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Learning to Write Free Verse Poetry

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Poets use different methods to compose their poetry.  As well, books on “how to write poetry” offer a variety of suggestions. Some poets write a poem one word at a time. Others write line by line. Many write down a complete draft, and then revise for alliteration, simile, rhythm, and so forth.  Clearly, there is no “one right way” to compose a poem.

In this post, I will explain my approach to writing poetry. The following will be covered:

  • How to prepare to write a poem
  • How to begin a poem
  • How to write a poem
  • How to revise a poem

As well, I’ll provide you with a few suggestions on how to become a poet. ( To call yourself a poet, you must learn the techniques and write poetry on a regular basis.)

Preparing to Begin

Suppose you’ve read lots of poems, learned the techniques, and have found inspiration and a subject to write a poem about. How should you begin? Start with some preparation. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Keep a writing journal, making notes in it each day. When you require an idea, check your journal. It might contain an idea for a poem.
  • Before writing, contemplate what you desire to compose a poem about.
  • Read some poetry or some other inspirational writing that you enjoy— to light the flame of  creativity.
  • Jot down a few important points you wish to make for the poem you intend  to write.
  • Freewrite for 10 minutes or more.
  • Select a subject.
  • Choose a form–narrative, meditative, image, prose poem….
  • Decide how you intend to write the poem. Some poets write word by word. Others write line by line. Other write out the complete poem, and then revise.

Determining how the Poem Unfolds

There is no single method of beginning a poem. It is your creative decision to make. However, your intention should be to “catch” the attention your reader, and motivate them to read your poem. And so, your beginning should be interesting. For instance, you might begin with the “cause” or in the “middle of the action.” In “A Poet’s Guide to Poetry,” author, Mary Kinzie, identifies some of the ways poets begin and develop a poem. Here are a few of her suggestions:

  • Cause and effect
  • Then and now
  • Description
  • Argument
  • Meditation
  • Explanation
  • Observation
  • Confession

Other methods of  beginning and progressing:

  • Narrative where there is a central character, often the speaker of the poem,  a conflict, climax, resolution.
  • Anecdotes A short narrative that makes an interesting point.

John Drury, author of Creating Poetry, writes that the opening of a poem doesn’t have to be “flashy.”  It can:

  • Set the scene
  • Begin with a question
  • Begin with a statement
  • Begin with a quotation
  • Begin with a fragment
  • Begin with an image

He also writes that if you are writing a narrative poem, you can begin “in medias res,” which means in the middle of things. In other words, start with the action or main event.

Remember, the purpose of a poem is to provide the reader with both pleasure and meaning. Keep these two points in mind as you write poetry.

Writing the Poem

Once you are inspired and have a subject to write about, you can begin to compose the poem. First, ask yourself: will I write about the ” outer world” or world I experience with my senses?” Or will I write about the ” inner world,” the world of my “psyche”  or  “self” ? (Confessional poets write poems about “the self”, such as depression, addiction, loss, grief, disease.)

I like to begin a poem with a title. Sometimes, the title is a word from the poem, Sometimes, the title is the first line of the poem. Always, the title tells the reader what the poem is about.

Next, ask yourself: what type of free verse poem am I going to write? For instance, if you are intending to tell a story, your narrative poem requires a beginning, middle, and end.

Then, ask yourself: how should I begin? There is no “one way.” You might begin with an image, a question, or in the middle of a scene.

Next, if you’ve decided to write a narrative poem, you are going to tell a story.  You will tell your story using as fewest words possible. In other words, each word must perform some function. If you are going to write line by line, you’ll have to determine what sorts of sentences to use–fragment, simple, compound sentences, and so forth. You will also want to keep in mind that the most important ideas should be expressed at the end of a line. In writing the poem, you might use simile, metaphor, imagery, alliteration, and other popular poetic devices. It all depends on your skill level and creative vision.

When you arrive at the end of the poem, you should end with something meaningful, such as an epiphany, or insight.

Here is an example of a first draft of a confessional poem. Notice how the title tells the reader what the poem is about.  It’s called  “Unemployed.”

Unemployed

It’s early morning. Slept poorly.

Neighbors have gone to work.

Like a shut-in, I sit in this silent house,

sip my hot coffee,

read  the newspaper,

listen to the litany

of depressing news

on CNN television.

I think to myself:

Life savings are depleting.

Unable to pay the bills.

Unable to put food on the table.

Creditors are telephoning every day

like hungry rats waiting to feast.

How long must I search for work?

What am I going to do?

It feels like an inescapable nightmare.

From this first draft, you can begin the revision process, by adding, deleting, altering.

