Poetry is elusive and standoffish, somewhat like your high school crush was when they didn't know you existed. That's why most "how to" guides or blog pieces seem to miss the mark, giving you suggestions but not quite practical steps in the process of writing poems. It's just hard to do.
Dan Chiasson, a poet and contributor to the New Yorker who covers up-and-coming new poets, puts it this way:
The writing of poetry is notoriously mystified, almost occult in its resistance to rules or step-by-step methods. If you're a poet, the precision, discipline, and tact of painters or photographers seem enviable indeed. The entire process, by being externalized, seems repeatable, unlike the chance encounters of poets with their muses.
Despite a seemingly impossible challenge of breaking down the process of writing poetry into simple steps—steps anyone can take—it's possible to do. In fact, I'll go ahead and write the inflammatory words that will make many published poets annoyed: Everyone can be a poet. Yes, that means even you. The same breathtaking results that happened from great poets throughout history following this process can happen to you.
Step 1: Pick an experience
Unless you are an established poet with years of experience writing, the first step to writing a poem should be to pick an important experience. The experience should be something that was significant in your life—a great loss, a moment with someone you love(d), an awe-inspiring natural event. These are the types of experiences that will help you write great poetry.
Poet and performing artist Leonard Cohen once wrote,
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. This is his (very poetic) way of saying that life experiences are what make poetry what it is, and that any great poet must first have great life experiences before the poetry itself can be written.This is the reason that the experience you pick should be an amazing one. Do you have one in mind? Good…now on to step two.
Step 2: Brainstorm your sensory memory surrounding the experience
To complete step two, you'll need a piece of scratch paper. On that paper, go ahead and write down five categories of senses: Sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. Then close your eyes and take a minute to recall the experience in your mind. Keep your eyes closed for as long as it takes to put yourself back in the moment and remember details. What were you wearing? Was there music playing? Were you inside or outside? What sensations do you remember feeling on your skin? What colors do you remember from the environment?
When these details come to mind, start writing them down with as many descriptive adjectives as you can remember. Your list might look something like this:
Sight: copper penny, red dress, penny whirling in circles, blue sugar
Smell: cotton candy, grease from funnel cake stand, sweat
Taste: sugary sweet cotton candy, bitterness of copper penny against lips, taste of blue sugar on his lips
Touch: cool penny against lips, his arms around my shoulders
Sound: people screaming on nearby rides, thunder of metal wheels rolling on tracks
It's important that you don't rush through this step and maybe even return to it often during the writing process if you get stuck at later steps. It's also important to include as many details as you can. The above list is just an example and not complete. For those of you more accustomed to academic writing, consider this brainstorming session to be a kind of unstructured outline for your poem. The more details you include in the "outline," the easier it will be to write the first draft.
Step 3: Start finding metaphors (and/or similes)
Remember back in elementary school when you were introduced to the concept of poetry? Metaphors and similes were introduced around the same time because if there is one literary device that is the absolute, unchanging foundation of poetry—it is metaphor.
As a quick review, a metaphor is
a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).
Similarly, a simile is
a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses).
So now let's go back to the list you made in step two. Look at some of the clauses you wrote down and start to brainstorm metaphors for them. For example, in my list, I wrote, "His arms around my shoulders." To turn this into a metaphor, I might write, "His arms around my shoulders are a python's squeeze." To turn it into a simile, I might write, "His arms around my shoulders are like a snake's coil."
See how that's done? Now—you try it. Go through your list of sensory memories and change as many as you can into a metaphor or simile. When you are finished with this exercise, move on to step four.
Step 4: Find musicality in the metaphors
While the heading might make this step seem complicated, it really isn't, so let's break it down. Musicality in this context means
the quality or state of being musical : melodiousness.
How is language musical you might ask? There are several ways language can have "musicality," which in the jargon of the literati, just means it is pleasing to the ear. Rhyme is one way. Assonance and alliteration are others. Science has long studied the effects of repeating patterns on the brain and why the brain is programmed to enjoy it, but what it boils down to this: Find patterns in the sound of your words.
Do some of your descriptive clauses repeat a consonant at the beginning of the word? That's alliteration. Do you see repeating vowels in the words you wrote down? That's assonance. Is there a rhyme somewhere in what you wrote or can you make a rhyme as you put the words together in stanzas (paragraphs of poems)?
Speaking of rhyme—one of the most widely misunderstood traits of poetry is that there must be rhyme. This is simply untrue. In fact, a lot of modern published poets don't use rhyme at all, but rather choose other ways of bringing musicality into the language (such as alliteration, meter, cadence, etc.).
You also don't have to use end rhyme (rhyming at the end of the lines) to use rhyme in poetry. There are other types of rhyme, such as internal rhyme and eye rhyme—all of which are explained in this Poetry Foundation glossary on rhyme.
Let's look at the results of this process. Jenny Xie is an up-and-coming poet who was just awarded the 2017 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets for her first collection, Eye Level. As you read through the poem "Naturalization," notice where she uses musicality through alliteration (e.g.,
snacks for snakes), and the senses (what she sees, hears, etc.).
By Jenny Xie
His tongue shorn, father confuses
snacks for snakes, kitchen for chicken.
It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap
silverware at yard sales. I am told by mother
to keep our telephone number close,
my beaded coin purse closer. I do this.
The years are slow to pass, heavy-footed.
Because the visits are frequent, we memorize
shame's numbing stench. I nurse nosebleeds,
run up and down stairways, chew the wind.
Such were the times. All of us nearsighted.
Grandmother prays for fortune
to keep us around and on a short leash.
The new country is ill-fitting, lined
with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.