How to write a poem

If you’d like to get straight into writing a sonnet in ten steps, or learning more about how to write a haiku, I recommend you go straight to those pages.

If you’re not looking for how to write a poem of a specific type, but you’d like general guidance on what makes poetry work and how to write a poem of any sort, the following guide may help.

How to write a poem (any poem)

Ready? Here is the simplest ‘how to write a poem’ on the web:

• Give your writing just enough deliberate pattern so that it sounds different from ordinary conversational or professional language.
• Present it in a way which signals that it’s a poem.

That really is a workable way of making it happen. If it is easy for others to see some deliberate pattern in what you're writing, and then you present it as a poem, that’s it. It might not be great poetry (to start with :-) but it will be poetry for sure. What does it mean to add 'deliberate pattern'? Well ...

Pattern

Pattern here simply means 'a series of varying repetitions and contrasts in the language or ideas of the poem'. It is like riffs, melodies, choruses, breaks etc in music: a partially predictable sequence which alters.

Any elements of language which you can repeat or contrast can produce a poetic effect. It’s about balancing some satisfying predictabilities with some pleasing surprises.

Brimful clouds, bucket clouds
Tip-it-down-into-the-street clouds
The crowds in shop doorways
Cringe like cats.

You can repeat and contrast almost any aspect of language: words, emphases, structures, sounds, images, concepts, even the shapes of letters. Pattern underlies all the complicated technical aspects of writing poetry. But here’s a simple rule of thumb:

• too much pattern = ‘yawnful, nursery-rhyme stuff.’

• not enough pattern = ‘why, this is nothing but prose.’

• a definite but changing pattern = ‘Aha, a poem!’

So how much pattern is enough? Well ... enough to convince an audience that it's deliberate. It doesn’t take much. You just have to have enough repetition and contrast to make the language seem interesting and concentrated.

Presentation

Presentation is another way of making language into poetry. But presentation is less about how to write a poem and more about how to create a belief that a poem is there.

Here’s a nice example. A friend of mine used to be a salesman who demonstrated goods to the passing crowd. His sales pitches were full of jokes, rhythm and imagery to hook the onlookers’ attention:

“Buy this now, and you won’t regret it, you’ll leave with a big smile going from ear to ear! But if you miss this chance, you might as well miss the bus. You’ll be shedding tears the size of October cabbages.”

Lots of pattern, lots of repetition of sounds and structures and a surprising image to catch people’s fancy.

Now look at this:


Buy this now

And you won’t regret it;
You’ll leave with a big smile
Going from ear to ear.
But if you miss this chance,
You might as well miss the bus.
You’ll be shedding tears the size
Of October cabbages.

(Robert Wonsbeck, 2004)


It’s exactly the same text, broken into lines, with a title, an author and some punctuation marks. But now it’s a poem! It might even be a poem about consumerism. (You don’t believe me? Read it again.)

The salesman, of course, wasn’t presenting it as poetry, though you could argue he ‘knew’ how to write a poem because of all the pattern he was using.

So present your poem as a poem. Give your audience clear, confident signals that what they are about to experience is poetry. These signals might be as quiet as the layout on a page, or as obvious as your standing up and announcing you're going to recite.

That ends this explanation of how to write a poem.

To recap

If you want to know how to write a poem by the simplest method:

• Introduce enough deliberate pattern so that other people could agree the language is different from 'ordinary'.
• Present it in a way which signals that it’s a poem.

Try it, it works. As proof, here is my four-line summary of all the above:

How to write a poem? To solve that mystery
Three simple steps are all you have to take:
Say it’s a poem,
pattern it,
present it.
Writing poems is a piece of cake.

However, if you want to know how to write a poem with a definite form, such as a sonnet, haiku, ballad etc, there are more rules to conform to. I’ll try to deal with them in more detail on separate pages.

Thank you for reading – and please write more!


Why ...

should a calligraphy site include pages on how to write a poem?

Why should a calligraphy site contain pages about how to write a poem?

The short answer:

1. Calligraphy and poems go together like egg and chips. (Caviar and blinis, if you prefer.)
2. Writing your own poem in calligraphy feels good, and presenting your calligraphed poem to someone else creates remarkable effects.
3. More poetry probably means more calligraphy.

So, to encourage more calligraphers to write their own material, these pages offer detailed information to help answer the question of how to write a poem.

That’s it.

The long answer follows below.

To write out someone else’s words is fun and produces good results. Sometimes it’s what has to be done for the job at hand, whether that job is a commissioned wedding invitation or your best friend’s birthday card featuring Gothic rock lyrics.

There is a different awareness and satisfaction to be gained from writing out your own poetry. The calligraphy animates the poem, and the poem lends conviction to the calligraphy. You don’t have to be a great poet to benefit, just someone who knows how to write a poem.

Is poetry an inborn talent or a learnable, teachable skill? I think it's mostly a skill. Can practice and persistence increase talent? Maybe they can. And even if we're not poets laureate, why not enjoy playing with words the best we can at our own level?

This is all only according to my own opinion, which is that it would be a good thing if more people wrote light-hearted poems at the drop of a hat, for themselves and each other.

There are other ways of learning how to write a poem than the ones I offer here. I've just done my best to explain steps and principles as plainly as I can and to lay them out in detail. If that prompts you to find your own way of writing better and more, then these pages are a success.

Happy writing to you!

How to write a haiku (coming soon!)

How to write a sonnet (ten steps, with examples)

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