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I have frequently found that while I can sit down and power through several paragraphs of prose, I cannot do the same thing with poetry. I kind of sympathize with the old Greek poets, who believed that they needed to invoke a semi-deity named the Muse in order to successfully write their long epic poems. Even now, we sometimes refer to the idea of the Muse when a writer has a sudden burst of inspiration. While I certainly don't believe in the idea of a Muse, however, there is something to be said for the notion. Sometimes, you just can't force writing to happen—especially in the case of poetry.
So if you want to write poetry, what things can you do to get inspiration?
A while back I blogged about ways to generate ideas for writing. Admittedly, they were aimed toward getting ideas for prose, and more specifically, prose fiction. However, one of the tips really holds true in the case of writing poetry:
Read, read, read. Get your hands on as much poetry as you can. Read old poetry, read new poetry, read sort of old poetry, sort of new poetry—you get the idea. Read a lot of poetry in all different time periods and styles.
Reading poetry does two things; it puts the mind in a poetic mindset, thus making it easier to write poetry, and it teaches the mind how to write poetry by way of example. When you've really plunged yourself into reading poetry, your mind starts to think about everything in poetic terms.
The other thing you can do to inspire your poetic “Muse” is to pay attention to things you usually don't notice. Pay attention to smells. Try to think of how you would describe them. What sounds more poetic—a bad smell, or an ugly smell? Even more poetic than ugly would be noisome. Pay attention to sounds. How would you describe the sound of birds singing? Would you call it melodic? If it doesn't sound so great or it's full of a lot of clashing sounds, you could use the word cacophony to describe it. Try to think of new or unusual ways to describe things. What way could you describe an autumn tree? Is it happy because it's colorful, or do its falling leaves remind you of teardrops?
As you might imagine, when you want to describe things in new, poetic, or unusual ways, you will need to arm yourself with new words. The dictionary and a thesaurus are going to be your allies here. If you have an idea of what you want to say but don't know exactly the word for it, go to the thesaurus. Do be careful, however, to look up the synonyms in the dictionary before using them, just so that you know for certain that you are using the words correctly. And of course, you know that I'm going to recommend browsing the dictionary just looking for new words. Sometimes, you'll find a word that just begs to used in a poem.
Then, when it comes to writing to actual poem, you'll need to decide what format to use. There are many different formats, but here's a basic overview:
- Free verse, where you basically don't need rhyme or meter.
- Rhymed verse, which, while the lines have a fixed rhyme scheme, does not have a fixed meter.
- Metered verse, which can be rhymed or un-rhymed as long as it has meter. Examples of this include
- blank verse, which is un-rhymed but uses “iambic pentameter.” Iambic means a syllable pair of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—“alas” [uh-LASS] is a good example—and pentameter means you have five of these pairs. This is what Shakespeare wrote his plays in.
- Haiku, which has a fixed number of syllables that define the poem (5, 7, 5)
- Rhymed and metered verse, which is what most people think of when they hear the word “poetry.” Several examples include
- Many song lyrics
This is hardly an exhaustive list or even explanation of the types of poetry, but that's enough to get you started. Going to your library or even a simple Google search will provide you with a more extensive explanation.
I have written at least one poem in all of the formats above. Believe it or not, the two hardest forms of poetry—in my opinion—are free verse and rhymed without meter. This is because without proper skill, both of these forms come across as very amateurish. You can seem like an amateur in any of the formats, but these two are especially easy to misunderstand. Rhymed without meter can be especially dangerous, since most people expect rhymed poetry to have meter (as I said, this is what most people think of when they hear poetry).
Free verse is not just prose divided into lines, and rhymed un-metered poetry is not just a bunch of lines that happen to rhyme with each other. With or without meter, poetry requires a certain cadence.
It's kind of hard to explain what I mean—I took multiple college classes that dealt with poetry and it's still really hard to verbalize it. I finally came to have an understanding of it after reading lots of poetry by other authors. Sometimes the cadence is achieved through repetition. Some of the earliest poems on record are the Psalms from the Bible. For the ancient Hebrews, repetition was more a part of their poetry than meter or rhyme. Sometimes, it's achieved through repetitive sentence structure.
The other thing that really sets poetry apart is the type of wording used. Poetry uses a lot of figurative language—obviously, if I am describing a color as loud I do not literally mean that I can hear it. Poetry also has a lot of inverted sentence structure—of the way Yoda talks must you think, if to understand inverted sentence structure you are.
With everything that goes into poetry, it's easy to see why some people (myself included) can't force it. It requires a lot of deliberate thought, like painting. In a way, you are painting something with words. In poetry, every word counts for something.
It's a challenge...
...and that's why I love it.
Do you like to write and/or read poetry? Not everyone does. Would you be interested in seeing more posts about writing poetry on this blog? Share any thoughts or questions you might have in the comments.
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