What are some tips for teaching someone how to write poetry?

Poetry or verse?

Since the advent of Walt Whitman the need for a poem to exhibit rhyme or meter has waned; today just about anything at all will pass.

“Anything at all” isn’t something to teach. A teacher should help the student realize that poetry is powerful language, is economical, and expresses feelings or ideas that:

•are profound

•use powerful language

•use direct, simple words work very well (less is more)

•express profound ideas in novel ways

•express novel ideas in profound ways

•express powerful emotions – but never in a sloppy way

Getting there takes a long, long time. An aspiring poet should plan to keep improving for life.

Think first – run a topic around the little quarter-mile track in your brain, each angle of an idea like a stride, until it’s been around and is getting sweaty. Let it cool off, and do that to it again tomorrow. Run lots of these things around your track every day.

VERSE?  = = = = =

If your student wants to attempt meter and rhyme, a gentle start is fine, but if the student is serious, only smooth, glistening surfaces should pass muster. So-called half-rhyme or relaxed meter or varying foot count are all fine, IF AN ONLY IF something about them perfectly fits the emotion or narration in the poem.

Get a rhyming dictionary and ask Uncle Google to tell you everything he knows about the types of ‘feet’ used in formal verse. Learn what iambic pentameter is – in Shakespeare’s day every line of every play came in iambic pentameter. From this your student should infer that iambic pentameter is close to ideal for English.  Sometimes the lines might also rhyme, such as when the playwright wants to hold up a bright light and say, “LOOK – my character REALLY FEELS this!” or “PAY ATTENTION HERE.”

How to get a running start – pick a meter, such as iambic, and practice writing everything you can think of to write – a letter to your kindergarten teacher, long years ago and probably unable to remember you despite the impression this teacher made on your psyche – summarize the argument for an against some political position, write a letter to the editor, state you seven most personally held beliefs – just anything at all. Only focus on saying it in meter.

It’s like doing drills for a sport, pumping iron in the gym, learning a new dance step – just keep at it until you realize you do it even when you’re not trying.

Now write a poem using that meter and a set number of feet per line. THIS will make you not just use meter but count feet.

Finally take your poem and look for ways to stuff in rhymes. It isn’t automatic, and can drive you nuts. Just pump it!

Word of advice – do NOT think of rhymes ahead of time – you will wind up using trivial dodges; you work will shout KINDERGARTEN at you when you read it back.

Final word of advice – say you’ve written four lines, with 1 and 3 rhyming but 4 just refuses to rhyme with 2. – What to do? Rewrite line 2.


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