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The Art of Writing Poetry

Anyone who has attempted to write poetry knows that the process can either be rewarding or excruciating, depending on one’s reason for writing. Writing a poem for an assignment, especially for those who do not consider themselves poets, can seem like a dreadful task. However, with a few simple tricks and a general knowledge of what makes words become poetry, writing a poem can be easier than you ever anticipated—possibly even enjoyable!

There are a few simple exercises you can do to write a poem quickly, meeting all of the standards usually assessed by teachers when grading a poetry assignment. Teachers generally look for two things: 1.) That you’ve followed the assignment guidelines concerning the type of poem, rhyme scheme, meter, etc.; and 2.) That you’ve been creative in your writing and word choice, using visual language and unique approaches.

First, let’s discuss assignment guidelines. Just as there are over thirty different types of poems (sonnet, quatrain, couplet, haiku and elegy to name a few), there are practically limitless ways in which these formats can be manipulated and changed to produce different effects. Be sure to ask your teacher the guidelines on the forms of poetry chosen for an assignment, and if those requirements are set in stone if you find the urge to circumvent them during the creative process. Simply put: you need to know how much creative license your teacher will give you when he or see is grading your paper. For example, if the poem is especially unique or creative, will issues such as hard rhyme vs. soft rhyme be an issue? Or, if the poem relies heavily on visual language and word choice (which most should), will points be deducted if the meter is not what is traditionally expected within, say, an Elizabethan Sonnet form.

As for what is generally expected regarding creativity in writing poetry, keep these ideas in mind: poetry that is thought-provoking, strange, controversial, or otherwise “unsafe” tends to seem more creative. For example, if you choose “cyborg love” as a topic for a romantically inclined poem, you’ll most likely be given a better response from your reviewer. You’ve taken a step toward the enigmatic, and walked out on a limb in your writing attempt—two traits many poetry teachers and English professors tend to revere. A million poems have been written about the love between a man and a woman; doing something different automatically sets your poem apart from writing that is considered mediocre.

The creativity you use should be most focused, however, on your word choice. The topic of a poem is generally shadowed by the words. A poet’s words are his or her power, and should be the most careful consideration of the poem itself. With this in mind, one of the best resources any poet (or student being forced into writing a poem) could have is a thesaurus. Most word processing programs come with a built-in thesaurus, and websites abound with free thesaurus and synonym-finder tools. These resources come in most handy when you are attempting to make your poem seem more “poetic”.

Take for example the following assignment: “Write a free verse poem about love.” The student, in consideration of the first suggestion, picks the topic of cyborg love, and writes the poem with a sci-fi slant. A first draft might read like this:

In dark corners of the room,
On an operating table lies your heart—
Cold and unbeating beneath my hands
And waiting for my touch
To find life.

Okay—the topic lends a certain mystery to the poem, and immediately there is an analogous relationship drawn between this science fiction element and real, human love. Such multiple layers of meaning are one of those things that professors look for when grading your work. So what is the next step? Pay attention to your words by finding more intriguing synonyms. Remember, the connotation of words is important in writing, especially in poetry. Another word choice might offer better connotation to draw more depth from your writing.

In dim corners of the room,
An operating table exposes your heart—
Distant and dead beneath my hands
And paused for my touch,
To find existence.

While these changes might not be monumental, they are enough to pull an air of mystery into the poem, making it more visually and aurally appealing to the reader. This exercise can go as far as you want to take it, as you use words that might be completely obscure or easily taken out of context. For example, changing “touch” to “probing” in the above example creates a more sexual connotation to the verse, and this one simple change brings an entirely new level of meaning in your poem.

If your teacher allows it, using nontraditional words and rhythms can be one of the easiest ways to make your poem more creative. As an example, some writers choose to break a line into two in an unexpected place:

Her voice called from the darkness, wishing un
spoken things with unspoken words.

Keep in mind while writing that poetry is intensely personal, and as one reader might adore one poet’s style, another might loathe it. If you are writing for a grade, the most logical conclusion might be to find out what style your teacher enjoys (e.g., modern, traditional, free verse, stream-of-consciousness) and seek to emulate it. Your own experimentation in writing can happen as often as you’d like after you’ve passed the class.
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