How to Write Your First (Or Millionth) Poem

Hey y’all! So, today, I’m giving you a guided writing post that’s going to take a very basic, beginner-friendly approach to… (drum roll, although you probably already read the blog title…) writing poems!

Ah, poetry… you know, the thing some of us love, some of us hate, some of us love to hate, and some of use hate to love.

So, whether you’ve ever wanted to try writing poetry, never wanted to try writing poetry, or didn’t think you wanted to try writing poetry but now you do… you know, walk through the process together!

So… what IS a poem?

Before we dive into the structure and mechanics of physically writing a poem, let’s get one thing straightened out: what a poem actually is.

The difficult part of defining poetry is… well, there is no one true definition. I’ve learned this though taking multiple academic courses focused on poetry and creative writing, and I’ve had to answer the popular quiz and test question “what is poetry?” with “I literally don’t know” time and time again (which, actually, is the correct answer, believe it or not). It can be frustrating to not understand what the definition of a poem is, and it can be even more frustrating when you still don’t understand the definition of a poem while analyzing or attempting to write poems over and over again!

But, listen, guys–there is a reason that there is no definition of a poem. Yeah, really. The reason for this is, basically, freedom. You know, creative freedom. Because… if there is no one true definition of the thing you’re trying to create, then there is no one true way to create that thing, is there?

Boom. Mind blown, right?

Of course, though, there are different categories and sub-categories of poems that do have accurate definitions. For example–a sonnet, which is a poem in 14 lines that often has a specific rhyme scheme (depending on the sub-category of sonnet it follows, like Shakespearean or Petrarchan). However, even these categories and sub-categories of poems don’t have to be completely followed, per se, so a sonnet can still be a sonnet while not exactly being a sonnet.

Confused now? Great, welcome to the club!

Now… what is poetry writing?

Now that we’ve completely gone back to square one with not knowing what in the world a poem actually is, let’s move on to what poetry writing looks like! Which, heads up, also does not have one exact look to it…

Needless to say, poetry writing varies and looks completely different from writer to writer, writing session to writing session, poem to poem, etc. However, to keep you from remaining totally lost, let me just give a few examples of what poetry writing could look like for you.

In free verse

I would say that this form of poetry is the most commonly employed, but that would be overgeneralizing and thus applying structure to poems that have no structure. (Again, don’t worry if you’re confused, I’m really confusing myself at this point.)

Free verse poems are simple poems that have total freedom to do, say, and be whatever they want. There are no rules–I mean, there are no rules in poems in general, but there aren’t even the abstract thoughts of rules in any capacity with these!

Here’s an example of what a free verse poem could look like:

A free verse poem can be
Whatever you set out to
Explore with rhyme as an option
Or not, if you prefer caution,
and lines can start with a capital letter or run on and on and on and maybe even onto a second or third or fourth line or so
While other lines can be
Short. 

In structured form

Structured poems follow one of the categories or sub-categories of poems, like that aforementioned sonnet. There are still a ton of poets and poems that follow structured forms today, but it was once considered the “only” way to write poetry (think Renaissance times–like, it’s been a minute since rules were always followed!).

What I think is interesting about structured poems is the fact that there are different types from all different types of world cultures and languages. For example, the sonnet originated in Italian, haikus come to us traditionally in Japanese, and the ghazal comes to us from Arabic roots.

Here’s an example of what a structured blank verse poem could look like:

This is an example of blank verse 
where we use iambic pentameter,
not to be confused with free verse
where we follow no rules about meter,
and here we shall use no rhyme either
(Oops)

And, as you can see with this example… rules can be broken because, hey, that’s what makes it fun!

If you’re interested in trying your hand at structured forms, I’d recommend researching each one that interests you, familiarizing yourself with the general structure or “rules” of each before diving into trying them.

In prose form

Prose poetry has, I think, had a bad reputation for a long time. I mean, there are still debates about prose poetry not being true poetry because, as you’ll see in my example, prose poetry really just looks like a paragraph from any other book. However, prose poetry has been on the rise pretty recently, so it’s definitely worth giving a try.

Here’s what prose poetry could look like:

I'm not really sure what separates prose poetry from regular 'prose'. And, again, what is prose? Because, since we certainly know little about the definition of poetry, I'm assuming we may know just as little about prose. Though, prose is generally reflected through paragraphs or longer forms of lines, and so I believe prose poetry may be something that just mixes these two concepts together in some type of effortless way. For me, though, what separates my prose poetry writing from regular prose writing is the fact that, in my prose poetry such as this, I try to write more elegantly and wordily and with many adjectives and adverbs while still keeping my sense of voice in tact. 

And finally… how to begin writing a poem.

Now, this is what I really wanted to help you guys with today. Because we can study the forms of poetry and such all day long, but… when it comes down to it, there’s only one way to actually write a poem. And that’s by… well, writing a poem!

