10 Poetry Writing Tips For Young and New Poets

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.


The Fishermen, the Fishes and the Fishing Nets in New Nigerian Poetry

The Fishermen, the Fishes and the Fishing Nets in New Nigerian Poetry by Senator Ihenyen

an Insight

“If a publisher is unwilling to take your manuscript, it is perhaps the script is not good enough. You should not run to the local printer, pay him because you believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, look for somebody else who also believes in you, and can tell you the truth. That yes, you are a good writer, you have the potentials but these are flaws in your writing.” – Prof. Dan Izevbaye on the eve of announcing the Nigeria Literature Prize, 2009.

For too long, the new generation of Nigerian writers, particularly poets, have been continually criticised for stubbornly producing poor works, which according to our literary critiques, do not deserve any attention. The degenerating generation of new writers are accused of being ‘too much in a hurry’ to get published and consequently compromising publishing standards. In turn, the ‘children of globalisation’ are quick to point accusing fingers at the publishers, particularly the long-established, for robbing Peter (neglecting new creative works by new writers) to pay Paul (publishing established authors and educational titles). Has anyone got anything to say about this degeneration? Of course, everyone in the book industry in Nigeria does!

The publishers claim that if they are to stay in business new writers must be seen as a big risk, while the literary critics seem to be saying that new writers must be rightly starved to death since their largely poor works do not feed their literary hunger for great literature. Usually too glad to see that the go-it-alone new authors are paying the price for sidetracking professional editing services, the editors are always quick to nod their heads in agreement with the critics! Down the book-chain, the booksellers say that because Nigerians have a poor reading culture, literary books don’t even sell anymore! And what has the book reader got to say (if they still read at all based on what the booksellers hare saying)? The book reader says literary books are not available in the bookstores; and when they rarely are, they are not affordable; and when they are rarely affordable, they are not accessible; and when again they are accessible, they are not good literature like it used to be in the Soyinka days! On their part, literary journalists are making headlines to the effect that literary critics who continue their endless romance with Soyinka, Okara, Clark, Osundare and the other lucky few without a look at new writers are to blame. Phew! Or have you got something to say as well?

But in the same vein, literary critics who are from the Soyinka generation are wondering why there is a scarcity of critics from the same generation that has been ‘too much in a hurry’ to produce works. They believe that with the wild and wide sea of new Nigerian writers, waves of fresher and younger literary critics who are better placed to do the job considering ‘age and energy’ should come with it! According to Nnolim, ‘…younger critics are lazy. I called them lazy because when we were younger, we wrote about Achebe, Soyinka; these were the icons of Literature in the 1970s and 1980s…’ The accusing fingers in contemporary Nigerian literature, particularly poetry, are endless! Faced with this situation, the young and upcoming Nigerian writer has become even more confused: running to Lulu and others for self-publishing, or worse still paying a roadside printer, or more honourably taking Nigerian literature abroad! The consequences have been simply dimensional: the good, the bad and the ugly.

There have always been poor works –no doubt – even Soyinka’s generation did not lack it. The critical issue is fishing out good works for publishing. And unfortunately, we presently lack, largely, good fishing nets in the literary industry spread out by good and experienced fishermen to catch good fishes. To extend this metaphor a bit further, those long-established and experienced publishers in Nigeria who are the fishermen with good fishing nets have refused to spread their nets further into the sea of new writers because the new fishes are easily caught in water but not easily sold on land. So they hunt for big ones found deeper ashore – they find the very big Achebe, Soyinka, Okara and other lucky giants. Also, newer and less experienced publishers, with little nets go fishing in the same water, not for the Soyinkas, but for other fishes with some pedigree and great potentials to become bigger with a little fish-feed (they probably caught me). And once in a while, you find some ‘fishermen’ without out nets at all, desperately jump into water to catch the fishes at shore, usually small (probably you this time), while many are not fishes at all, but fish-looking frogs fanning their fins (probably who?)! But in the same sea, many fishes are left behind. And in frustration, they soon become ‘too much in a hurry’ to get out, thinking a literary life anywhere but in unfulfilling water was going to be better – they jump out of water unto land! However, they soon die for want of water – the self-publishing author who keeps travelling around with the unsold copies of his book in a certain travelling bag that is always heavy (yes, he must have arrived at your destination by now with a bent back)! Please, buy his book before he departs, else you might be forced to pay more during his funeral after years of no reward for intellect in a country that ‘does not have a reading culture’.

