Writing Effective Poetry

Posted on

Poetry Defined:

Poetry, which can be deceptively simple in sound and vary in length from a few words to a full-sized book, requires far more understanding, creativity, and technique to write than prose. In form, its line endings, departing from conventional layout, do not need to extend to the right margin. Characterized by the three pillars of emotion, image, and music, it can, but does not necessarily have to, incorporate alliteration, metaphor, simile, repetition, rhythm, meter, and rhyme. Above all, form, as opposed to content, differentiates the genre from all others. While prose is read, paced, and interpreted by means of punctuation and sentence structure, poetry achieves a significant amount of interpretive value through them.

“Poems are not merely things that we read, but also things that we see,” wrote John Strachan and Richard Terry in their book, “Poetry: An Introduction” (New York University Press, 2000, p. 24). We are aware at a glance whether a poem is written in a regular or irregular form, whether its Ines are long or short, whether the verse is continuous or stanzaic… Many (poets) have fashioned works that expressly aim to draw the reader’s attention to their visuality.”

They continue by stating that poetry is “language set in lines which manifest a measurable sound-pattern evident in varying degrees of regularity,” (ibid, p. 11.)

While poetry is not necessarily easy to define, several writers have captured its essence. “Poetry is the school I went to to learn to write prose,” wrote Grace Paley for example. “Everyone starts out as a poet,” echoed William Stafford. “The real question is why do most people stop?” “The poet cannot fail to show us, for he proves instantly, that we have never learned to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see,” pointed out John Ciardi. “It is the business of the artist to make the commonplace marvelous,” philosophized Leon Garfield. And “above all, we ask the poet to teach us a way of seeing, lest one spend a lifetime on this planet without noticing how green light flares up as the setting sun rolls under, or the gauzy spread of the Milky Way on a star-loaded summer night,” wrote Diane Ackerman.

The need for any creation emanates from the writer’s inner core and requires a varying length of gestation before it is ready to take root on paper. He then waters it with words, allowing it to sprout and grow to maturity before the reader is ready to pluck its flowers and enjoy its fruit in what is nothing short of a cross-pollination process.

“My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and that he does it without destroying anything else,” John Updike once shared. “That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy.”

When a writer becomes so immersed in feeling, often the only way he can extricate himself from it is to capture it on paper in poetry form, enabling him to transfer it to the reader in the process. Although, like other art forms, its value can only be determined by the interpretation of it, and the impression of it left on, the reader, the purpose, in the end, is the soul-to-soul transfer from originator, or writer, to recipient, or reader.

“In good poetry, we get a strong sense of the poet’s self, but instead of being an ordinary or spontaneous (one), it is usually an improved self, a depersonalized (one),” wrote David Kirby in “Writing Poetry: Where Poems Come from and How to Write them” (The Writer, Inc., 1988, pp. 10-11.) “Most great art is an improved version of what already exists, beginning with the writer’s own personality.”

Contrasted with prose, poetry not only relates stories and shares feelings, it adopts sound and shape, and can encompass forms that vary between free-verse and the sonnet.

“Poetry is not the things said, but a way of saying it,” A. E. Housman once stated.

“… Poetry is a specialized use of language, different than prose,” according to Mary Elizabeth in “Painless Poetry” (Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 2001, p. 3). “(It) is able to capture and convey things that prose cannot, and poetry works through emotions, not just through thoughts.”

Poetry Structure:

While prose is shaped by phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections, and pages, with appropriate grammar and punctuation, poetry can assume several forms, depending upon the writer’s intent, and these can augment the work’s effect, purpose, and sound.

Its layout offers its visual image and organization in terms of character style and size on a given page. Sometimes assuming pictogram form, it appears with a distinct shape, such as an hourglass, a diamond, or a tail.

Its lines are the basic building blocks.

“Lines can be either long or short,” according to Elizabeth (ibid, p. 177). “The choice of line length opens up some possibilities and limits others. Short lines are more useful for expressing pithy observations and lend themselves to sentence fragments and elliptical expression. Long lines can handle intricate stories, philosophical discussions, and compound-complex sentences.”

An “end-stopped line” indicates that the phrase or sentence ends at or before the right margin has been reached, while “enjambment” means that it wraps around and continues on the next line.

Lines are grouped into stanzas, which provide additional, sub-divisional visualization and are separated by white space or skipped lines themselves. They generally share the same line length, rhyme scheme, and poetic meter.

