If you have never written a poem before, the prospect might be daunting, looking at a blank word document or sheet of paper and feeling the pressure to produce something Shakespeare would wish he wrote.
But poetry shouldn’t be daunting and inaccessible. It’s just words, after all, and every single person reading this knows words. When you begin, your poetry should be for you, and only you. Don’t add on pressure by promising to show it to your spouse, children or parents (or worse, teachers!) Instead, just write it for yourself, safe in the knowledge that you can bin it, burn it or eat it if it turns out terribly.
For the purposes of this article, I will not go into the philosophy of what constitutes a poem, we will work on the good old google definition of a poem as ‘a piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm, and imagery.’
So if you’re ready, follow these steps and be well on your way to completing your first poem.
Step 1- Steal someone else’s poem
I’m sort of kidding, sort of not. If you aren’t a regular reader of poetry, now is the time to search for a poem that you like the sound of- it could be a poem that you loved when you were a child, or you could enjoy going on a treasure hunt on the poetry society website and finding a poem that sounds roughly like the kind of thing you would like to write. At this stage, you will not have your own poetic voice, so it is completely fine to emulate someone else’s- as what you bring to it- your themes, experiences and subconscious quirks, will inevitably morph it into something that is yours. Your voice will further develop the more you write, so don’t worry about that for now. You have your poem? Good. I will put an example of mine here:
Valentine- Carol Ann Duffy
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
Bare in mind that your first poem will (probably) be nowhere near as good as the one you have chosen- but that is okay, it will still mean a great deal to you.
Step 2- Choose your two main themes
Theme one should be something that is meaningful to you- it might be a grief, the love you have for your children, or the shame you feel after a drunken night out- whatever.
Theme two should be the more metaphorical element of your writing- it might be a god or goddess, your garden in summertime, or indeed, an onion.
Take your time thinking about these two elements and write down freestyle what they mean to you, all the words and feelings you associate with the two of them. This will ensure that you have enough flesh to link them together into a coherent poem that makes some kind of sense. With whatever metaphorical theme you chose, it is good to do a little research and pick out certain things that fit or that you find interesting.
Many poems use more than two main themes, but for your first poem this could get a bit messy, so try to stick with two.
Here is mine:
|Theme 1- My most recent panic attack|
Theme 2- The Sun
|The Sun will expand eventually consuming the planets|
sun is a near-perfect sphere
Way too much
Circular- heart and sun
Want it to end
throw away- to the sky?
Step 3- Put it in order
A Poem should usually tell a story. So it is time to gather all that you have jotted down and put it into an order that makes sense. You want the tension to build throughout, the climax being the final line(s) so just put your notes in some kind of order now.
Introduce me + panic attack
introduce sun- circle- link to heart
sweating- face and arm pits?
want it to end
tear it out of my chest into sky
expanding of sun
Step 4- Flesh it out
Now you need to make your notes into a very bare bones first draft. Just write what you want to include on each line, without much thought to the form or the language your are using, unless something brilliant pops into your head- in which case, write it down! But this is just to get you started. Do you see that this process is so much easier now that we have done a little planning? You would have probably been hard pressed to do this stage right off the bat.
Remember, your poem can be a page long or four lines long- it’s really up to you, but I wouldn’t advise more than 14 lines for your first.
Here is mine:
My chest is pounding, I panic.
my heart is a circle, burning like the sun
making my face and arm pits sweat
the heat is too much, I want it to end.
I want to tear it out of my chest into sky
where it will expand and consume the planets
Step 5- Edit Edit Edit
To me, this is where the real poetry is. We have our outline, and now we can spend as much time as we like crafting it into something wonderful. This is where you can look at your chosen poem for inspiration, look at their use of language and copy it in a way that fits your poem. Do not feel guilty or like a fraud for doing this, all writers do this in some way or other- consciously or subconsciously- it is now art is made.
For example, in Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy writes ‘it is a moon wrapped in brown paper.’ A wonderful metaphor. So, in my first line, instead of the cumbersome
‘My chest is pounding, I panic.
my heart is a circle, burning like the sun’
‘The sun burns in my chest, a sphere more perfect
than any found in nature, feverish,’
Use as many poems as you want for inspiration. Leave it, and come back to it another day, or decide that the themes don’t work after all and turn it into something else- it is YOURS, don’t be intimidated, own it.
You may also want to pay a bit of attention to the form of the poem- don’t think too much about it at this stage of your writing ‘career’- a good (and very important) check is to read your work aloud- if something isn’t right, you will hear it.
Don’t feel scared to get rid of elements that you no longer feel fit your poem, either. Sometimes things just don’t make the cut.
It took me around three days of on and off editing to make my poem into something worth reading, and here is the end result:
The Sun-R G Wood
The sun burns in my chest, a sphere more perfect
than any found in nature, feverish,
causing beads of sweat to run down my face
and gather in ditches under my arms.
How I long to rip it out and hurl it back into the sky,
where it will grow, expanding and consuming
at a furious rate. From dwarf to giant- greedy,
guzzling Mercury, Venus, then Earth.
And there we have it! Please do leave a comment letting me know what you thought, if you found this method useful (and remember, it is not the only method) and send me your poems!
Until next time,
R G Wood