A friend of mine recently asked for some instruction in the arts poetical. Being something of a poet myself, and otherwise stuck for ideas of what to actually write on this old blog of mine, I thought I'd write him a primer on the subject of writing poems. If you too have an interest in this most venerable of crafts (and likewise have no real background in it), I hope you'll find the following helpful.
I personally think it's a shame that the basics of poetry aren't more widely known. On a rudimentary level, poetry is very easy. The only necessary equipment is the ability to speak a human language (and yes, sign languages count). You'll need a pencil and paper, of course, if you want to actually write it instead of just memorising verses like the bards of yore. But most people these days have those lying around, or the digital equivalents anyway. Just add an idea, and there's no real barrier between doing nothing and writing a poem.
So most people have the tools ready to go. They just don't quite know what to do with them. Some people might go their whole lives knowing nothing about how to put together a decent poem, except that it ought to rhyme. There are some exceptions: certain jokey forms like limericks or haiku (a serious form in Japanese, in my experience usually comical in English) seem to get in people's heads in a way that they can use, even if they can't explain it in technical terms. What I want to do now, more or less, is root around in the toolshed, and give names to all those pointy things you've always noticed but never used.
Poetry: What It Is
In simple words, stated to be as broadly applicable to as many languages as possible, poetry is the art of organizing words for aesthetic effect. In a limited sense, this is applicable to prose as well, but there is a key difference. Prose is ordinary writing that can borrow poetic techniques to imbue a message with feeling. Poetry is as much about the feeling as it is about the message. It's about trying to take a message and make it as beautiful, or as ugly, or as much of any other desired effect as you can.
There are a million different ways to do poetry, especially if you're not limited to a single language. But if English is it for you, it doesn't mean there is only one way to write a stanza. There is a long line of tradition and convention to draw from, but ignoring the parts you don't like is an acceptable practice. After all, it's only words in the end.
Much like in music, the most central property of poetry is usually rhythm. Rhythm means something a little different in different tongues, but in English the primary rhythmic element is syllabic stress. For most poets in English, the location and number of those stresses in a line is of primary importance. Building a decent poem out of them means keeping track of their arrangement, and using it fo the advantage of the poem's feeling.
Other essentials of poetry include phonics, vocabulary, and a willingness to disregard "essential" things when they are massively inconvenient. You can go surprisingly far, however, with rhythm as your primary guide.
Before You Can Write A Poem, You Have To Write Lines
Rhythm is fundamental on at least two levels: within the lines, and between the lines. The former is the domain of meter, while the latter is what we might call form.
Meter is basically a scheme for organizing the rhythm of a string of words that has been placed in a line of poetry. In English the rhythm is defined by patterns of stress. Thus, meter in English usually consists of counting out stressed and unstressed syllables. A poet may write a line like this:
A happy rodent playing with the cats
and the pattern of stresses will look something like this:
a HAPPy ROdent PLAYing WITH the CATS
More abstractly, the line could be rendered like this:
-/ -/ -/ -/-/
where "-" indicates an unstressed syllable and "/" indicates a stressed one. You can use those symbols for your own purposes, but you don't have to. I just like how they look.
"A happy rodent playing with the cats" happens (by stunning coincidence) to be a line of iambic pentameter, the classic embodiment of formal English meter. "Iambic Pentameter" is an awful lot of Greek to throw into a discussion of purely English poetry, I know, but most of the technical vocabulary of poetry is Greco-Latin. It's better to just get used to it.
The form of a poem largely consists in how its lines are arranged in reference to one another. The lines might all be metrically identical; pentameters marching endlessly into the distance, as it were. They might also vary in length or type. "Free verse" consists in telling form to go to hell, which is a valid lifestyle choice but also requires more unconventional and advanced ways of thinking about rhythm. I wouldn't recommend it for beginners who want to avoid learning about form. You're better off mastering the writing of metrical lines until you can toss off a line like "a happy rodent playing with the cats" like it's no big thing.
The Wide World of Feet
A line of poetry is measured in "feet", a term that is less reassuringly simple than it might appear. The word "pentameter", for instance, indicates a line of five feet. Recall that "a happy rodent playing with the cats" was rendered abstractly above like this:
-/ -/ -/ -/ -/
The unit "-/" (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) is a kind of foot known as an iamb; hence, a line of iambic pentameter. This brings us to the point of this section: there are many kinds of feet, and they all have Greek names. Here are four of the most common/useful feet:
The Iamb (-/): an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
The Trochee (/-): a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
The Anapest (--/): two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.