Stanzaic Forms:

Stanza length varies according to the number of lines. A couplet, for example, is a pair of linked lines, also known as “verses,” which usually end in rhyme. Similarly, a tercet, which can also be considered a “triplet,” consists of three successive, rhyme-based lines, and its four-line counterpart is the quatrain. Five-, six-, seven-, and eight-line stanzas are respectively designated “quintrain,” “sextet,” “septet,” and “octet.”

Compositional Aspects:

Although poetry can incorporate some literary techniques that can be considered prose-traditional, it also offers many unique to it.

Word order, first and foremost, can be anything but conventional. Positioning certain ones at the beginning or the end of a line, for example, may be deliberately done to highlight them and facilitate the work’s meter and rhyme.

Like the pieces of poetry jigsaw puzzles, words themselves must fit into small literary spaces, carry their maximum weight, and be assembled in a way that will enhance meaning, sight, sound, and sense.

Rhyme, the near-occurrence of two words that contain a repetition of the final vowel sound and have the same final consonant, may be most associated with the poetry genre and certainly facilitate flow and rhythm, but it is by no means a mandatory compositional element and does not necessarily need to share the same spelling to achieve. The words “bow” and “trough,” for instance, differ in spelling, but nevertheless rhyme. Overuse of this technique can become forced, artificial, and stilted.

While prose employs the same vocabulary, phrases, sentences, idioms, and even figurative language, it avoids rhyme, because it can be distracting, deviating reader attention from meaning to sound. It can be equally anti-creative if it requires an unusual word order in poetry to attain.

On the positive side, however, it can establish a sound pattern that can almost reach music-accompanying levels and can be very appealing to the ear. It equally facilitates the understanding of children’s poetry, as in “Jack and Jill went up the hill.”

Other benefits include the organizational principle of the stanza, since its configuration depends upon its rhyme schemes. It provides the expectation or anticipation of a sound’s repetition, and hones the poet’s skill to convey meaning, maintain patterning, and identify the needed words to maintain the rhyme.

Rhymes can occur at the beginning (initial rhyme), the middle (medial rhyme), or end (end rhyme) of sentences.

In the case of four-line stanzas, they can occur in “aabb” or “abab” patterns-that is, the words either mimic the sound of that in the previous or alternating line.

Regularity of sound effect, another principle difference between poetry and prose, is called “rhythm.” With the exception of free-verse, most poetic forms feature consistent patterning.

“… Meter, (another genre-specific element), is a specific form of rhythm, and might best be defined as the measurable sound pattern evident, in varying degrees of regularity, in a line of poetry,” according to Strachan and Terry (op. cit., p. 75).

“According to your point of view, meter, (the basic pattern of stresses in a given line), is either a welcome structural discipline or a cumbersome straight jacket,” they continue (ibid, p. 111). It was for the latter reason that free-verse increased in popularity.

Poetry does share several literary techniques with standard prose, the first of which is sensory imagery. If often begins with a work’s sight and sound, and then moves through the other three senses of taste, touch, and smell to increase its emotional imprint, as the poet transfers his experience to the reader.

“All experience comes to us through our senses,” according to Strachan and Terry (ibid, p. 138). “We may later apply our minds and hearts to it, but it enters our consciousness through the senses. Details that appeal to one or more (of them) are called sensory details. Extended description of a scene with attention to sensory detail is imagery.”

Another prose-poetry-shared element is symbolism. By causing one figure, image, or concept to represent another, the poet can evoke numerous associations in the reader’s mind. A color, for example, can represent several emotions, while a cross can symbolize religion.

Metaphor, yet another device, compares one item with another, but is not literally taken, as in “She’s burning with desire.”

A simile is, ironically, similar, except that it uses words such as “like” and “as” in its comparison. “She ran from the explosion like a banshee,” for instance.

Because the phonological dimension of poetry, sometimes achieved through alliteration, is a significant distinguishing characteristic, it is another important technique.

“The word ‘alliteration’ is used… to mean the consonant of adjacent or closely related words with the same sound or letter,” advise Strachan and Terry (ibid, p. 51), and creates the pattern of sound in a poem.

Onomatopoeia entails employing a word which imitates the sound of the animal, object, or action described, such as “crackle,” “hiss,” “bonk,” “plop,” and “ruff.”

Personification, the final element, involves giving an animal, an object, or something in nature one or more human attributes, as in “The tree bent over and wept.”

Poetry Elements:

There are several other elements that poetry can share with prose.

Setting, the first of these, is the environment, location, or atmosphere in which the poem takes place and can run the gambit from the physical setting to historical and social-cultural ones.

Characters are the second.

“A character is someone who acts, chooses, reflects, or feels, or is addressed or referred to in a poem,” according to Elizabeth (op. cit., p. 28). “One important character in every poem is the speaker-the person, real or imaginary, through whose mind and heart we experience reality as we read the poem. This may or may not be the point.”

