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Writing: Intro to Poetry

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Writing a poem can be a very minimalist affair, requiring nothing more than your keyboard and your thoughts. You’re more than welcome to adopt this approach to tackle our daily one-word prompts.

Just in case you wanted to go deeper into the craft of poetry, we also suggest adding an extra layer to your writing by experimenting with a different poetic form or device every day. Below you’ll find more information on these optional touches, with some guidance on how to use them in your writing.


Getting Comfortable

Regardless of the type of poems you’ll be writing for this course, there are some resources that can make your journey smoother, so it’s never too early to get acquainted with a few of those.

  • You might want to take a look at our HTML guide, which will help you on those days when you want to format your work just so. Don’t be daunted by the HTML Editor! Getting used to it will be worth it when you try to add an extra line break, work in some special indentation, or write a multi-column poem.
  • Don’t forget to read (and offer feedback on) other course takers’ work by visiting the poetry101 tag in the Reader — after all, reading more poetry is not only fun in its own right; it’s also a failproof way to get inspired to write some more verse.
  • Some forms of poetry come with more formal rules and requirements than others. So it might be a good idea to add a rhyming dictionary (or two), a syllable counter, and a solid poetry glossary to your browser’s bookmarks.
  • Writing poems more frequently might tempt you to inject new life into your blog’s design — so check out some of our favorite poetry-friendly themes.

Day One: Haiku, the Purest of Forms

The sashimi of poetry. Seventeen syllables channeling the essence of sound and meaning. Haiku.

A traditional Japanese form now popular around the world, Haiku come with a preset structure: three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively (or, in more modern haiku, three lines following the long-short-long pattern):

The first line goes here.

The second one is longer.

Then it’s short again.

But the form’s simplicity belies its creative potential, as well as its artistic challenge: to say something meaningful and moving in such a limited space.

Looking for some inspiration by example? The Haiku Society of America’s website offers enormous collections of haiku. Not sure how to count syllables? We’ve got you covered with a handy online syllable counter.

Of course, if you feel like one haiku cannot contain what you wish to express in today’s poem, feel free to branch out a little. Write a sequence of haiku. Combine haiku with its meatier cousin, tanka, which follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. Or write a three-stanza poem, with the first and last stanzas shorter than the middle one.


Day Two: Don’t Procrastinate, Alliterate!

So much of poetry’s power is about sound — even when it’s printed, we hear poetry as much as (if not more than) we read it — so it comes as no surprise that repeating the same sound makes for a powerful effect. Today’s device, alliteration, is all about using the same consonant multiple times in close proximity: think “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” or “Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” (thanks, Axl!).

Traditionally, alliteration was expected to occur on stressed syllables (if you’re curious to know how to tell stressed and unstressed syllables apart, here’s a user-friendly guide). These days there are no strict guidelines on how to use alliteration effectively, though one thing does come to mind. The power of the device is exponentially stronger if it amplifies or works alongside something else in the poem:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

That’s a lot of Ps! My ear is definitely pricked, but does it mean anything? Hard to say.

This whole place still smells like
Your cheap perfume

Courtesy of Bon Jovi, that repetitive S sound in the first line may remind you of three quick nozzle presses on a bottle of (cheap!) perfume — and isn’t there palpable contempt in those two adjacent Ps in the second verse?

The idea, in short, is to try to get the sounds to somehow relate to the meaning of the words.


Day Three: Acrostic, or a Riddle Wrapped in a Poem

An acrostic is any poem in which the first (or last) letters of each line combine to spell out a word or a phrase, or follow the order of the alphabet. This form highlights the fact that poetry, at heart, is wordplay — it’s language playing tricks on your readers. Acrostics have been around for millennia: they’re a creative way to give order and convey multiple meanings at once while staying fairly subtle.

There have been two prevalent ways to create acrostics. In one, you follow the sequence of the alphabet, beginning each verse in your poem with a different letter from A to Z (or to whatever letter you choose to reach — you’re not obliged to cover the entire ABC). This type of acrostic emphasizes the idea of seriality and accumulation.

The other type of acrostic is one in which the first (or last) letter of each verse together spell out a message: a short sentence, a word, a name (for example, of a friend or a loved one). Here’s a famous, self-referential modern acrostic, by the ever-troubled Edgar Allan Poe:

An Acrostic

Elizabeth it is in vain you say

“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:

In vain those words from thee or L. E. L.

Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:

Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,

Breathe it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.

Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried

To cure his love — was cured of all beside —

His folly — pride — and passion — for he died.

Some interesting ways to use acrostics include writing a poem that asks a question to which the answer is the spelled-out word; or one in which the “hidden” message contradicts or otherwise complicates the content of the poem.

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can try creating acrostics using both the first and last letters of every verse — this is called a double acrostic.


Day Four: Making the Most of Similes

A simile, like its name suggests, makes a connection or introduces the idea of similarity between two concepts that aren’t intrinsically connected, leaving an interesting mental image in its wake.

The main requirement for a simile is to be explicit: it’s a tell-don’t-show kind of device that allows you to state that X is like Y. The other important thing about similes is to compare things that are conceptually different enough. Don’t compare apples to oranges: compare apples to planets, or animals, or sounds.

What makes a good simile? Opinions vary, of course, but there’s a lot to be said for balance. Bring together two ideas that are already very close, and it’s just boring:

This pearl is shiny like a diamond.

Force into proximity two concepts that share very little terrain, and you risk making no sense at all (though the risk might pay off sometime):

This diamond is shiny like uncle Moe’s glass eye that I just took out of saline solution.

Link two things that don’t normally go together, but whose connection makes sense in the context of your work, and you might be on to something. Thanks, Rihanna / Sia:

We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.

A simile can be as short as “black as coal” and as elaborate as full-blown mini-stories. It’s up to you, really: be creative. Try out a few alternatives. See what works for the poem you’re writing.


Day Five: Limericks Aren’t Just for Laughs

Limericks are traditionally composed of five lines of verse, with a common rhyming scheme of a a b b a — the first two lines rhyme, then the next two, and the final verse rhymes with the first couplet.

Named after the town in Ireland where it may or may not have been invented, the limerick is sometimes pushed to the margins of poetry, as it carries with it connotations of frivolity and light-hearted entertainment.

You can usually tell a limerick from miles away:

It rarely takes a lot of time

To make the first two verses rhyme.

The third line is short.

The fourth? A mere snort.

You can sell limericks three for a dime.

But it’s precisely because of this baggage that limericks can actually be a fascinating form to dig into — their established rhyme pattern and sing-song rhythm can twist and turn in unexpected directions. Consider this one, from Tyler McCabe’s disturbing collection of Sad Limericks at The Toast:

All Therapy is Rehabilitative or Preventative

My therapist’s name is Jan
and she says I have planned a good plan:
One, work on my rages.
Two, finish these pages.
Three, don’t vandalize Karen’s van.

Limericks can indeed work with negative and complex subject matter — write a limerick (or two, or five, if you wish to create a narrative cycle) and inject this form with something personal and surprising. Break the pattern if you need to — and if it serves the purpose of your poem.


Day Six: Enjambment — Just Break It Up!

Enjambment is all about the arrangement of words on the screen (or page, as the case may be), and how that arrangement affects the pace of our reading. The term may sound like a mouthful. But what it describes is a really simple phenomenon: when a grammatical sentence stretches from one line of verse to the next.

I’d really love to finish this sentence here, but

The rest got kicked over to this line.

Since creating enjambment is so easy — just click the “Enter” button mid-sentence, and, presto! — the tricky (and interesting) part is using it in the right spot(s) in your poem. Think about the suspense you’re creating: you’re forcing your readers not to know how the sentence ends for a whole split second!

There’s a lot you can do with enjambment: surprise or shock your readers by throwing in an unexpected word. Restore peace by introducing a full stop right after the first word of the second line. Or bring closure by simply adding the word(s) that were missing to convey a fully-formed thought.

Take a look at this stunning, hairpin turn-like use of enjambment in Marianne Moore’s The Fish:

 The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness

The entire poem keeps crashing on us like wave upon wave (simile alert!) of seawater.

Using enjambment in your poetry usually takes some experimentation, but it’s a fun process (and one which you can repeat during, as well as after, the writing of the poem — you don’t have to get it right from the get-go). Try out different spots at which to break your sentence, and see which one produces the effect you were looking for (or the one you like the most).


Day Seven: When It Comes to Found Poetry, Finders Keepers

A found poem is composed of words and letters you’ve collected — randomly or not — from other sources, whether printed, handwritten, or digital, and then (re)arranged into something meaningful. Since a found poem is made up of words and letters others have created, it’s up to you, the poet, to find them (hence the name), extract them, and rejig them into something else: your poem.

The classic way of going about the creation of a found poem is scissors and newspaper in hand: you cut out words and phrases and arrange them into your poem. You can then either snap a photo and upload it to your blog, or simply transcribe the resulting text into a new post.

That said, you can control the degree of randomness you impose on your available stock of words, as well as on the procedure you follow to create the poem. You can photocopy a page from a book (even a book of poetry!) and select every fifth word on the first ten pages. Repurpose one of your unpublished drafts into something new. You can even use your books to create some book spine poetry, or recycle your tweets (one online tool will actually do it for you) and other social media messages and turn them into a poetic meditation on… anything, really. Another popular option is erasure or blackout poetry, where you cross out words from an existing printed page until the remaining ones produce a new meaning.

In short: the world is full of words. Use them!


Day Eight: Say It Again (and Again, and Again) — Anaphora and Epistrophe

We’ve tackled the repetition of sounds with alliteration, but not that of words. Today, let’s explore the potential of creative redundancy with two neighboring devices: anaphora and epistrophe.

Don’t let the fancy Greek terms scare you: anaphora simply means the repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the beginning of multiple lines of verse in the same poem. Epistrophe is its counterpart: the repeated words appear at the end of lines. Like most simple devices, though, the trick is in deploying them to their full effect. Repetition lends emphasis to words, adds weight, and leaves a deeper imprint in your readers’ memories. Think wisely about what it is you’re underlining.

There are so many great examples of both devices. From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I have a dream speech to Nirvana’s All apologies (“what else should I…”), anaphora is everywhere. Can’t think of a famous epistrophe? Think again:

Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it

So: add some punch to your poem with verses that begin or end on a strong, emphatic note. Use the device sparingly, or throw it into each one of your lines. By the time the reader is done, they should know, on some level, why that word (or words) played such an important role in the poem.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, give symploce a try: it’s when successive lines of poetry contain both an anaphora and an epistrophe.


Day Nine: Apostrophe, or the Power of the Second Person

Most poems are addressed to an amorphous reader, if to anyone at all. Which is why an apostrophe (not to be confused with yesterday’s device, epistrophe) can produce such a striking effect: it occurs when the speaker in the poem addresses another person or an object (usually personified) directly. For example, here’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth, speaking to the fatal dagger he’s about to use:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

You can write a poem that is made up entirely of one extended apostrophe, or switch back and forth between addressing your reader and addressing someone (or something) else. Keep in mind that an apostrophe can cover a wide range of emotions, from the warm pride of “O Canada! Our home and native land!” to the chill of John Dryden’s “Let me, let me freeze again to death!” (in his King Arthur libretto).

You can choose a wide range of tones and flavors for your apostrophe — plaintive, nostalgic, angry, or admiring (among many others). The way you shape your address will greatly influence the feel of your poem.


Day Ten: Unleashing Your Inner Sonneteer

How could we end a poetry course without a single word on (arguably) the most iconic form of them all — the sonnet? From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Lorca to Heaney, it’s a form that has endured dozens of vogues, backlashes, and comebacks.

In some ways, the sonnet is easy: you get 14 lines of verse, usually grouped into four stanzas of 4-4-3-3 lines each (alternatively: two groupings of eight and six lines, respectively). Sonnets used to be written in metered verse (like alexandrines in French and iambic pentameter in English, for example), but many modern poets forego the meter altogether, or at least don’t use it consistently. Sonnets also tended to be written using a range of established rhyming schemes (for example, Shakespeare’s abab cdcd efef gg), but that, too, is no longer a formal requirement.

Sonnets are a bit too short to say that much, but already long enough that they require some overall strategy. At their best, something happens between the first and last verse, and especially between the first eight and final six lines. You want your reader to have experienced something more than just a brief sonic pleasure. You want to present a fully-formed thought.

Go ahead — have fun with sonnets. It might take some time, it might take some shuffling around of words and verses, but there’s something pleasing about the challenge. And don’t dispair — poets have been struggling with the form for centuries, enough to write meta-sonnets about sonnets (like this one, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti):

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

Good luck with your sonnet — and kudos for joining the ranks of generations of poets who have experimented with this form and pushed it forward.