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How to Write Poetry

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I am personally of the belief that good poetry is a far harder thing to achieve than good prose. A good story can take many shapes - a compelling plot, beautiful wording, realistic characters - but poetry is not nearly so forgiving. It takes more practice, more thought, and I am certainly less adept in it than prose.

Poetry is also more open to interpretation - but even so there is 'good' poetry and 'bad' poetry. Nevertheless, I'm providing a walkthrough in poem-writing in the hopes that a few of the tips might help in your own poetry-writing endeavors.

Here's a random example of poetry I found online.

I refuse to let go of you
I can still hear you say you love me too
even though your place isn't with me anymore,
I still feel you close and I just can't let you go.

I'm going to rewrite it into what I hope will be a more effective poem.

Now the goal of poetry is to cause the reader to feel an emotion. The emotion this poem is trying to evoke is longing, nostalgia, and love. I'm going to assume it's a man speaking about a woman who left him. "I can't let you go" indicates he's still madly in love. "I can still hear you say" indicates that he's clinging to memories. "Your place isn't with me anymore" means that the relationship was doomed.

So when we start rewriting this poem, we want to get across that sad longing, but we're going to do it through the method of loving memory with a tinge of dark foreboding.

Now we don't want to just talk about the sad longing. In the above example the writer is simply speaking what he wants and what he thinks, and this is a poor method of making the reader feel emotion. No - instead we want to put the reader into a world where the emotion comes to them naturally. We want to put them into the vivid dream instead of just telling them about it.

So we're going to construct a scene that will evoke this. Let's make the bulk of it the man remembering fond things, but in order to keep that sense of perspective - the man himself is lamenting, and this is the poem - let's frame the memories between a scene of the guy. We want this scene to evoke longing and loneliness. What evokes these things? List a few ideas. Keep them very specific and limited to images. No emotions.

A single fork and knife in an otherwise empty dishwasher.

An old, dried lipstick kiss on a mirror, with no lipstick tubes in sight.

Only one half of the closet used.

So now let's put the man into a setting. Keep the words crisp and useful. If two words might mean similar to the same thing, it's probably a good idea to cut one of them out. Don't talk about feelings.

The man runs fingers
Over the lipstick stain on the mirror
Falling and abandoned

The first line lets you know the guy, what he's doing. The second line is straightforward. Originally I had "runs fingers like sand" and "over the dried lipstick stain," but I got rid of them at the last minute. The "falling and abandoned" let's you know the lipstick stain is old, you don't need other imagery for it. This line also implies that the memory itself is abandoned, too, that it's a lost thing of the past.

So now we have a man touching an old lipstick stain. This implies that a woman (lipstick) was once there, but not anymore (abandoned), and he's remembering her fondly (touching).

Note not once here have we said "The man touched the mirror, remembering his wife." We haven't said "The loneliness crept up on him" or "He missed her so much." We haven't stated anything. And this is good. You want to keep things subtle. Roundabout. You want to let the reader study what you write, to pull meaning from those carefully chosen words.

So let's go into the memories now.

He remembers
the color of the kiss
A body putting on one earring
Drawling incense and honey
in a tumbling scarlet dress
With throat of diamonds
Bending, pressing lips against mirror
Eyes burned to his
Through the reflection

I sort of accidentally wrote my way through that more than I mean to. Let's take it a bit at a time.

"He remembers/the color of the kiss"

These two lines were the hardest for me, actually. I wanted to transition into the 'memory' portion without saying "he sat there, remembering his wife." If you were watching a movie, it would be a guy standing against a counter, studying the lipstick mark, and then with a trick of editing (like a flash of light or dulled colors) you'd see (what was obviously his memory) his wife there, kissing the mirror and him watching - and then it'd flash back to him again. I wanted to achieve this affect without having a narrator explain what was happening. I wanted to follow the train of thought that comes from absentmindedly remembering.

"He remembers the color of the kiss."

I got this line from trying to match the old lipstick mark to the memory of that same lipstick being on lips. I went through "He remembers when the color shone lively on lips," or "He remembers when the color lived flush against a smile," but ultimately "the color of the kiss" is shorter and more direct.

