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Writing Free Verse Poetry: Finding Inspiration and a Subject

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By Dave Hood

Where do you find inspiration to write free verse poetry? Many aspiring writers wait for inspiration to come into their life. The problem with this approach is that the writer relies on chance, and might wait a lifetime to discover something that motivates them to begin writing poetry.  A better way to become inspired is to seek out experiences that will light the flame of creativity.

Once you’ve become inspired to write a poem, you’ll need to select a subject to write about. Poets have written poems on any subject you can image, such as a birth, love, death, depression, a fleeting moment, an overheard conversation, a random act of kindness.

In this post, I’ll explain where to find inspiration and identify some of the subjects that can be the foundation of a poem.

Finding Inspiration

There are countless people, places, events, objects, things—all of which can inspire you to write a poem. Inside most how-to- books on poetry, you’ll see a chapter  on “finding inspiration for a poem.”  Whether you write poetry, short fiction, personal essays–inspiration comes from the same sources. Here are 12 sources of inspiration:

  1. Dreams. Write a poem about some dream. To use this technique, you’ll have to remember your dream. Therefore, you’ll have to keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table. If you wake up, and remember the dream, you can record it with the pen and notebook.
  2. Memories. Write a poem based on a memory. What is the happiest time in year life? What is the saddest? What was your favorite toy? Fondest holiday? Most influential book?
  3. Contemplation. Ponder a question, an idea, a concept, some word, a fact, and then compose a poem.  Example: What is love?
  4. Observation. Many poets write poems about the world in which they live, such as their home, their neighborhood, their city, their region, their country. Instead of turning inward to the psyche, they observe some interesting trait of the world and write a poem. For instance, if you live in the city, you might write about  the traffic jams, the noise, the stress, alienation, a stranger, waiting for the bus, working in a skyscraper, riding the subway. When using this approach, make note of the sensor images–things you see, things you touch, what you smell, what you taste, what you hear.
  5. Conversation. Some poets are inspired to write a poem based on something they heard in a conversation. Perhaps you’ve heard something interesting waiting for the buss, at a party, listening to the radio.
  6. Personal experience. Confessional poets write about a personal experience, such as depression, grief, job loss, cancer, end of a romance, death of a loved one. When writing about personal experience, you share emotional truth in your poem. This emotional truth answers the question: How does it feel to you?
  7. Writing journal. Part of living the writing life is to keep a writing journal or notebook. Every time you see, hear, or read something interesting, you make note of it in your journal. When you require inspiration to write a poem, you look through your journal for the seed of a poem.
  8. Writing prompts. If you take a course or read a book on how to write poetry, you’ll learn about writing prompts.  These are suggestions for writing a poem. They are designed to “inspire you” to write. For instance, at the end of each chapter of “The Poet’s Companion”, author Kim Addonizio includes a list of writing prompts. Example: Write a poem in which you feel a sense of shame. You can also go online and conduct a Google search to find writing prompts.
  9. Reading. If you always want to have something to write about, you must always have an idea for a poem. One of the best ways to replenish the creative spirit is to read. You can read poetry, fiction, nonfiction, books about art, books about philosophy, magazines on psychology, pop culture, history, biography, and so forth. By reading widely and deeply, you’ll discover countless ideas that can become the foundation of a poem.
  10. Imagination. Some poets tap into their imagination for ideas. A simple way to use your imagination is to ask “What if?”
  11. Fleeting moments. A poem doesn’t have to be about some event that unfolds over a long period of time. Instead, a poem can be based on some “fleeting moment” in time, such as a first kiss.
  12. Borrowing an idea from another poet. Most poets write poems based on other poets poetry. In other words, they read a poem about love, or grief, or place, or an experience–and then use the idea to write their own poem. You can do the same.

Subjects to Write About

Once you’ve become inspired to write a poem, you can select a subject. What sorts of things can you write about? Essentially, you can compose a poem about anything. For instance, Billy Collins wrote a poem “Man in Space,” Ted Kooser wrote a poem called “My Grandfather Dying,” Robert Hass wrote a poem called “Happiness.” Here are 12 ideas you can use as a foundation for a poem:

  1. Write a poem about what you know. A hobby, school, work, love, illness, sickness, sadness, grief, lust, desire, sex…Write about what you like and dislike. Write about fatherhood or motherhood or childhood. Write about a memorable event, daily routine, family.
  2. Write a poem about grief or death. Many poets have written elegies, a poem that laments someone who has died. Poet Kim Addonizio suggests you capture “intimate details that are emblems of your particular loss. You could also use a metaphor or imagery to write about death. Or you could read the obituaries, then write a poem about a person who has died.
  3. Write a poem about lust, the erotic, sex, passion, a first sexual encounter, a first kiss.
  4. Write about your dark side or shadow. Kim Addonizio, in the Poets Companion, suggests you confront taboo, your inner critic, your insecurities, the forbidden, to wrote a poem. Some topics to consider: anxiety, depression, incest, abuse, addiction, self-loathing, a personal secret, a fetish, something you are embarrassed about. See the confessional poetry of Anne Sexton.
  5. Write about concerns, issues, events in the news. Topics to consider: pollution, war, poverty, AIDS, faith, God, crime, racism, patriotism, social justice, mental illness.
  6. Write about nature or wildlife, such as the ocean, a river, the mountains, the beach, birds, animals, trees, flowers. See the poetry of Mary Oliver.
  7. Write about a particular place, such as your home, neighborhood, hometown, workplace, a trip, a vacation,  a foreign place, and imaginary place.
  8. Write  a narrative poem. For instance, Homer wrote Iliad and Odyssey, but you don’t have to write an epic poem. Instead write something shorter, based on something that happened. Many contemporary poems are narratives. Read Ted Kooser’s “So This is Nebraska.”
  9. Write a poem about a person. The person might be dead or alive, a hero or villain, a celebrity or political figure, an artist, musician, writer, even another poet.
  10. Write a poem about a special occasion, such as a birthday, memorial, funeral, Christmas, Easter, Holidays, milestone.
  11. Write a poem about mythology or folklore, such as a fairy tale, legend, Greek Gods, horror, ghosts, the supernatural.
  12. Write about some pleasure. Start by asking yourself: What gives me pleasure? Perhaps you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee, reading the newspaper, seeing a film at the theatre. Answer the question, then write a poem.

Resources

For more information on writing free verse, read the following books:

  • How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
  • A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • The Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit
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