap at the end, an Aha! moment? If not, it needs work, it will need work in any event, 99.99% of poems do after the first draft, so don’t worry just roll up your sleeves and remember that this is the FUN part. The hard part, getting the poem as an idea onto paper, is done. You’ve got the first draft; you can’t lose your idea, no matter how many times you revise. So this is exciting! Jump right in and start experimenting. I've done 100s of drafts before getting a poem just right.

REWRITING: There is no one way to revise but make sure to look for and X out tired, overused words and phrases, which aren’t always easy to spot, lurking as they do, in "rosy cheeks" and "hothouse orchids" and a "locked and loaded gun" as well as in "crushing dictatorships" and the "filthy rich."

Remember: what is easily written is easily forgotten. If the words come quickly to your pen, they will just as quickly leave another’s keep that in mind. I’m speaking in general of course as a way to avoid cliches and tired phrases. I don’t mean to disparage inspiration and great flashes of insight, I’ve had many myself and they are blissful, only to suggest that these aren’t reliable in the making of good poems but plain hard work is.

Sometimes one simple word will do the work of three or four. Try finding those places and those words as it will immensely improve your work.

Sense in as important as sound. Make sure that the poem follows some sort of logical arc and ends where you want it to, at that aha! moment. The line breaks -- where the line ends and another begins -- can help add to the suspense in this by providing insight into what might happen in the poem, where it might be going, then it doesn’t (or does). They can do any number of things, adding to irony or humor or drama or wordplay etc

Sound is as important as sense: don't forget your high school lessons of alliteration (consonants constantly cause confusion) and assonance, where the vowel sounds tend to match. Careful use of both can add immeasureably to a poem's sonorousness (wd?) as well as a varied rhythm and (occasional) use of rhyme, both end rhymes and internal rhyme which is less obvious for being "hidden." Try reading your poem out loud many times, in order to see if it sounds as good as it reads on paper. You will often spot an awkward word choice only by reading a poem aloud and noticing it with your tongue.

In my next or another entry, I will try to follow my own instructions and write a poem according to these directions, just to show you what I mean. Cheers, and happy writing. BD

Posted by pamwagg at October 25, 2006 10:02 PM


Hi Pam,

I'm going to give it a shot.

Thank you for your encouragement.


Posted by: Hi Pam at October 27, 2006 09:21 AM

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