"A body putting on one earring/drawling incense and honey"

I decided to go full-blown into 'memory' here, and since we're still so focused on the lipstick mark in the poem, I decided to use the memory where his wife actually kissed the mirror. The "a body" is vague, like you're focusing in, or remembering the outlines of something. "Putting on one earring" focuses in more on the action, and also provides context - a feminine body. A woman making herself beautiful. This is obviously one of the man's fondest memories.

"Drawling incense and honey."

I almost went with an audio sensation here as opposed to smell - I so nearly put down "a laugh of . . ." something random. But a "laugh" is a common word, and it seems a little too cheap. Anybody can laugh. A smell, on the other hand, is far more personal, and smells also are a strong evocation of memories. "Drawling" I chose on a whim, mainly because I was looking for an earthy, slow description of a scent, and "drawling" makes you hear a southern, slow, warm accent, which is the 'feel' I wanted for the scent. Incense and honey I chose because they're instantly recognizable, more unique than something like 'flowers' or 'fruit,' and because it says tons about the wife's personality.

"In a tumbling scarlet dress/with throat of diamonds"

Right before this I almost put "He almost sees her/In a tumbling scarlet dress . . ." But I discarded that because it distracted from the scene of the moment. It was in there originally to put more concretely the fact that he's remembering, but when I took it out it made the poem read as if the smell itself were inhabiting the scarlet dress. I liked this because it makes the whole thing slightly more surreal (it's a memory, after all), and because it gives the smell itself a larger role. "Tumbling" reflects the word "falling" earlier in the poem, and gives you a very distinct impression as to the way the dress is constructed. "Throat of diamonds" has little double meaning. I usually prefer "throat" over "neck," because "throat" has a nicer feel as a word and sounds like a more vulnerable area. Obviously this line means her throat is glittering with shiny necklaces. No real double meaning here, only meant as a point of imagery.

"Bending, pressing lips against mirror
Eyes burned to his
Through the reflection"

The first line here was originally really long, something like "She bends over the counter, pressing her lips up against the mirror." But if you can delete words, then do it. Note I didn't say "kissing" the mirror here, because I wanted the main action of this segment to be saved for the last two lines.

"Eyes burned to his" It was originally "locked on his," but that's a cliched line, and I thought I could manage something better. "Burned" means hot and intense, which is what I wanted to convey. "Burned to his" makes you think of "burned into his memory," or maybe even seared on, or melted on, or made to become.

"Through the reflection" Reflection here has two simple meanings - one is the basic imagery involved in the scene. The second is the fact that he's remembering. It's not 'real,' it's an echo of something, a reflection. And lastly, you can say that she's watching him through his memories.

I'm going to end it here, mostly because if I keep going I'll end up writing a book, and the poem is sharp enough to have a decent point on its own.

And I'm naming it "Lipstick".

The man runs fingers
Over the lipstick stain on the mirror
Falling and abandoned
He remembers
the color of the kiss
A body putting on one earring
Drawling incense and honey
in a tumbling scarlet dress
With throat of diamonds
Bending, pressing lips against mirror
Eyes burned to his
Through the reflection

This poem slightly deviated from the original goal - I meant to go for love and longing with a tinge of foreboding, and while I got close, I think there's more an emphasis on the longing than I meant to be. But oh well - poems change as you write them, and no harm came of it.

Note there are many different things which make a poem 'good,' and this is only one of them. Take, for example, the famous poem, "The Raven," by Edgar Allen Poe, which involves incredible lilting language that titillates the tip of the tongue if translated into speech. Or Emily Dickinson's poetry, which carries heavy symbolism and personification and a ton of weirdness. But these are different styles of poetry, and in my opinion more difficult to master than the basic scene-rendering we explored above.

In any case, if you learn anything from this obscenely long article, remember this - great poets work not by telling you what they feel, but by putting you in circumstances that will make you feel what they feel.

As a final note, I'm conducting a sort of poetry writing experiment/exercise for a future article. If you'd like to participate, please y-mail me.

Off to play minecraft,


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