The Dactyl (/--): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.
And here are two more with a more specialized use, usually as convenient substitutes for an iamb or a trochee:
The Spondee (//): two stressed syllables.
The Pyrrhic (--): two unstressed syllables.
There are dozens more feet like this, and they're all mostly impractical for writing at length. Those six will carry you a good long way. Memorizing their Greek names is useful for technical analysis, but the most important thing is to remember the stress patterns.
Feet and words are both composed of syllables, but they are not the same thing. "A happy rodent playing with the cats" is ten syllables, seven words, and five feet long. The first foot consists of the word "a" and the first half of the word "happy". There is no cause to build a line of iambic pentameter out of five words with a natural "-/" stress pattern. You probably shouldn't do it, unless you've found five words that sound awesome that way, in which case you should absolutely do it.
Finally, remember that words like "trimeter", "tetrameter", "pentameter", "hexameter", "heptameter", etc., refer to numbers of feet, not syllables. A line of anapestic pentameter like this:
But they fled the unstoppable army of ravenous bats
has the same number of feet as "a happy rodent playing with the cats", even though it has fifteen syllables instead of ten. It's also significantly harder to write five anapests in a row over and over, so you know. Trade off.
Little Rhythm Things
Stress in English does not exist as a yes/no dichotomy. Words of three or more syllables typically have more than one stress, with one syllable receiving most of the stress and another receiving less. Depending on the tone of a sentence, syllables that would typically be unstressed can suddenly reverse their roles. "Put the markers IN the basket," said the stressed-out teacher to the student, investing more weight in the word "in" than any other syllable in that sentence. In poetry, this makes a world of difference.
Stress is always relative. A lightly stressed syllable can appear to be unstressed in the right context. Consider the word "ravenous." The big stress falls on syllable one, but a smaller, secondary stress falls on the third. In the line "...army of ravenous bats," the meter treats the second stress like it's no big thing. Either I'm just a sloppy poet, or the stress is all a matter of perspective.
Pausing a line, either with a comma or a period, interrupts the flow of the meter. If the natural expectation of an iambic pentameter is to pause every fifth beat, then shortening and lengthening the period between pauses defies expectations in all the right ways. The proper name for pausing in the middle of a line is cesura; the term for connecting two lines without a pause is enjambment. Hand in hand, they make poetry seem less artificial and more like the natural, irregular rhythms of speech.
All of this affects the overall rhythm of a line in a way that's deeper than meter. To a sensitive ear, a metrically perfect line can still sound slightly off if these micro-rhythmic factors are undermining the regular march of stresses. But with skill, these effects can be put to work in creating a richer and more interesting rhythm than the simple baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM of iambic pentameter. Above all else, poetry is about making the language work for effect. Play with rhythm, and you are bound to discover all sorts of interesting tricks.
I went a long way with no mention of rhymes, but the time has come. As everyone knows, the art of poetry calls for more than hypnotic, mesmerising rhythms. People want the old razzle-dazzle. They want some rhymes.
Rhymes, alliteration, and other trappings of euphonia make for more colorful poetry. They also run the risk of looking cheesy, clichéd, and contrived. But when they work, they really bring the pretty. If it's pretty you're after, then rhyming is worth the effort.
The rules of rhyme, much like those of meter, are elastic. Depending on your chosen form or your own personal taste, it can be anything from an exact correspondence in vowel and consonant sounds (bold/gold, free/sea, day/play) to a looser kind of family resemblence (bold/goal, free/scene, date/played). Near or "slant" rhymes may not always satisfy a purist, but they are valid poetic techniques and can introduce a bit of extra texture.
I'm not much of a rhymer, myself. I do rhyme, from time to time, and it usually comes out about as well as that. I'm personally more fond of alliteration as a grace note in my poem. It's an aesthetic preference and not a recommendation. Most established poetic forms assume an effort at rhyming, so if you want to try your hand at sonnets or ballads or what not, you'll need to make that effort.
