Anyone can write a poem. Anyone can write a good poem. You don’t need to have an English degree from a fancy college, or a bookshelf full of leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare, or leisurely mornings to spend pondering a garden full of flowers. You can be any age; there is no such thing as being “too old” to write your first poem.
Poetry, at its heart, is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. There’s a reason rainbows and sunsets and roses are commonly considered poetry cliches; but find the beauty in a muddy boot, or a shopping mall, or a toddler throwing pasta at dinner, and those objects and those moments become something sacred.
Great poems can be any length. They can be fourteen words (like William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow”) or 63,000 words (like Virgil’s “Aeneid”). They can rhyme (like Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) or not rhyme (like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”). Poems don’t even have to look like poems: “Prose poems” are poems that look like paragraphs.
So, if a poem can be any length, and any form, about any topic, where do you start? And what even makes a poem a poem? This guide on how to write a poem will take you step-by-step through the poetry-writing process.
What Is a Poem?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a poem as “a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure.”
Don’t worry about that definition. That’s the scholar’s definition, not the poet’s definition, and focusing on living up to that definition will only weigh you down.
I like to think of a poem as a group of words arranged in such a way that they provoke an emotion of some kind. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It just has to make you feel something – whether that’s love, or sadness, or grief, or nostalgia, or awe.
As a reader, a college professor, and a literary journal editor, I have read thousands of poems, and the best ones had almost nothing in common but that they moved me.
How do you write a poem that elicits an emotion?
Read a lot of poetry.
Start by reading poetry – a lot of poetry. I recommend buying or checking out a stack of poetry anthologies from the library, because they’ll have the greatest variety of poets within each book.
While it can be helpful to read the classics, if your goal is to get published in a literary journal, focus more on the modern poets, because it will help you understand what modern-day editors are looking for (classic poetry tends to rhyme, for example, but literary journals typically publish more unrhymed, or free verse, poems).
The Best American Poetry series produces one of the best annual anthologies out there. I also particularly like Garrison Keillor’s anthologies, like Good Poems, and The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry.
Verse Daily is a free online site that publishes one wonderful poem every day. The Poetry Foundation also has a free catalogue of thousands of poems and releases a Poem of the Day. The Academy of American Poets also has a Poem of the Day.
When you’re reading, try to identify the elements that make the poem “good” to you. What are the lines that evoke the most response in you? Are there certain words, certain repetitions, or certain sensory images that stand out? Underline the two lines in a poem that are the most powerful to you. Ask yourself what makes them powerful.
Handwrite someone else’s poem.
A great next step to immersing yourself in great poetry is to write down (by hand, because it’s slower and you’ll absorb more) three poems you really love. By writing them down, you’ll get a better understanding of what makes them work, of what words stand out to you, and of what rhythm is at play in the poem.
The point of this exercise is to start you thinking like a poet, not to get you to write like that poet. It takes a shift in mindset to go from our everyday style of writing (work memos, emails, quick text messages) to a poetic mindset. It requires you to slow down your thoughts, slow down your breathing, and think about words not just as useful tools but as beautiful things.
Don’t try to be someone else.
You can read a lot of work by the same poet, but don’t just read that one poet. You never want to sound like someone else; you always want to sound like yourself. Your goal is to establish your own style of writing poems, about topics that are familiar to you.
Emily Dickinson, for example, had a very unique style that allows poetry students to recognize her poems almost immediately, (she used a lot of dashes and short phrases). Carl Sandburg was best known for writing about Chicago and the Midwest. William Stafford wrote almost exclusively about nature. E.E. Cummings used almost no capitalization in his poems.
As you come to read more poems from your favorite poets, you’ll being to recognize their style. You don’t want to repeat their style (for example, if you started using dashes in every line, it would be immediately obvious that you were trying to replicate Emily Dickinson). But you can start to get a feel for the kind of writing you like. Do you like rhymed poems or free verse? Do you like poems that tell a story? Do you like shorter lines or longer ones? Do you like poems that have more of a staccato rhythm to them or more elegant, lyrical lines? Does it annoy you when poems are longer than ten or fifteen lines? When you know what you love, you can adapt those elements to your own work and your own style of writing.
