Writing poetry can be scary. It’s an extremely vulnerable experience, and the journey is different for every poet. In the beginning, it’s natural to be overwhelmed by the amount of questions you may have. How do you become a better poet? How should you structure your poems?
How many metaphors and similes are too many? What should your revision process look like? While poetry is an art form, and that means there are really no hard and fast rules you have to follow (especially when it comes to expressing how you feel), there are some guidelines that can help you out.
1. Read Poetry — A Lot of It
This one is fairly obvious. To become a better writer, you must become a better reader. Read anything that catches your eye, from Emily Dickinson to Richard Siken. Let the words sink into you any way you’d like. You can go through poems without thinking too hard about the underlying meaning, or mark off any lines that you want to use as inspiration as you read through or just spend hours thinking about the imagery in that one stanza. As long as information is being absorbed, you’re doing your job correctly.
2. Don’t Stress Over the First Draft
Nothing comes out perfect the first time. It’s okay if your poetry isn’t Pulitzer Prize-worthy the first time you sit down to write it. The beautiful thing about writing is that it’s like putty — you can remold it if you don’t like the shape, and keep molding it until you’re satisfied. Revision is a key part of the process.
If you’re freaking out about your first draft and feel like you want to make it better but have no idea how at the moment, just leave it alone. The Roman poet Horace thought that one should wait nine years before beginning the revision process, but I know not everyone has that amount of time to spare.
Leave your work alone for a couple days. Maybe even a couple weeks if you’re feeling daring. Wait until your mind is refreshed and filled with new ideas, and then jump back into your poem. You’ll have a new perspective on things, and once the inspiration starts kicking in, you’ll realize you were stressing over nothing.
3. Avoid Clichés
If you were to hear the phrase “Her eyes were as blue as the sky,” how would that make you feel? Would it evoke powerful imagery in your mind? Would you be frozen in awe at how beautiful “her” eyes must be? Would you think, “Wow, what an original way to describe blue eyes! I must use that saying as inspiration.” Chances are, you wouldn’t experience any of the things described, because you’ve just come across a cliché.
A cliché is a phrase that has lost its original effect due to how overused it is. Think of “every rose has its thorn” or “you slept like a baby.” Those expressions might make a reader do a double take if they had never heard them before, but unfortunately, they’ve been used so often that they do nothing. They won’t make them feel anything, or plop a vivid image in their mind.
The whole point of writing anything, especially poetry, is to make your audience feel and imagine things. Clichés can take that away from them, and also make you seem like a lazy poet. Try to avoid them as best you can. When using imagery, similes or metaphors, think outside the box. Think about how whatever you’re writing about is unique to you. Specificity is what will save you from being viewed as that boring, unoriginal poet.
4. Develop Your Own Voice
It can be easy to become overwhelmed by what’s popular in the poetry world right now, poets you look up to or even poems that you see on social media. Everyone wants to become successful, so it’s tempting to imitate what’s getting a lot of attention.
Developing your own voice may be one of the biggest struggles you’ll face as a poet, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it. Your voice is like your fingerprint — it’s unique to you, and one of the ways you’re easily identifiable. Definitely take inspiration from others, but at the end of the day, be your own writer.
5. Communicate a Theme
Being poetic goes beyond slipping flowery language into your work. You should always try to incorporate a theme into your poetry, whether it be something as simple as love or something as complicated as the relationship between man and machine. The essence of any good piece of writing is its theme.
This sounds complicated, but it’s actually something that you won’t have to think too hard about. “Whether you like it or not, your story has a theme, because all stories ultimately have one major idea. This is because we as writers are fueled by ideas,” explained Matt Grant, a Brooklyn based writer and editor. Although Grant is specifically talking about fiction here, this applies to poetry as well.
You don’t necessarily need to dedicate hours into developing a theme, but it doesn’t hurt to actually put some thought into it. Your themes will reflect who you are as a writer. They’ll also create a more emotionally poetic experience for the reader.
6. Have Fun!
This is probably the most important guideline of all. If you’re not having fun, then something is wrong. Chances are, there’s no one holding you at gunpoint forcing you to write poetry — it’s a hobby you took up because you wanted to. It’s a big problem if you’re not enjoying something you chose to do yourself.
In times where you’re unsure about the journey that lay ahead, ask yourself why you’re writing in the first place. If your answer doesn’t shed some light on the situation, it might be time to reevaluate.
Poetry is such an intimate, beautiful art form. When you write, it’s one of the few times where you’re able to express yourself however you’d like. It’s like an exciting adventure. Celebrate and let your voice be heard!