Not every fish must be big when caught. Achebe was a small fish when the fisherman called Heinemann caught him with their fishing net, African Writers Series. One rarely finds a ready made fish except that fish has since been caught and fed by another fisherman who was nurturing him for the bigger market, but one way or the other found himself in the sea again, bigger but still fresh. So the question is do we still have fishermen who have good fishing nets? Not whether there are fishes or too many of them, or there are fish-feigning frogs in this very wide sea of Nigerian writers. Everyone wants be the big fish, but not everyone has fed well. I am not quite comfortable with a situation where Nigerian writers are stoned whenever another bad work ends up in the book stands. In Law, we usually say nemo judex in causa sua (no one can be a judge in his own course). Writers cannot themselves set literary standards to measure their works for the purpose of validating themselves for recognition. The reason we have what we usually describe as ‘too many writers’ is because there is no standard in the industry to separate the boys from the men, as there will always be boys if there must be men. The young shall grow is the instructive message here, but of course many have died and still dying from the impoverished literary industry, causing us future Achebes, Okigbos, Soyinkas, Ben Okri, Osundares and many others. Perhaps, the way to go for young Nigerian writers is to stick to Prof. Izevdaye’s advice: “If a publisher is unwilling to take your manuscript, it is perhaps the script is not good enough. You should not run to the local printer, pay him because you believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, look for somebody else who also believes in you, and can tell you the truth. That yes, you are a good writer, you have the potentials but these are flaws in your writing.”

To accuse Nigerian writers for falling below standards does not show that we appreciate the situation on ground. It is tantamount to stoning the victim, rather than apprehending the predatory monster in Nigerian literature. Isn’t it the same Nigerian writers who go ahead to win the Cadbury Poetry and Gabriel Okara Prizes, including the more prestigious Nigeria Literature Prize? Please, don’t remind me that the judges keep complaining about the entries and consequently warning us about that time in the future when the prize will no more be awarded for lack of deserving works, making us understand that even the legendary Gabriel Okara and the late Ezenwa Ohaeto were a compromise, not the ideal NLNG winners! But I sense that some of us possibly lack faith in local prizes after all and would rather allow foreigners choose our canons for us, deciding what will be our national literature, our culture and heritage. Well, isn’t it the same Nigerian writers who get the Nobel Laureate, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Prize, and other prestigious international prizes, making us greatly ahead of other African counties?

According to Nnolim, and I fully agree with the critic, the fall in standards is the purple patch in Nigerian literature, not the writers. In other words, Nigerian writers churning out bad works by the day is a symptom of the disease that our society has been infected with, not the disease itself as we tend to think. Contrary to the public opinion on this issue, it is my considered view that Nigerian writers, young or old, new or established, fledging or flying, beginner or finisher, should be greatly applauded for keeping literature alive against all odds! But to ask them set standards for their own creative works would be demanding for too much! Nigerian writers cannot set the standard for their own works, because they cannot be a judge in their own course. There are others such as publishers and literary critics who are better placed to judge us. We are only fishes, or probably frogs feigning to be fishes by fanning our fins in water, it is left for the fishermen to caste their fishing nets into the sea of writers, if they have any in the first place. But whether they go for big fishes or not, many fins are already swimming towards the land. It is there struggle to survive out of water that we see as a strange dance in Nigerian literature. And when they eventually die for lack of water on the literary land, usually so, we hurriedly perform the post mortem. And since post mortems are meant to trace the cause of death, and not grounds for life, everything ends there. The fishermen, the fishes and the fishing nets become another cycle of a degenerating generation, not the ‘wasted’.

©Senator Ihenyen 2009