Fundamentals of writing poetry

Rohan Mathew

Learning the art of writing poetry can look like a daunting process. After all, it is supposed to be the “spontaneous overflow of intense emotions,” in the words of William Wordsworth. Although Wordsworth is right to a good extent, the spontaneous flow of your emotions might not be the prettiest poetry for a reader. It might be an amazing outlet for your feelings, but would it incite the same in the reader?

The ‘art’ of poetry writing is quite innate and comes to people in moments of intensity or of massive inspiration. However, poetry is just as much about the ‘craft’ of it. The packaging, the presentation, the arrangement of it all is just as important. That is what sets apart good poetry from average.

The good news is that learning to write a good poem is not such an unachievable feat. Read on to find some fundamental rules that can help you get started:

Evoke rather than express:We mostly write poems to express how we are feeling,but those belong more to your journal than your blog. Readers would appreciate something that evokes an emotion within them, rather than just read your expression of it.For example, instead of expressing how you feel so lonely, you could try evoking. Refer to this excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s poem, Preludes:

The showers beat

On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

And at the corner of the street

A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

Reading these lines incite the feeling of loneliness in the reader without the poet directly expressing it. This is what makes the poem worth cherishing.

Aim for brevity:Unlike prose, poetry is all about brevity. That does not mean you cannot write long epics or ballads,what it means is that each word should be like a thoughtfully spent penny. 

You cannot have unnecessary words taking up the precious space. Each word should be adding something significant to the poem. You have to learn the art of saying more in less. This makes the poem feel saturated with emotions.

Choose a form:There are many forms of poetry that you can pick from. You can write a sonnet, an elegy, a ballad to name a few. You can write a poem with no stanzas at all or one with stanzas of a certain number of lines. You can even vary the style of stanzas within the poemYou can write in couplets, quatrain or sestet. You can follow a strict rhyme scheme or write in free verse. Explore rhythm and meter to make your poems more fun to recite. Choose a form that you think best suits the theme of your poem, but make sure you stick to it.

Rhyme scheme:Most of us grew up thinking that a poem has to rhyme. The aa-bb-cc-dd rhyme scheme was the most common one in nursery rhymes and poems for children. However, the world of rhyme is quite large.Most contemporary poets are writing in free verse now, which does not follow any strict rhyme scheme. But you can experiment with different rhyme schemes out there like aa-bb or ab-ab. Even with free verse, pay attention to how internal rhyme works. That is to say, you can have rhyming words within the line or within the stanza.

Use sound devices:Let us admit it; poems are just as much for reciting as they are for reading. A well-written poem will automatically draw attention when being recited on stage. This happens because of the magic of sound devices.

Sound devices make it much easier for the listeners to perceive the poem. Rhyme and meter are parts of sound devices. Beyond that, we have alliteration, assonance, repetition, refrain and onomatopoeia to make the poem phonetically rich.

William Blake uses repetition and alliteration in his poem, The Tyger:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

There is the repetition of the word ‘tyger’, and alliteration in ‘burning bright’ and ‘frame thy fearful’. Don’t you think that it instantly draws attention?

Use other poetic devices:Without the use of poetic devices, a poem would be like regular prose in verse form. The use of figures of speech adds flavour and dynamics to poetry and makes each line a delight. It also enables the poem to describe better, paint a picture and emote greatly.

Imagery, metaphors, similes and personification are the most commonly used literary devices in poems. In his poem, Ode to Skylark, P.B. Shelley uses plenty of poetic devices:

The pale purple even

Melts around thy flight;

Like a star of Heaven,

In the broad day-light

The first two lines are an example of imagery; it quite paints a picture for the reader, right? The third line has a simple simile – ‘like a star of Heaven’.

Apart from those, the transferred epithet is also widely used without even intending to. It has become an integral part of poetry today. For example, a poet writing about missing his beloved might say ‘the bed is lonely without you’ instead of ‘I am lonely without you’. Now obviously, the bed is not lonely, but the poet transfers the emotion onto the bed.

Plan before you write:One misconception that we see amongst aspiring poets is that poetry is written as and when the impulse to write comes. Again, it might work for diary entries, but to make it a piece of art, we need more work.

A good habit is to keep a notepad where you keep scribbling ideas, interesting metaphors and fragments of poetry whenever they come to you. Also, if you are writing on a theme or topic, let it marinate for a day or two. Meanwhile, pen down anything interesting that hits you. Then use it all to write the first draft. Also, return to it after some time to edit it with high scrutiny, until the poem looks polished.
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