While poems can illustrate settings, feelings, experiences, thoughts, characters, or images, they sometimes incorporate a purposeful plot.

“… Action on the part of one or more characters who are attempting to gain an expected and desired conclusion (can encompass the poem’s plot),” Elizabeth continues (ibid, p. 43). “A character who is at the center of a plot is often referred to as the protagonist.”

Compared to plot, the work’s theme, another element, is its central thought, not its subject. Since many do not have clearly defined ones, they may be subjected to reader interpretation. Other poems that are written for the purpose of expression about feelings and emotions may have none at all.

Mood, still another element, is usually tied to setting.

Finally, tone is the attitude with which something is written, expressed by means of pitch, volume, and voice inflection.

Poetry Types:

Poem types, which vary according to length, line, stanza, structure, rhyme, meter, and rhythm, are numerous, but perhaps the most ubiquitous one incorporates no structure or scheme at all-that of free-verse.

“Most of the poems that are being written today are not characterized primarily by rhyme or a fixed metrical scheme or a set number of lines,” advises Kirby (op. cit., p. 5).

Perhaps the most similar to prose, they allow the writer to express whatever he feels or whatever he needs to relate in an unrestricted manner, determining line and stanza length.

The list poem, another type that is relatively easy to pen, is one of the oldest. Comprised, as its designation suggests, of pertinent, cohesive, non-rhyming lines about people, places, passions, and interests relevant to the poet’s life, it appears in a patterned, repetitive format, with the last entry particularly strong or important. It affords him experience in sequencing. Simple, yet powerful, it provides an easy threshold into poetry writing, especially because the beginning of each line (the list itself) is identical, as in “When I have time, I love to read. When I have time, I love to meditate… “

Important elements include the order of the list, specificity of naming and identifying ideas, careful word selection, and use of as many of the five senses as possible, if relevant.

Other types include the narrative poem, which is a story related by the speaker or the narrator in verse form, enabling him to recount a sequence of events. The ballad and the epic poem are specific forms of the narrative.

A dramatic poem is one in which characters speak and enact a scene, similar to that which occurs in traditional prose. If only a single character is involved, he attempts, through dramatic monologue, to reveal something about himself to the reader.

The lyric poem, another type, traces its origins to works that were once audibly spoken and accompanied by the play of a lyre-hence explaining their name. Because the instrument was no longer a necessary element after they were written down, they nevertheless retained their own musical quality. Usually short in nature, they featured high emotional content, lending themselves to love poems.

The sonnet consists of 14 lines, usually featuring ten syllables per line, and can assume several formal rhyme schemes.

Poetry Writing Guidelines:

Because poetry is a creative process and emanates more form the heart than the head, any guidelines that direct its composition can only be intellectually organizational in nature. Nevertheless, there are many that may prove useful.

“Only shallow people and charlatans begin with perfect knowledge of what it is they mean to say,” suggests Kirby (ibid, p. 17). “An honest writer begins in ignorance and writes his way toward the truth.”

This is to say that the poet may not necessarily be aware on the conscious level what seeks to escape and solidify itself through the channel of writing until the first stroke of his pen jars the door. Like clay to a sculptor, words allow it to take form for the poet.

The seed for any literary work can either spring from within-that is, by the inspiration that touches the soul-or without, by some observation or experience that the author feels must be processed and expressed.

He should pair an effective title to his piece, since it provides purpose and direction to it.

He may wish to tackle small, limited-focus ideas and then, with increasing experience, expand them to include larger, more-encompassing themes and concepts, such as love or the meaning of life. He may wish to take s snippet of memory, a dream fragment, or even a sentence he overheard and use them as his thresholds to creativity. Its details will assuredly follow.

The purpose of poetry can be dual-directional-that is, if the writer seeks to capture and explore an internal feeling or emotion, the poem may be more for his own benefit. If, on the other hand, he endeavors to relate an incident, a story, or make a statement, this outward focus will be to reach and convey these aspects to his readers.

Free-verse may provide the easiest entry into poetic expression and serve as the stepping stone to something more structured as he amasses experience, if he so desires. If, on the other hand, he wishes to employ a rhyming scheme, he should ensure that his capability is sufficient so that he does not sacrifice the ideas he wishes to express for nursery rhyme sound.

He should also use line structures, whose length is either self- or poetic form-determined,; employ sentences instead of isolated images; include standard usage instead of combining words, creating new ones, or devising new spellings for existing ones; and use concrete language.

