Writing poetry was one of the only things I liked about high school. Where other people saw an algebra class, I saw a private writing workshop. Ever since I was very young, I’ve wolfed down poetry like it was a delicious burrito, and I’ve been writing it for just as long. When I was about nine, I sent out stapled manuscripts of handwritten poems to the addresses I found in the front pages of books that I liked, thinking that the literary world would HOP AT THE CHANCE to publish my verses on household chores and science projects. They didn’t. (Their loss.)
One of the many wonderful things about poetry, though, is that you don’t have to do this—you don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to. Your notebook (or computer, or cafeteria napkin) can be your own private solace, a place for you to experiment with words, express your thoughts, and turn the shittiest or most boring parts of life into works of art. And if you think that you’re not capable of getting into poetry, I ask you: who here hasn’t had the experience of finding the perfect song lyrics and scrawling them on your arms in ballpoint pen, or turning them into a Facebook status, or actually just holding them closely in your heart forever? Just as certain lyrics can connect us to our feelings and wants and hopes, reading and writing poetry can make us feel less ~alone in the world~. I memorized “The J Car” by Thom Gunn in high school, and I find that certain lines still get stuck in my head sometimes.
But before you make the decision about what you want to do with your poetry, you have to get to actually writing it. While I know that many of our readers already do this, I thought I’d share some exercises that help me unclench my brain. Onward! (Or should I say onword??? Ha ha. YIKES.)
1. Gather your thoughts.
By now most of us know, per our English teachers, that POETRY DOESN’T HAVE TO RHYME. Obviously, your poetry can take any shape, and make any sounds, that you want it to. However, for me, that can be daunting. I don’t always know how to proceed in terms of structure. This is where playing with classical poetic forms, like haiku, sonnet, and the formidable SESTINA, helps me immensely. These kinds of poems assign limits, like rhyme schemes or an allotted number of syllables; I think of them as paint-by-numbers as opposed to the blank canvas of free verse. The shorter ones also provide quick exercises that can be instantly applied to anything going on around you. Like, I am writing this haiku RIGHT NOW:
A/C wind at Ben’s,
keyboard ruins my nail art.
Worth it for Rookies
Anyway, here’s a great list of different poetic techniques that you can try out. The heroic couplet, although not a part of that list, is perfect for beginners. It’s a long, long poem with groups of rhyming lines, sort of reminiscent of song lyrics. “Supernatural Love” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (whatta name, huh?) is an example of this form executed beautifully.
I do some of my most productive poetry-writing when I take a thought that I’m struggling to express in free verse and play with it in an established poetic model instead. It feels like an equation, but instead of solving for x, you’re finding new solutions for artistic expression (and this is coming from a girl who totally hates math).
And you don’t have to think of any specific form as a rulebook. Many famous poets have fiddled with form to great effect—check out “Dream Song 14” by John Berryman, which is a sonnet that he chose to screw with by changing the traditional rhyme scheme and, in the process, creating one of my top-five favorite poems of all time. Classical poetic techniques are fantastic and can be truly helpful, even if you choose to FUCK THE SYSTEM.
2. Keep it light, keep it tight (sometimes).
I used to think that in order for poetry to be valid or whatever, it had to be about the VERY SERIOUS stuff: sex, love, death. While of course it’s possible, and sometimes very cathartic, to write about these topics, you absolutely don’t have to. Try getting absurd or funny or otherwise detached from the big stuff, and see what happens. Some of my favorite poems, as well as some of the ones of mine with which I’m happiest, have nothing to do with the topics that are heavyweight champions of drama—I recently wrote a collection of five poems about how I’m obsessed with hair, including one inspired by a mouse I found in my shower:
I Dream of Having Smoother Hair
Now you. The mouse in my bathtub this morning
Was a story I could tell you, too.
I ran into the bedroom, as usual. Hot pants and big sweaters
On my desk, half a dirty-looking apple. Squalor, but the well-made bed
Steels itself against lipsticks and bright flags mixing guilelessly, well, everywhere.
I am uncommitted except to my smallest pillow, the mouse,
Bart Simpson, Gary Snyder, and, I guess, you; dreaming, the next day,
Holding the door at Duane Reade, the pilgrimage
Toward the hair-care aisle. A new shampoo offering for the vermin.
The wind makes sounds that catch my hair
I am trying to care more about the things beyond the two.
You can also try using not-so-serious topics as metaphors for very serious stuff. Take “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, which seems on the surface to be about plums, but is widely considered to be an explanation to his wife about his extramarital affairs. Sexy, apologetic fruit! I just love it.
