Poetry Writing Tips
Poetry writing is a craft – an art or skill acquired with much time and effort. To help you get started, I will discuss very briefly some writing tips that can help you get that poem out of your mind unto the pages of your blank paper. As a practicing poet who enjoys writing poetry, and also having a deep interest in poetry as an academic study, my relative experience garnered over the years as a young writer may help you with any avoidable difficulties you might experience in creating poems
For the young and new poet who wants to develop and improve his craft, you will find these tips very handy. Of course, it is important to note that not all these tips will apply to any single individual. They are only general guidelines or ideas, not a list of must-do rules, Experience has shown me that rules can terribly hinder creativity and kill originality. Just use the ones that work for you, either as a student working on a poetry writing assignment, or a poet who hopes to become published in a book!
Tip 1: A Poem with Only 5 Great Lines should be 5 Lines Long
Every single word you use in your poem should be for a good reason. It must not just be there to satisfy the poetic urge in you, but to contribute indispensably to the overall meaning of the work. To write successful poems, you must be as economical and concise as possible, and a good way of avoiding the unhelpful waste of words in your poem is to….
Tip 2: try using everyday language
When you write, don’t try to sound like a poet by using every big word you can find in the dictionary! In poetry, we use everyday language, but in an extraordinary manner through seeing things in new ways. Remember, simplicity helps you communicate more effectively with your readers, but verbosity and obscurantism simply throw your readers into confusion. I have found, over the years, learnt that a great way you can avoid this amateurish sound-like-a-poet syndrome is that…
Tip 3: whenever you want to write poetry, never allow yourself to be too conscious about it
When you sit down to write, write at a time and place conducive for your creative mind. Write whatever comes to your mind since this is your first draft written at the “moment of creation”. This is why it is important that you free your mind as much as you can rather than trying to be too rational at this point. Of course, because your first draft is never going to be your final work, except you don’t want to be a writer, your imagination is fired up to a very high level. But to come up with the masterpiece you so much desire, this is where you get to the crucial stage of…
Tip 4: re-writing, re-writing and re-writing
You have just got the worst poem you have ever written in your life out on paper! Good, just what you need to write a masterpiece! Do not restrain yourself, else you will hinder your creativity and cut the wings of your imagination. A poem is rarely completed or perfected the first time. Even after publishing, some writers still feel one or two poems could have been better. In your first draft, you most probably have clichés here and there, with lots of pretentious diction. This is a good material that needs re-writing. Re-writing your poem over and over again is what the craft of poetry writing is really made of. So take another look at your poem and start editing. It is advised that once you have completed the initial draft of your poem, leave the piece for a few days or even over a week, after which you then come back to it with a fresh and unattached look. It is a great way of editing in the re-write stage!
If it must take 50 terrible poems before you can put together one great poem, the earlier you get started, the better for you, your work, and your readers. Often times, I have had to write a single poem having over 30 preceding generations spanning weeks or months! But to avoid a time wasting and energy sapping situation where you end up feeding a stillborn child (your poem) in the name of re-writing, you must always be prepared to…
Tip 5: free the work like a bird and let it go!
If it is worth anything, it will certainly fly back to you; but if it doesn’t return, just say ‘good riddance to bad rubbish!’ and start writing again. I cannot keep a count of a number of my first drafts that have completely found their way into the rubbish bin because I could not squeeze any creative juice out of it in the re-writing stage. So don’t be afraid to write a terrible poem – I am sure your greatest mentors, probably Leopold Senghor, Gabriel Okara, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Kofi Anyidoho, Niyi Osundare, mention them – have all written bad poems before painstakingly coming up with their great poetry! Letting bad poems go and starting an entirely new poem should not be too painful a thing to bear if you…
Tip 6: enjoy the writing experience!
Often, I have come across some writers who feel writing is a job that must be done within a specific time! Try seeing writing as a gift, hobby or passion, not as an exhaustive project with deadlines. Don’t get me wrong. As a writer, I take my writing very seriously and dedicate lots of time and energy to make it work, but not without setting a limit for myself so that I don’t hinder the smooth flow of creativity in me. If you get bored with your work while writing, it is most certain that your readers will be too bored with the piece you have created in boredom!