Rhymes and alliteration always tend to work best, in my opinion, as reinforcing elements of the rhythm, highlighting beats with their special ability to draw attention to themselves. It all comes back to rhythm in the end, because rhythm is the life of poetry. It's the reason people do poetry at all.
The poet trades in words, and a clever or unexpected term can easily turn a dull line into an interesting one. Blessed with a lexicon like ours, an embarrassment of synonyms and rarities, one could say that English-language poets have something of an obligation to reach for the stars and pluck out some choice novelties. Mindless repetition, after all, is no path to greatness.
Sturdy, common monosyllables are an indispensable part of any English writing. However, the interesting stress patterns of polysyllables can improve a poem's rhythm. Rare words can also introduce new possibilities for rhymes when you've grown tired of the obvious ones. The more words you know, the more choices you have in meeting your poem's peculiar needs.
The inevitable downside? People don't talk like thesauruses. That's the reason we have thesauruses in the first place. If you stuff every line with rare and unwieldy words, your potential readership will dwindle. If you care about your potential readership (even if it's just you), be sure that your poem is never missing he kind of words that they can actually relate to.
After all, poetry is not just about putting the words in the right order. Even more basic than that is finding he right word. Whether it's love or infatuation, you'll want both in your toolbox for the big jobs.
The Personal Touch
English is an international language with a long history. There isn't anything like an authority on how to pronounce every little word in the language. And with every language, there is always variation between even individual speakers. Sometimes you're going to wonder about a word, even on something as basic as the number of syllables.
One ambiguity that I often encounter (and exploit) is "R-breaking". This is the tendency to pronounce words like "fire" as though they were two syllables. The trouble is, when I consider the word "fire" in my mind, it doesn't really feel disyllabic. Depending on the circumstances of the poem, I feel perfectly comfortable treating "fire" as either one or two syllables.
These ambiguities extend to things like rhyme and stress. Does "maw" rhyme with "ma"? It does if you're me, but the assertion would puzzle many people. What about the stress on the word "guitar?" I stress the second syllable, but in some dialects it's common to stress the first.
Since poetry is perceived as a formal exercize, it is tempting to agonize over proper pronunciations in the pursuit of a perfectly executed meter or a flawless rhyme. Don't do that! The best poets write in their own voice, and consequently their usage is always informed by their own dialect. If a certain pronunciation or grammatical quirk sounds right or natural to you, it is not necessary to break your back in avoiding it. If you are deliberately writing in a "Standard English" sort of way, it's another story. But I suspect you'll have more fun with poetry if you write in your own style.
The kind of poetry I've been describing, with meters organized according to stresses and syllables, is not the only kind available. Bucking this paradigm does not make you an unpoet, nor does it automatically mean your work is worthless. It just puts you outside the tradition.
The Anglo-Saxon bards, between their hearty quaffs of mead, considered a line of poetry to be well done if it had four prominent stresses, with the first three emphasized by alliteration, and syllable counts be damned. Conversely, there are poems in Modern English that derive their metrics solely from counting syllables, with little heed to stress. And of course there's free verse, where everything is made up and the points don't matter.
The point is, despite all the blathering I've done thus far on the technical aspects of poetry, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Other people may not like it, but that doesn't mean it's not poetry. Bad poetry is still poetry, and since you can follow all the rules and still produce monumentally awful verse, you might as well take some time to test out the boundaries.
There actually isn't any one method I adhere to with any regularity when it comes to writing poems. Sometimes I just write lines until something like a theme emerges. Sometimes I build up a structure and fill in the blanks. Sometimes I just freestyle and hope that no one gets hurt.
Once you have established your relationship with things like rhythm and form, writing poetry is much the same as writing anything else. If you have a big message to share with the world, bend the rhythm to suit your message. If you're only concerned with the rhythm, then don't fret about not having anything deep to say. Sometimes poetry is about deep thoughts and philosophy. Sometimes it's about stupid dirty jokes. Both are fine uses of your time and energy.
Writing poetry is an excellent opportunity to express yourself creatively and to learn more about your language. There is a lot more to discuss on the subject than the quick and dirty notes I've jotted down here. For a more competent how-to guide, I recommend Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Traveled. For advanced studies, of course, there is actual poetry to explore. Read with your ears, then give it your best shot.