Revising the Poem

How do you revise a poem?  Your first attempt at writing a poem rarely results in your best work.  You should view your first attempt as a rough draft. I recommend that you write a complete poem and then take a break. This break allows you to distance yourself. When you return from your break, you will be able  to view the poem from a fresh perspective and begin revising.What should you revise? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be sure the title tells the reader what the poem is about. Perhaps it represents the first line of the poem.
  • Be sure you are using concrete nouns.
  • Be sure you are using action verbs.
  • Be sure you are using the active voice.
  • Be sure to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
  • Make sure you have shown the reader and not told them.
  • Be sure that your images appeal to the readers sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
  • Have you included similes or metaphors to entertain or to make the abstract concrete?
  • Have you used sound effects? Alliteration. Assonance. Onomatopoeia. Internal rhyme or end rhyme.
  • Have you used a friendly, conversational voice?
  • What point of view have you used? Is it effective? Is it consistent? If a shift in point of view, why?
  • Does your poem evoke emotion?
  • Does your poem have rhythm?
  • Does your poem have meaning? Look to the last stanza or line. Does it express some insight or epiphany?
  • Have you used poetic devices of simile and metaphor and imagery to entertain the reader?
  • Does the last line tell the reader something important, such as share words of wisdom, share an insight, share meaning?

When do you know when your poem is finished? You might end when it feels right. Kim Addonizio, author of ” The Poet’s Companion,” suggests that a poem is a work of art,  “A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.”

A Few Suggestions on How to Become a Poet

Suppose you’ve decided to become a creative writer. You intend to write free verse poetry. How do you learn?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read lots of poetry by good poets, such as Charles Simic, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, Billy Collins. If you discover a poet that you really like, read all that poet’s poems. There are countless books, magazines, and websites that publish poetry, which you can read. Begin by checking out http://www.poetryfoundation.org  and http://www.poets.org or http://www.poetryarchive.com
  2. Learn the popular forms and techniques for writing a free verse poem. Some popular forms include narrative, meditative, image, confessional.  You must also learn how to use line breaks, simile, metaphor, rhythm, imagery, vivid descriptions, alliteration, and more. How to you learn? There are many valuable resources that will teach aspiring poets how to write free verse poetry. Start by reading “The Poet’s Companion” by Kim Addonizio, a useful text with sections on inspiration and subject matter, the craft of writing poetry, the writing life, exercises on how to write poetry, and additional resources.
  3. Practise the techniques by writing in a personal journal. For instance, to learn how to write a simile, experiment in your journal. For instance, suppose you wanted to practise writing a simile. You could begin by making comparisons. Here are a few: A building is like a statue…The street lamp is like a candle that lights a dark room…. At night, my neighborhood is like an abandoned town…Snow falls like white confetti. How to practise? Read “In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit, and complete the exercises.
  4. Find inspiration and subjects to write about.  You can look inward to your psyche, and write about your thoughts, feelings, impressions, what you’ve contemplated, a memory, or dream, something you’ve imagined. Or you can look outward—and view the world around you. You might write about something you’ve read, overheard, observed, or experienced. One of the best ways to find inspiration is to read a wide variety of books, magazines, newspapers, and content on websites or blogs. Curiosity fuels inspiration.
  5. Imitate the form, style, techniques of your favorite poets. To do this, you’ll have to learn the techniques or poetic devices that enable you to construct a poem, and then you’ll have to analyze the poem, to discover how it was constructed by the poet.
  6. Once you feel confident, begin writing a poem on a regular basis. You might start by writing a poem once a week. Please note that a poem can be about anything. Furthermore, poets have written poems about anything you can image, such as art, death, suicide, sex, love, war, depression, an image, a fleeting moment, a dream, an observation, a personal experience, other poets, parts of speech, and much more.
  7. Revise your poetry. You first attempt is never your best. Writing a poem is an iterative process. A good poem is the result of many revisions.
  8. Take a course on how to write poetry at university, or enroll online in a course, or read a few books on how to write poetry. I’ve learned most of my creative writing through self-study. A marvelous book  that will teach you how to write poetry is “The Poetry Companion” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. (This is a must read. Every creative writer should own a copy.)

What’s the best way to learn how to write poetry? Author John Drury, in” Creating Poetry,” writes that “the greatest single means of learning how to do something is imitation.” He suggests that you “latch on” to a model poet, one you like, or several poets you admire, and begin to write poems in the style and techniques and subjects that they do.

You first attempt is never your best work, and so after writing a poem, you must set it aside, and take a break. When you return, read your poem aloud to yourself. Then ask yourself: Do I like it? If you don’t, revise it. You might add details, cut out details, change details. You might also make the poem sound and read as a poem by adding one or more poetic devices, such as imagery, simile, metaphor, alliteration, and so forth.

When are you finished writing a poem? Many writers believe that a poem is never finished—and can always be altered or revised. I tend to agree that “a poem is never finished, just abandoned.”

To become a poet, you must learn the poetic techniques and then begin to write poetry. The act of writing a poem makes you a poet.

Resources

For more information on how to write free verse poetry, read the following:

  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • 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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1 Comment

  1. EG-Writing says:

    Great post with a lot of useful information! Thank you!

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