what can a poem do? It can:
– turn experience into words
– turn feeling into words
– help you and your reader (or listener) make new connections and gain new insights into the familiar
– create in your mind the poet’s original experience
Writing a poem of your own will help you understand how poems works, and help you become familiar with the basic building blocks that go to make up a poem.
II. General Advice
Choose a subject that means something to you. You are exploring and transmitting your feelings and insights and, if they are not real, it will show.
Keep things simple—especially your choice of words. Find the exact words the meaning needs.
Go back, always, to what your five senses tell you. Use what you can hear, see, smell, taste, feel with your fingertips. In a city poem, find the words to show the impact on you of the sound of the traffic, the haze of exhaust fumes, the grittiness of the dust in your eyes.
The heart of a poem is the images it uses. You are trying to communicate what you know or think or feel, and to do that effectively you have to choose comparisons—word-pictures—that will have the same effect in your reader’s mind as they have in yours.
All that sounds quite serious—but, in fact, you will make more progress if you treat the idea of writing a poem as playing with words until they take on a satisfying arrangement.
III. Gathering Materials
Poems often succeed because they point out unexpected connections. If you make your preliminary notes in the form of a spidergram or “mind-map”, then it’s more likely that these connections will emerge. Put your subject at the centre of a blank sheet of paper, and then write down the first six or eight things that come into your head as you think about it. If ideas are slow to come, go back to what your five senses tell you about the subject. Look for an emerging pattern of thought.
Suppose that your subject is “Hands”. Look closely at your hand. Clench your fist—does that remind you of anything? A hammer, perhaps? Grip something between your finger and thumb—like tweezers, pliers? Write these observations down in your mind map. Is a bigger idea emerging? How many tools are developments of things you can do with your hand? Can it scoop? Like a spoon, or the bucket of a mechanical digger? Can it squeeze like a clamp?
Your thinking about the hand is now beginning to take on a shape. You have lots of ideas, and the chances are that some of them are beginning to join up and offer you a strong way into description.
Something else has begun to happen. As you make each observation, as you ask yourself what it reminds you of, you are using comparisons, images—and when you start using images you are coming close to the most important part of a poem.
A poem doesn’t lecture you. If it works, it will re-create in the reader’s mind what was going on in the writer’s mind. It does this by choosing images—word-pictures, if you like—that force the reader to go through the same mental processes as the writer. So, for example, when the poet Liz Lochhead describes the way her small sister jumps in a game of hopscotch as a “quick peck”, she makes you call up in your own mind the deliberate attention and then the speed and control a chicken uses in finding food. It comes alive in your head—you can see it.
If you want to find out more about images, try reading and writing haiku, the Japanese verse form.
Words fall easily into patterns of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition, and this can reinforce or make obvious the underlying pattern of the thinking in the poem. If you choose to write within a tightly structured scheme of rhyme and rhythm, you will have to make a much greater effort to find exactly the right words, but you may also find the result more satisfying.
Explore rhyme and rhythm by taking poems or songs—hymns are good for this—and fit new words, new rhymes to the original pattern.
Always choose meaning over rhyme—don’t use a word that doesn’t make sense just because it rhymes well.
Read as many poems as you can, by a variety of authors. Imitate their work—your own voice will grow from practice and experience.