To help you enjoy the writing experience, I will give you an idea of what may be hindering the enjoyment and pleasure that poetry writing should provide: I have noticed that most poets who try to express themselves in a “language of the common man” so as to make their poetry accessible to a wider audience do not largely enjoy writing, compared to the writer who write first and foremost for his/her own creative expression. This is because while the former group would have to focus much more attention on the message in his work, the latter mainly focuses on the language. And in-between these two groups are those poets who are able to use imaginative languages that also communicate the intended meaning or message to the reader. Christopher Okigbo did not become one of the finest poets in Africa – nor did Wole Soyinka win the Nobel Laureate in 1986 – for writing in the “language of the common man”. Many writers who do rarely get the attention of critics whose job it is to essentially place writers’ language within established literary traditions and perhaps explore the themes – still in the context of the language used – rather than helping to pass messages to the people. Those who do so rarely get any attention, and if you ever get any attention, it is very likely to be the kind you won’t enjoy.
If you feel that your message is more important than the language, try using non-fictional means to get it across – articles for instance. After all, it is generally accepted that poetry does not sell! So if you must enjoy writing, use comparisons, inferences, and suggestions, such as similes, metaphors, personifications, symbolisms, allusions, alliterations, onomatopoeia, assonance (I am enjoying this already!) etc. It is when you enjoy the writing experience that you can simply…
Tip 7: write as often as you can
That is what I keep doing as a writer – always scribbling down something on sheets of paper, on my palms or in my phone’s notebook. This is why you should have a notebook at all times to enable you put your ideas down immediately they come to you often when you are not even thinking about it! Ideas go just as fast as they often come, like the beaming wings of fireflies in the dark. But rather than waiting for the next big idea in your closet and end up complaining about “writer’s block”,…
Tip 8: get yourself out in the street!
If you are stuck for ideas, carry a notebook anywhere you go and writer down your observations. Just keep your eyes and ears open so that you are always alert to any sense stimulators around you. Also, work out the time of the day when you are at your most creative moment. For many writers, it is the first thing in a fresh morning, or late at night when everything has gone to sleep with their daily demands. For me, I find that I am neither here nor there – night and day have become merged as far as writing is concerned. But count me out when it is too hot in the day, and too late in the night, except I am just typing my work, which also provide me the opportunity to take a mechanical look at what that Senator has written! But after getting ideas from the street, don’t commit creative suicide by sounding like one who just took a time-travel to the 16th century. So what you must do is…
Tip 9: forget about Shakespeare, carve your own voice!
When you sit down to write a poem, don’t bother your head about trying to sound like Shakespeare or any of the 16th century English poets for rhymes, rhythm and all that! This often chokes your creativity, especially if you are a beginner. What is much more important is to say what you want to say, and the free verse form is a nice way to start. Personally, I am not the poetry-must-rhyme-to-be-good-poetry type. Of the over 200 poems I have written over the years, I don’t think I have written up to five poems that rhyme!
Curiously though, when I started writing in my teenage years, I find that I enjoyed working with rhymes and sometimes even rhythm – and this is also true with many beginners – perhaps sound in poetry has a greater influence on us at a younger age, while content is more of the focus as we grow older. Partly, I think this was what Reeves was talking about when she said that poetry was popular with children because at that stage it was all sweet-sounding nursery rhymes, but as they grow older they begin to ask questions which border on the logic of content, which has now make poetry largely unpopular. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that only amateurs write poetry that rhymes, but trying to lay emphasis on how influential the sound of poetry can musically appeal to many. So if you must rhyme, do it nicely and effortlessly, even if lots of time and energy went into it. And whether you rhyme or not, if you ever start yawning tiredly without making any headway, just…
Tip 10: forget about it!
Sometimes, you try so hard to get to work but nothing comes out of it! For forget about writing for a while, and get on to something else. You can always get back to writing again when you are not so hardened up. For me, when a particular work begins to make me feel tired, I have since begun to accept it calmly because to me it is an automatic beep that tells me it is time to revisit another stubborn work that I had left earlier (maybe days ago) to finally reveal itself to me, or at least, get closer to the revelation. But for the student, please do not get your mind off the poem – to help you, you can have a deadline at the termination of which you must have come up with the poem you have been asked to write, most probably as an assignment from the classroom.
This article is an excerpt from a recently completed book, Complete Poetry: for Students and Writers written by the poet and author, Senator Ihenyen.