Writing poetry can be as simple as a few well placed words that rhyme or it can be a complex arrangement of lines, stanzas, and rhyming patterns.
Poetry opens up an unlimited world of creative possibilities, and once you have a good understanding of the wide range of techniques and styles available, you can craft your own unique expression of life – a poem that will engage your reader.
An Overview of Poetry.
The history of poetry is as complex as the art form itself, and there have been many debates over the centuries over what constitutes a poem. The origins of poetry stem back to oral tradition, where a poem was used primarily for didactic and entertainment purposes in the form of a ballad. Shakespeare made the Sonnet famous – a poetic form that fuses together a delicate balance of both narrative and lyrical qualities. With the arrival of the printing press and the book, poetry became a highly respected literary style.
So what constitutes a poem?
Is a poem just a static literary form that must adhere to a particular rhyming pattern, a specific use of language and a rigid structural format? The traditionalist would argue that a poem should adhere to a strict rhyming pattern and its appearance on the page must not divert from four-lined stanzas that run down the page. The rebellious modernist would argue that rules are meant to be broken and writing a poem is a free and unfettered craft that is subject only to the artistic whim of the poet.
I think the answer to what constitutes a poem lies in this statement: a poem is the perfect form of creative expression. What is your view? Does a poem allow a writer to express their feelings, thoughts and experiences of the world better than a short story?
The 19th century classical poet and critic Mathew Arnold defined a poem as the ‘most beautiful, impressive, and most widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance… ‘ (Knickerbocker 1925, p. 446). But as grand as this quote sounds, the art of writing a poem is so much more.
A poem enables the poet to reveal their thoughts or life experiences to the reader through a heightened use of language that appeals to the emotions. It is an invitation from the poet to the reader to undertake a journey of the exploration of ideas. Overall, the poet designs their perfect form of creative expression to engage their reader and to provoke a response.
Here are seven techniques or tools that can help you write a poem that will engage your reader:
You have access to a toolbox that is full of different techniques or poetic devices that will allow you to aptly convey your thoughts, feelings and experiences of the world such as:
1. An arrangement of sound (a clever combination of alliteration and assonance – the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds), which create an internal rhyme and evoke music in our mind when we read the poem out aloud. For example: assonance can create an internal rhyme like this line of poetry by Theodore Roethke “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow… “
2. Enjambment (strategic line breaks that determine meter and rhythm, which can highlight a certain phrase).
3. Imagery: drawing upon the vivid description of an image to create a word picture. You can use concrete images, which are images that we can see or feel like cat, house, sun, rain. Abstract images denote concepts we understand but we cannot see or feel like knowledge, freedom or justice. An abstract image can be both conceptual and also emotional.
4. Metaphor/Simile – figures of speech that reveal hidden similarities and compare two ideas for poetic effect.
5. Rhyme: Rhyming words or lines that end in identical sounds. “Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though… ” Robert Frost.
6. Tone: A particular use of voice like melancholy, happy, pensive, which is determined by specific word choice. This is an excerpt from Departure by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
I wish I could walk till my blood should spout,
And drop me, never to stir again,
On a shore that is wide, for the tide is out,
And the weedy rocks are bare to the rain.
But dump or dock, where the path I take
Brings up, it’s little enough I care,
And it’s little I’d mind the fuss they’ll make,
Huddled dead in a ditch somewhere.
7. A poem is a vibrant and versatile art form. There are many composition styles available – Free verse (which does not conform to traditional rhyming stanzas or regular meter or rhythm), or an Elegy (a poem that be used as a lament or as a moving remembrance for a person or an event).
Of course, these techniques are just a few of the tools that a poet can utilise, and some of these techniques can be used in writing stories, but they belong specifically to the world of poetry.
Poetry teaches us about the beauty and power of language and the richness of the written word. By using a combination of the available poetic techniques, a writer can find complete freedom in the expression of thoughts, ideas and feelings.
John Redmond defines a poem as not so much a structure of words, which has to conform to a set of rules and a particular form, but an experiment with being, that has a personality and value of its own; and “… any good poem should make us feel like explorers of a new planet, setting out on a momentous adventure… [a] good poem will try to maintain the openness, the sense of possibility, which every reader feels when they open a book for the first time”(2006, p. 2).
To maintain the openness and the sense of possibility, the poet needs to keep the reader in mind when they are writing a poem, by using language and images that the reader can engage with and therefore feel that they can join the poet in the journey of exploration.
Ultimately, the role of a poem not only serves the purpose of self-expression, but it can teach us something new, and also capture our imaginations and emotions.
Knickerbocker, William S 1925. ‘Matthew Arnold’s Theory of Poetry’. The Sewanee Review 33 (4). Johns Hopkins University Press: 440-50, via Jstor.
Redmond, John 2006, How to write a poem, Blackwell Publishing, USA. p. 2.