Keep a journal.
The next step is to keep a poetry journal for a week. Ideally, you will always have your journal with you, and this is a practice you will continue for the long-term. But having a notebook nearby reminds you to observe the world around you, rather than getting stuck in your own head. When you see something that sparks a feeling in you, write it down. If a particularly phrase comes to you while you’re sitting on the bus, write it down. If you overhear an argument between two strangers that you think could make a good poem, write it down. If you remember something that happened to you a long time ago, write it down.
A poetry journal is different than other types of journals because you’re not typically writing long paragraphs, but rather short phrases. You’re not writing in depth about your feelings or what happened to you that day – you’re just observing and thinking. Your journal can be as disorganized as you like.
You’ll also want to use your journal to do freewriting exercises. Once a day, take three to five minutes to write down everything that’s on your mind, and don’t stop moving your pen that whole time. This is NOT your poem, so don’t worry about whether it’s “good” or not.
The idea is to get a little bit into your subconscious. Because after you start writing about the person who annoyed you in the grocery store, your mind will start taking you to other, deeper places, and you may end up with some good inspiration for a future poem.
Use your senses.
Understanding the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste – is one of the most important things you can do as a poet. Every good poem uses the senses in some way. That’s so important, I’ll repeat it: Every good poem uses the senses in some way.
The reason for this is that you don’t want your poems to be full of abstract ideas, like “love” or “missing someone.” You want your poem to get across those ideas through real things that you see, hear, smell, taste or touch.
If you can’t think of anything to write in your poetry journal, just start keeping a list of your sensory experiences. Try to notice the small details. What did you see on your drive to work that you don’t usually pay attention to? What does the grass smell like at your son’s soccer game? When you eat dinner, really taste it – what do you experience? Jot down a few phrases in your journal.
When writing poetry, show, don’t tell.
Understanding how to use the five senses is important because it teaches you how to “show” instead of “tell”. You’ve probably heard that advice before. You might be saying, “Yes, yes, I know that, but let’s get to the important stuff.” This is the important stuff. I cannot tell you how many poems I have read, from the most well-read students and the smartest people, that tell instead of show. The mind’s first tendency when learning to write poetry is always to tell, tell, tell. You have to train your mind to show.
Here’s an example:
My heart melted
when she walked into the room.
Now, at first glance, this seems like it could be a “show” line. There’s a sensory detail, right? There is a feeling of the heart melting. But in reality, this line could be so, so much more than it is:
I smelled her perfume before
I saw her, that heady, jasmine scent from the Macy’s
makeup counter, the kind she used to dab
on the small part of her wrists before we left
for Benny’s Barbeque, our cheap suburban dreams drifting
into place every Thursday night.
This verse tells of a lost love without using “love” or “heart” or any of the obvious love words. It reveals so much more about the backstory of the poem’s speaker in just a few more lines. We know the speaker is still in love with this woman. We know something went wrong between them. We know a little about how they used to live. There is smell (heady, jasmine), visual imagery (small part of her wrists), taste (barbeque), and even sound (the noise of a crowded department store).
Understand literary devices in poetry.
When you’re writing a poem, you don’t have to know all the poetic terms that a literary scholar writing an essay should know. But there are a few literary devices that will make your poem better:
A poem written in free verse is a poem that doesn’t rhyme or regular meter (rhythm). The majority of poems you’ll see in literary journals today are written in free verse.
Here’s an example of free verse by Seamus Heaney (“Sloe Gin”):
The clear weather of juniper darkened into winter. She fed gin to sloes and sealed the glass container.
Simile and Metaphor
A simile is when one thing is compared to another using “like” or “as”.
A metaphor is when one thing is compared to another without using “like” or “as”.
I cannot underestimate how important good similes and metaphors are. You don’t want to overuse them, but throwing in one or two unexpected good ones will usually add to your poem.
Good simile: the pigeons hunched like old ladies in the park
Not-so-good simile: Her skin is white as snow.
Good metaphor: Exhaustion is a thin blanket tattered with bullet holes (If Then, Matthew De Abaitua)
Not-so-good metaphor: His heart is gold.