Some really great poems blend the weighty stuff with everyday observations and happenings, which is cool because that’s pretty much how real life works: one minute you’re thinking about whether there’s an afterlife, and the next, you’re getting yourself some ice cream. Everything mingles in our brains, from our most philosophical questions to tying our shoes, and I love it when poetry reflects that. Frank O’Hara, one of the biggest figures in the New York School of poetry, was particularly good at bringing the highbrow and lowbrow together in a way that rang true. Check out “Having a Coke With You,” which mixes references to Michelangelo with yogurt. Amazing.
3. Write a little, say a lot.
Not every poem has to be long. A tiiiiiiiny bit of verse can express as much as something 12 times its size. Take “Separation” by W.S. Merwin, another one of my favorites:
Your absence goes through me
Like a thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
Excuse me while I bow down to this minuscule, brilliant piece of writing. In three lines and 19 words, it conveys longing, love, influence, and beauty in an accessible, gorgeous way. If you have some great lines, sometimes it’s enough to let them exist on their own. In fact, why not see how small of a poem you can make, just for kicks?
I’m also a sucker for long poems made up of short ones that are built around the same theme. This can make for a great writing exercise. Pick a concept and write about it in as many different ways as you can think of—a great example of this is Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is one genius poem made of 13 bitty ones, all of which consider the same central focus. I once got a solid seven poems out of the phrase “seven pearls,” which led me to write a series of one- or two-liners about oysters, baby teeth, and costume jewelry.
4. Title first, ask questions later.
I used to play a game with a friend where we would write down a word or phrase on a piece of paper, then swap. Whatever one person had written would become a title for the other person’s poem, which we would then write on the spot. I remember one really great one that I came up with: “The fuck that we together give.” We’d time it (usually three minutes), then read them to each other and see what had resulted. Honestly, guys? It was a lot of fun. (I know, I am a total delight at kEwL parties.) I often came away with tons of ideas for new poems, but you don’t need a friend to slip you a piece of paper in order to assign yourself a title that you didn’t come up with on your own. Write down a short phrase from an overheard conversation. Borrow from billboards. Potential titles are everywhere.
5. Use the internet.
If you liked the game my friend and I played, get ready, because there are tons of similar poetic exercises for you to try. In high school, I would write something on the website oneword.com every single day, because I loved the concept so much—essentially, you click a button, a word pops up, and then you have 60 seconds to write about it. Once you’re done, it’s published alongside whatever other people wrote using the same word, and the differences are always dizzying and marvelous. (Again, I AM A BLAST AT KEGGERS.)
Another good online service for writing exercises is Figment, which emails you a writing prompt every morning when you sign up for their mailing list. Sometimes they send you a photograph, or a brief scenario, or just some gentle guidelines, like choosing 10 words that make you think of anger and using them to write about something you love. The internet doesn’t have to be all cats and weirdly aggressive commenters, guys!
6. Read. Other. Poetry.
Above all else, this is the thing that drives me to write poetry. I get so inspired when I read a game-changer, a poem that completely defies my expectations as to what a poem can do or how it can be written. Some of these, for me, are “Your Catfish Friend” by Richard Brautigan, “The Paper Nautilus” by Marianne Moore, “A Song for Many Movements” by Audre Lorde, “Sonnet XVII” by Pablo Neruda, and “The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke” by David Lehman. Reading a ton of poetry will help you figure out not only your own tastes, but also how to apply your preferences to your own writing.
Some people even take it a step further by writing a direct homage or parody of a poem that they love (or hate). Remember the William Carlos Williams poem about the plums that I mentioned earlier? Kenneth Koch, another one of my favorite poets ever, wrote a clever parody of it. It’s a great poem in its own right, and a loving spoof on ANOTHER great poem. POEMCEPTION! But be forewarned: if you do this, you need to make it explicitly clear that you are referencing another poem, because plagiarism is the ethical worst.
7. Listen to poetry out loud.
You know how sometimes what was meant to be a friendly a text message or an email can read as rude, because you can’t hear the tone of voice of the person who sent it? This is sometimes the case with poetry, too. I find there’s a lot of value in hearing poems in addition to reading them. I recommend reciting the ones you love aloud, going to poetry readings, or finding YouTube videos of poets performing their own work. Giving written words a human voice helps me understand their rhythm and gives me a feeling about what they might be saying, both of which are often very important to the way a poem is experienced. In short, develop an ear for poetry and you’ll be able to listen more closely to what your own writing is saying, which, I’m sure, is multitudes.
But above all else, these exercises are for you, so ENJOY YOURSELF. Just try not to do it during math class. ♦