Poetry Writing Tips

With poetry, finding your voice and getting it down on paper can seem an impossible task. You may be working with the medium in order to express yourself, to explore hidden facets of your personality. All well and good. But if you can’t learn to shape this torrential subject matter it’ll probably end up as nonsense, not verse. I bet you want to leap right in and write something that outshines The Waste Land, but take your time, breathe deeply and learn to play a little before you start to get serious.

USING YOUR HEAD

Chances are that when you start writing poetry you stick to your own rhythm. Expressing yourself can be hard enough without having to do so to the beat of somebody else’s drum. There’s nothing wrong with this: if you know the rhythm of your voice, then you can write powerful poetry with a structure all of your own.

But there’s a fine line between a poem and a ramble, and if you don’t pay attention to your poem’s structure, it’s in danger of becoming like one of my mum’s cakes: so loose it falls apart. It may appear easier to express yourself without the limitations of a traditional structure, but this attitude can be deceiving. Left to ponder shape, how can you pin down exactly what it is you’re feeling, precisely which elements of your turbulent inner voice to capture on paper? Writing to a traditional form may seem restrictive, but it can actually free your mind by creating a structure for you. When you don’t have to worry about structure, you can devote more of your creative energy to playing with content.

MAKING INROADS

Too many people try to write a beautifully crafted epic poem on their first go. It’s like waking up one morning and deciding you’re going to win Olympic gold in judo, although the only tussle you’ve ever had is trying to wrestle open your Pop Tarts. As a poet, you need to become more aware of the fascinating and surprising powers of language to awaken long-lost ideas and memories, and the best way to do this is to start small.

Look at the fragments of ideas and phrases in your notebook and play with them. Don’t try and craft a masterpiece just yet, simply start scribbling, write without thinking and see where it leads. Automatic writing, as it’s often called, doesn’t have to make sense – in fact, the more arbitrary your subject the better the results. The idea is to open up your unconscious mind, which is such an important part of writing poetry, and to practise using this vast resource of feeling and emotion. By starting small, by tuning your mental antennae for unexpected resonances, moods and memories, poems will begin to shape themselves in no time.

MODEL LOOKS

If you’re having trouble finding inspiration for your poems, or can’t seem to knock them into shape, the answer may lie in imitation. Think of it as a kind of flattery. Philip Larkin, for example, claimed that when he started out he always had a copy of Yeats on his kitchen table next to his open notebook. Try imitating a poet you’ve always admired. Don’t blatantly transplant lines from famous poems into your work, but do take a close look at a poem that really moves you and try working out why.

Next, try writing one of your own that has a similar structure, rhythm or theme. Using models is an excellent way to practise probing into the depths of your creativity and to gain a comprehensive feel for language and form. Just remember that imitation alone won’t make you a great poet. Think of it as riding on the shoulders of a mentor: they can only carry you so far, then you have to make your own way. If you carry on using other poems as models, you’ll never be able to get your own unique voice on the page.

If you have writing you’d like to get published, contact Infideas, an Oxford based publisher that specialises in self-publishing.

(Image by Anyaka, CC by 2.0, via Flickr)

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