The poem’s subject may not necessarily be directly stated or, in the case of feelings, may not have any at all. Poetry usually emanates from and extends to, respectively, the writer’s and reader’s hearts, not intellect. Every word must pull its weight by conveying meaning, yet sound is an integral part of a poetic piece.

The writer should describe things with a fresh or unique approach, as if he were seeing them for the first time, and can be particularly effective if the standard situations were reversed-in other words, instead of illustrating how a person lives life, the work can describe how life seems to be living the person, as if he were a puppet, victim, or bystander to it all. Or, as an extension of these, he should subvert the ordinary, using perspective and creativity to take the mundane and twist it or turn it upside down.

Depending upon the poem, he may wish to enhance it with rhythm, rhyme, meter, sensory imagery, metaphor, simile, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and personification.

Above all, he should never forget that poetry is expression through sound and that sound should appeal to the reader’s ear.


Haiku, a compact, descriptive form of ancient Japanese poetry intended to be read in a single breath, traditionally entails nature and the senses, but can focus on the tinniest of elements, such as a blade of grass or a drop of dew. Nevertheless, it still delivers a message.

“One of the most popular forms of syllabic poetry is haiku, a Japanese form that sounds very simple: one line of five syllables, one line of seven syllables, and a final line of five syllables,” according to Elizabeth (op. cit., p. 275). “But there are some rules that characterize (it). It is made of fragments. It speaks of everyday things, using concrete language. It makes (usually indirect) reference to a season. Much is left unsaid. It presents material in the present tense.”

The following haiku can be used to illustrate its many elements. “Department stores dark. Unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning with delight.”

Aside from its standard five-seven-five syllabic structure, it consists of two components-a short one, which can be considered its fragment, and a longer one, which can be considered its phrase.

“The Japanese write their haiku in one line in order to clearly see its parts,” according to Jane Reichhold in her article, “Bare Bones School of Haiku. “In English, each part is given a line. This allows the reader time to form an image in the mind before the eyes go back to the left margin for more words. The line breaks also act as a type of punctuation.”

The second element is the break between the fragment and the phrase, whose order is interchangeable, allowing the phrase to precede the fragment. In this case, the break between the two becomes the silent hinge, enabling the reader to pause and establish the connection, association, or contrast between the two. Here, the dark department store becomes the contrastive image to its once-bustling one when it provided the origin of the gifts that are unwrapped with delight on Christmas, or the location to which the activity has shifted. The two images pivot off of each other.

The silent break serves to provide a sudden enlightenment or illumination, as in, “Ah, they’re enjoying their gifts, so the department store is still and quiet and served its purpose toward that end.”

Michael Dylan Welch, Adjunct Professor for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, once stated, “The poem gains its energy by the intuitive or emotional leap that occurs in the space between the poem’s two parts, in the gap of what’s deliberately left out… “

Although not always present, especially as haiku poetry assumes more modern form, the “kigo,” or season word, another element, implies, but does not necessarily state, the time of the poem’s action, leaving it to reader imagination and interpretation. Because of its compactness, less is more in the literary form. “Christmas” serves that purpose in the previous poem.

Sensory imagery can be considered haiku’s engine.

“Aside from the words any writer would use, his five senses become the most important tools he has for haiku creation, and haiku poetry should be the result of what the author has experienced and not what he thinks,” Reichhold continues (ibid). “As a literary form, it heavily relies upon the images the reader can see and experience as a result of the written text.

“In order to be most effective, the reader should avoid using adjectives and adverbs and gravitate toward simplicity-that is, he should avoid telling the reader what he or she should be thinking and instead provide a directional path that recreates the one the author’s mind has followed, leading him to the same emotional destination.”

Another important haiku element is its interactivity, the shared experience between writer and reader as if it is presently occurring and not as if it already has. As a result, it is written in the present tense and omits the personal pronoun “I” to eliminate the author’s presence and creates a timeless feeling or emotion.

Instead of expressing how an image or scene made the writer feel, he illustrates the elements or aspects of it that evoked it, enabling the reader to share the experience. In essence, he says, “This is the winter scene that made me feel lonely. If I show it to you, you may feel that way too.””

Because of its fundamental make up, haiku poetry omits the definite and indefinite article, allowing the noun to stand alone, does not necessarily capitalize words, deviates from standard grammatical rules, and almost never rhymes.

Article Sources:

Elizabeth, Mary. “Painless Poetry.” Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 2001.

Kirby, David. “Writing Poetry: Where Poems Come from and How to Write Them.” Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1989.

Reichhold, Jane. “Bare Bones School of Haiku.”

Strachan, John, and Terry, Richard. “Poetry: An Introduction”. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *