Write Out of the Margins!

Learning Poetry

Some of the most frequent discussion topics on writer's lists are: "What is a poem?" and "What is the difference between poetry and prose?" -- and they never reach a conclusion. They are useful discussions, anyway, in developing an awareness of the qualities we appreciate in poems and prose.

One way I would describe poetry is as condensed language, that affects emotion and thought on multiple levels through the use of sound, symbol and imagery, among other elements. That definition could give you a framework.

A book I enjoy, appropriate for almost all ages, is Nancy Bogen's How to Write Poetry. She introduces the major elements, including rhythm and metaphor, and several different forms, each with extensive hands-on practice.

Accented syllabic verse -- rhythmic poetry -- is probably as old as human speech, but a great many people hate studying "rhythm and meter" because of the dry way it is usually analyzed. Modern poetry rebelled against rhyme, meter, and form because it had become more important than content. Now that content feels more confident in its rule, poets are starting to play with form and meter again. Rhythms and other patterns of sound are a strong element in any written or spoken language. There are many ways to encourage students to become aware of this element and use it, besides drilling them in iambic, trochaic and anapestic pentameter. Reading aloud is great, rousing and rhythmic old poems like "The Congo" and prose like the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Another important aspect of poetry and other powerful writing is attention to concrete detail. It can be interesting to challenge students to describe something in their environment without naming it, to describe it by shape and color and other specifics so that other students can identify it. Or have them go on a short walk and write specific things they observe. These and other exercises can get them taking notice of more detail around them as well as more detail in what they read.

If you really want to get to the heart of poetry, be prepared for highly charged emotional issues to come up. The more honestly your students can confront the thoughts and emotions within themselves, the more they can find within what they read, and vice versa. A powerful example of the use of image in poetry is "My Father's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, which begins "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death: / Such waltzing is not easy." Can you create an atmosphere where students can write of similar situations in their own lives?

You are also welcome to use any of the instruction, exercise and reference material at Kalliope, http://anitra.net/kalliope/

On forms: when I teach classes and workshops, the forms that students get most enthusiastic about doing are the short, structured ones: haiku, lune, cinquain and diamante.

Writing a Poem

There is a wide variety of poetry, a wide variety of poets, and a wide variety of poetry readers. This is a good thing, because if everyone on the planet were exactly the same most of us would run away screaming.

The first thing to do in writing any kind of poem is to get started. Describe what you see and feel as simply, honestly and vividly as you can; use details and clear language; avoid old accustomed phrases that everyone has used, and put what you feel into your own words. Don't try to make it "poetic", to rhyme or to match the rhythm and form of "a real poem." Just try to say what you mean, and keep writing until it's all out.

Once you have it all out, let it lay in a drawer overnight, then take another look at it. Decide if it communicates what you want it to just as it is. If you really want to shape it up a bit, then start playing with it. Keep only the strongest, best words and images; make every word justify being there; replace general, vague words with specific ones (turn "trees" into "willows" or "oaks" for instance); change the order around until it flows.

If in the process you find that rhymes fit smoothly with the sense of your poem, use them. Don't forget other sound echoes, like similar vowel sounds and consonants, and internal rhymes -- a rhyme that falls within the line, instead of at the end.

Rhythm makes all writing more musical, not only poetry. Read your writing out loud to check for an even rhythm -- pronouncing all the words as they are usually spoken, and not stressing them differently to make it "sound right".

I don't write a great deal of rhyming poetry, but I do like reading it. My main consideration is that the rhyme not sound forced. A good rhyme seems like it was just the most appropriate word to use at that point, and would have been appropriate whether it rhymed or not. The most common mistakes of beginning rhyme-poets are to twist a sentence around so that the right word ends up at the end, to use an archaic word to fit the rhyme, or to throw in a really strained connection in order to make a rhyme.

Some people seem born with a knack for rhyme, an instinctive ear. Most of the rest of us must work at it if we want to write natural-sounding verse. Some ways of doing this are:

  1. Extend your vocabulary. Play with the dictionary, learning new words and finding rhymes for them.
  2. Read out loud and listen for the sound of words.
  3. Read good rhyming poetry, from Ogden Nash to Yeats -- out loud.
  4. Listen to all of the sound patterns in poetry, not just echoes at the end of words. Similar starting sounds are called alliteration; echoing tones in the vowel sounds are called assonance; frequent occurrence of echoing consonants (the letters that aren't vowels) is called consonance.
  5. Using rhymes flexibly can keep them from being "boring." Rhymes do not have to be moon/spoon. You can try "near rhyme," like rhyming "moon" with "on" or "loaf" with "rove".

I have more about rhyme posted at Kalliope Poetry Exercise Workshop if you want to play with it.

I have some more poetry information and exercises at the Kalliope archives if you'll find them helpful.

Poetics -- meter, rhyme, metaphor, image, form, and all the rest -- are the tools of the poet; tools alone can't give you inspiration, but it is a lot easier to follow your inspiration when you are comfortable with your tools.

My own favorite "warmup exercises" are:

  1. Pick six words at random and connect them.
  2. Ask someone else for a first-line challenge.
  3. Parody something; I'm studying sonnets by reworking Shakespeare and Wordsworth.
  4. Take a walk and just write about it.

Help with Homework

Write On!
Anitra Freeman

Writing Directory