I know, I know, what a grand idea–I deserve an award.

However, I can offer a little more than “just write the dang thing.” So, follow with me, here…

Step 1: Choose a method of physical writing

The first thing you’ll want to do when writing any poem may seem obvious, but it does make a difference in how proactively you will write. And that thing is choosing whether to write by pen/pencil and paper, computer keyboard, touch screen and stylus, etc.

Everyone usually has a preference for how they write things down in general. For me, my laptop keyboard is my best friend, and I haven’t creatively written anything longer than 3 pages on a piece of paper since middle school. However–I have started using paper when revising some of my poems, so don’t be afraid to switch up your main method of writing, especially if you ever find yourself stuck in a rut or something.

Poetry is generally easy to switch back and forth between physical and digital forms, too, since it’s normally short and doesn’t take ages to type up after jotting on paper or vice versa–so just remember that!

Step 2: Choose a poem structure/form

Okay, so, after you have your method of writing all good to go, you should probably think for a minute about what you want to write. And, unless you’re writing for a class that requires you to try a certain form, the possibilities at this stage are endless and, therefore, can be kind of overwhelming.

So, here are my tips for getting yourself through this step…

First, look back at those 3 general categories of poems I listed above: free verse, structured form, and prose poetry. Use these as your guide, and begin by choosing one of the three as your first path to take. Choose whichever speaks to you right now (whatever that means… I know, I know…), but don’t overthink your choice. Remember, this is just your first (or millionth) poem, and you have plenty of time to try out each and every category in the future.

Next, once you have chosen a category of poems, find the sub-category you want to try out, if applicable. For example, if you want to go down the path of structured poems, research some structured poem types, like haiku or ode, and then settle on one of those. For either the free verse or prose poetry route, you won’t necessarily need to choose a sub-category of poetry because those forms are already open and free from the structured rules. (FYI, for beginning poets, I don’t think either free verse/prose poetry or structured forms and necessarily easier. Some people prefer structure, though, which may make structured forms a good choice.)

Step 3: Choose your poem’s subject

Now, figure out what the subject or topic you want to write about is. This part is especially tricky because we may not always know what we even want to write until we begin writing, but it helps to take a moment to pause and brainstorm some ideas for yourself to go off of. My main tip for this step is to just think about what makes you passionate.

For example, if you know you could get riled up in a heartbeat over global warming issues, then use global warming as you poem’s central subject! Aside from political poems, though, autobiographical or memoir-eque poems are always popular, so you can always write about a personal memory or story you have strong feelings about.

And, if you can’t think of anything that brings up strong feelings of any sort for you, then write about the most random thing you can possibly think of. Literally, look away from the screen you’re reading this on right now, and point to the first object you see. There–now you have a random subject to write about! Take the time to observe this object in all its random glory… note how it appeals to each of your senses–how does it look, sound, smell… and possibly taste and feel? Be sure to use as many of these observations in your poem (which we like to call imagery).

Step 4: Write one word

And then… choose your poem’s first word. Not its title, but, literally, the very first word. And it’s okay if it doesn’t make sense or seems entirely imperfect because you can always change it as you go on writing. I mean, that’s the point of revisions, right? And, if you didn’t already know, poetry pretty much requires the most revisions of any art form… or so I think. Just saying!

If you have trouble coming up with your poem’s first word, try thinking of the very first thing that comes to mind when you think about your poem’s subject. For example, let’s pretend your subject is a random object you just happened to see–an alarm clock. What’s the very first thing that comes to mind when you look at an alarm clock? How about… Beep beep. Waking up. Time. Or, perhaps, you see the clock’s color first… Silver. Red numbers. 5:34 P.M.

Okay, great start! Now, here’s the final step.

Step 5: Write… more words!

Yep, this is the thing all writers do best, right?

Really, though, writing a poem through to the end can be super duper daunting–I get it. But, here’s one tip for writing the rest of your poem: think of every line as a blank you are filling.

This idea works especially well for structured poem forms that have to have a limited number of lines anyway, but you can think in this way with free verse and prose poetry, too. Just visualize your screen or paper like this:

Beep beep. The red numbers hit 5:34 P.M. and I 
realize that it's time to begin my day, grabbing a
_______________________
_______________________
_______________________

And, of course, just look at those blank spaces as lines and words and phrases to just add in as you go along. Remember, poetry is meant to be concise (I mean, usually; there’s always rules to break, though, right?), and your writing does not have to go on forever.

Now, go write, homedogs.

Well, the only thing left to do is… um, write!

Take these tips along with you on your first/next poetry writing journey, and, as always, let me know how it goes for you!

–Kari

3 thoughts on “How to Write Your First (Or Millionth) Poem

    1. It is fascinating, I agree! And I do think all writers are super intimidated by it at first, but once you get past that fear, you’ll find so much enjoyment through just exploring all those options.

      Like

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