Enjambment is ending one line and starting a new line in the middle of a sentence, not where there is an obvious pause. Enjambment is one of the best tools you can use as a poet, and it’s often what differentiates beginning poetry from more advanced poetry.
The holy time is quiet as a Nun Breathless with adoration; the broad sun Is sinking down in its tranquility;
(William Wordsworth, “It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free”)
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.
on a proud round cloud in white high night
(e.e. cummings, “if a cheerfulest Elephantangelchild should sit”)
Alliteration is the repetition of a sound or letter at the beginning of words. Note the “t” and “b” alliteration:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
(William Blake, “The Tyger”)
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the middle of words (not necessarily right next to each other, but close to each other). William Blake’s famous poem uses the obvious “b” alliteration, but the consonance is actually in the “r” repetition, four times in two lines (Tyger, burning, bright, forests):
Tyger Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
Figure out what your poem is going to be about before you start writing.
Ground your poem in a specific event, memory, person conversation, or place. Where will the poem take place? What story will it tell? What characters will be in the poem?
Poetry is a lot closer to fiction than most people realize, because the reader should still be taking away images, moments, sounds, people or feelings. You should have a general sense of what your poem will be about before you start writing it.
Write your poem.
Expect the writing process to take at least an hour. You’re not going to jot off a masterpiece in ten minutes, so set aside a long period of quiet to work, and don’t get frustrated; it will feel difficult at first because our minds are not used to slowing down so much in the “real world”.
Don’t agonize over every word in the first draft, but take your time on each line. Ask yourself, is there a way to say this idea better? Am I telling how I’m feeling, or am I showing? When you’re stuck, close your eyes and imagine in great detail the person or scene you are writing about. What are the details that are not so obvious?
Refer back to your poetry journal for phrases you like. When you’re trying to come up with a simile or metaphor that’s not obvious, sometimes it helps to flip through a book for words that spark something.
A note on adjectives and verbs: In poetry, verbs are your friend. Adjectives, generally, are not. Use adjectives sparsely, because they tend to make lines more cliché. If you use a really good verb, though (“the engine coughed to life” or “the smoke blued the room”), it will be memorable.
Revise your poem.
Learn how to cut your words. William Faulkner famously said, “Kill your darlings.” He meant that writers often have phrases they love in their first drafts that don’t actually add anything to the piece they’re writing. The best way to know what to cut is to ask someone else to read it and underline their favorite lines. Do they match up with your own favorite lines? This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take them out, but you should consider what’s working and what’s not.
When I read students’ first poems, I almost always, without fail, recommend that they cut the length by half. The reason for this is that the end product should be ALL the good lines of the poem, so that each line is just as striking as the next. When we’re writing first drafts, we often include a lot of filler in order to get around to what we really want to say, and in the end you might not need all of that to get your point across.
Another important step in revision is to ask someone to read your poem and tell you what they think the poem is about. A lot of people think poems are supposed to be so vague we can’t understand them, but that’s not the case at all. We may not know the story behind every detail, but the reader should get a general sense of what the poem is talking about – the emotion behind it, who the characters are, etc. If your reader doesn’t understand what’s going on, that means you should add more (possibly sensory) detail.
Congratulate yourself on finishing your poem.
A lot of people think about writing a poem, but few of them actually do - and now you are one of them. Don’t be too hard on yourself with critiques. The more you read and the more you write, the easier writing poetry will become.
Don’t worry about who is going to read it, because poetry has benefits even without an audience. Over the past 25 years, more than 200 studies have investigated the mental and physical health benefits of writing poetry, including improved moods, immune cell counts, liver enzyme levels, and antibody response to vaccines. Poetry has also been called “slow mind food, real nutrition for the soul” and is often compared to meditation.
Poetry can be one of the best creative outlets for those who think of themselves as writers and those who don’t. Understanding the fundamentals of poetry is the first step to finishing your first poem.
About the Author
Victoria Kelly is the author of the poetry collections When the Men Go Off to War and Prayers of an American Wife. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University and received graduate degrees in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Trinity College Dublin. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review and numerous other journals and anthologies. She is also the author of the novel Mrs. Houdini, which was a People Magazine Best New Book and a USA Today New and Noteworthy Book.