Getting started can be the hardest part of writing a poem. After you’ve begun, inertia will usually carry you forward - but carry you towards what? Following are some practical tips and other things to keep in mind as you write a poem.
You’ve found some spare time, and decided to sit down (people are always sitting down to do things) and write a poem. You’re wearing your comfy shoes, you’ve found a quiet place to write - you’ve even found something to write about - so now what?
The middle of things. Start there…
Beginning a poem with an action is an easy way to jump-start things. Save the introductions for the novelists - poetry is a more immediate experience, and being immediate, needs to have something happen right away. I’m not talking about something shocking, or even a “grabber” to pull someone in to your poem.
Starting in the “middle of things” means having the action start before the first line of a poem, as though the world were just progressing along as it always does, and we’re jumping in at the moment of the first line. Not every poem will necessarily “start in the middle” but many good ones do, and it’s a way, as I said, to get a start on a poem - essentially, it’s a trick that helps you cheat your way into writing a not-too-bad poem.
Let’s take a look at a classic poem and I’ll try to show you what I mean. If you read poetry at all, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” We’re not going to analyze the poem, but just look at the first few lines and think about what’s happening at the start:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Frost doesn’t begin his poem telling you that he was feeling restless, so he decided to take a walk, then strolled down past the farmhouse, kicked a rock, and then finally came to a fork in the road. Instead, Frost begins with an action - in this case, it’s the roads performing the action. They’re “diverging.” Personally, I love actions like this because it animates the inanimate - I mean, the roads are just there in reality, but in Frost’s poem they’re active, they’re energetic roads “diverging” in a yellow wood.
Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is another example of a poem starting in the midst of things. Here are the first four lines:
That’s my last duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive. I call That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
We didn’t start with the Duke welcoming the Count’s aide into his castle, nor were we forced to suffer a long introduction about who’s who and what’s what. Browning jumps right in - with the speaker, the Duke, obviously addressing someone - this “direct address” is called a “dramatic monologue” and functions much like a monologue in a stage play. But that’s another story…
I could probably randomly pick poems from the archive, and be able to show examples of starting with an action or starting in the middle of things (with or without an action). But after you’ve started, what then?
What words are lines to end on?
Now that you’ve started a line, how do you know when to end one line and begin another? We’ll address “the line” in more detail in a later article - for now, I’ll offer a cop-out followed by some suggestions.
The cop-out: no one can tell you how to end a line and you may not even know what the best line breaks are yourself, so just experiment and re-work a line until it feels “right” to you. It may never “feel right” and you may never know if it’s the right line break, but after all, this is the cop-out.
Okay, now for the practical bits that will actually be useful: You have certain places in a poem that automatically gain more “power” than the rest of the words just because of their placement. They are as follows, and in the order I believe them of most importance (based slightly on some study I read years ago and can’t cite that talked about where the eye is drawn when reading a poem):
- The first word
- The first line-break (last word of the first line)
- The first line
- The very last word (last word of the last line of the last stanza) of the poem
- The first stanza-break (the last word of the last line before the first space, or paragraph break [remembering that paragraphs in a poem are called “stanzas”])
- All subsequent line-breaks
- All subsequent first lines of each successive stanza
- The last line of the poem
You could probably argue about what is more important in a poem, and lists of this type are silly and probably not incredibly helpful, but what’s important is to remember that NOT ALL WORDS IN A POEM ARE EQUAL. So the placement of lines on the page will highlight or diminish their importance, at least structurally.
So what’s the structure of a poem?
A poem can have many “shapes” and forms - different line lengths, stanza lengths (the number of lines in a stanza), indenting, blank space, sections, etc. Here’s a basic look at a simple poem form without any real words, just looking at the form of the poem:
A Poem’s StructureFIRSTWORD blah blah blah blah blah LINEBREAK yada yada yada yada blah baloney yadda break who cares? Not me. Doesn’t matter. STANZA BREAK LOOK-AT-ME! Okay, not any more. Okay wait, ONCE MORE but now it doesn’t matter again— IMPORTANT, this line is INDENTED for a REASON AND NOW not indented again. We’re HEADING into the home STRETCH YES, here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting FOR— the last line of the poem, pay attention, now the poem’s OVER.
Admittedly, it’s not very readable. However, I hope our little experiment has at least focused your attention to the lines in ALL CAPS. I’ve also bolded the really important parts. Now, does this mean that you should save up all of your REALLY “BIG” WORDS for the end of the first line? No. But you should at least be aware that there’s more focus on those words, lines, etcetera.
Read some poems and see how many have line breaks on articles (the, a, an), prepositions (of, in, by), conjunctions (but, and, or) or other “transitional” words - most poems don’t end lines on these “inconsequential” words because poets know that line breaks are a source of POWER in your poem, and why would you want to focus on the word “the”? (At least, unintentionally focus on the word due to carelessness and not a choice).
Must learn balance, Poet-san.
Now that we’ve looked at the physical structure of poems, we can take a look at the ideological, or structure of a poem’s ideas and meaning. Like fingerprints, snowflakes, & William Shatner’s toupees, so too are no two poems alike. Here are some general tips anyway.
All art plays upon balance in one way or another, either by being balanced and symmetrical, or by being intentionally un- balanced. Balance is the key to beauty. Symmetrical faces are considered the most beautiful, because of their balance. Poetry (and most other things) must be balanced, or out-of-balance - but you can’t ignore balance in a poem.
For this article, though, we’re looking at the active writing of a poem, and so we won’t be able to see if the poem is balanced or not until it’s completed. We can begin thinking about working toward something, though, as a poem takes shape.
What do you mean by “take shape”?
As you write a poem, try to think of the shape of the poem as it’s forming. I don’t mean how the text interrupts the blank space on the page - but rather how the movement of the poem changes: From where has the poem come? To where is the poem going? If nothing happens, if your poem doesn’t move or change, you’re not doing your work as a poet. Art is about conflict - and a good poem is like an argument. Yeats wrote “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” (*) A poem is a poet’s argument with himself - and in a good poem, we often believe that it’s the poet who loses.
The monkey is in the air shaft.
That’s it for this installment. In my next article, we’ll look at some do’s and don’t’s of writing poetry - there are, of course, no rules - but there are some guidelines that will help get you going faster. As they say, there’s no need to re-invent Coca-Cola ™ - learn from other people’s mistakes.
Yeats, William Butler. “Per Amica Silentia Lunae.” The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats: Volume V, Later Essays. Ed. William H. O’Donnell. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. Originally published, 1917.
About the Author
Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of this here web site, an online poetry resource for the refugees of academia. In his spare time he delights in his condition.