Friday, November 20, 2009

Crafting Poetry


If you write poetry only for your own personal pleasure--as a way of recording your inner emotions, as therapy, as journaling technique--then please read no further. There is nothing at all wrong with that, and no one can tell you the "right" way to do it. You might, however, want to invest in a good lock for your diary.

If you have a fragile soul or a delicate ego, and you're going to bleed tears at the mere thought of your poems suffering rejection, please don't read this. Even great poets suffer rejection; most have enough rejection slips to wallpaper a small house. They toil in relative obscurity, recognizing that their passion is also hard work. Great poets don't let a little rejection stand in their way.

If you are serious about the art and craft of writing poetry, and hope some day to see your poems in print, then read on. You can, of course, circumvent the whole process and write me off as a crackpot - just go post your poems at and believe those nice folks when they tell you that you are one of the most promising poets to emerge in this decade. Shell out fifty bucks for the beautifully-bound coffee-table anthology and bask in your own glory. Pat yourself on the back, for you have arrived.

Still with me here? Good. Before you begin to write, let me strongly recommend that you not only devour a smorgasbord of great poetry, but that you have handy a good, unabridged rhyming dictionary such as The Complete Rhyming Dictionary: Including the Poet's Craftbook, Clement Wood (Editor), Revised by Ronald J. Bogus (Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1992; ISBN: 0440212057). This book is not just a rhyming dictionary; it contains valuable and digestible tips for crafting poems that have wide appeal and are a pleasure to read.

Is Poetry a Dead Language? Basic Do's and Don'ts for Today's Poet

Write in your own natural voice, using fresh language that speaks--or sings--to today's readers. Avoid archaic, outdated, or overly academic words. Run from weird, "poetical" contractions and mechanisms, such as "ne'er" or "ere" or "'gainst" - that is the mark of an amateur, desperately forcing language to conform to an unnatural meter or rhyme scheme. If you attempt to imitate Shakespeare (or anyone else, for that matter), you will sound ridiculous and your poems will appear contrived.

Remember that you are writing for others. If your poetry is full of poignant, sentimental thoughts, does it have universal appeal? Can your readers relate? Poetry that is too deeply personal, too full of "I" and replete with introspection, is generally not marketable poetry. If you are struggling with this, try eliminating the pronoun "I." Try stepping out of yourself; tell the tale as if lived by another, and see what happens. Imagine yourself as the uninvolved reader--what would it take to yank on your heartstrings or ignite your imagination to engage you fully in the poem?

Use words that appeal to and arouse strong emotions. Use words that invoke visual images. Compare the impact of "the night air, filled with the seduction of white ginger" to "the night air, filled with the scent of flowers". Avoid abstractions, such as "truth," "beauty," "freedom," "love," and so on. Be specific. Play with metaphor and simile, always being careful to avoid using allusions that have been done to death by others. How original is your poem if you write that something is as "red as a rose," or "white as snow"? How much emotion will that arouse? Pleasure, in reading poetry, comes from the unexpected. Let's see, "orange as the juicy center of a nectarine" or "black as slush" or "gray as snizzle" might work.

Play with words, but don't mangle or invert them to force-fit a rhyme scheme or metric pattern. Phrases such as "hit he him" are just glaringly distracting and unnecessary. Rework the whole idea, if necessary--choose new words, or choose a whole new rhyme scheme or metric pattern. Sometimes you've just got to let go. When you do, set it aside for a bit and trust that the words will flow again.

In Form, There is Freedom

Learn the basic fixed forms of poetry: the Sonnet, the Sestina, the Triolet, the Rondel, the Ballade, the Limerick, the Chain-Rhyme, the Haiku, the Tanka, and so on. Learning to write within the structural framework of the fixed forms gives you discipline and practice, and prepares you to invent your own rules and framework. I will be the first to admit that I don't fully understand the concepts of "blank verse" and "free verse," and cannot recall reading any that I enjoyed. Although that is a matter of personal taste, I still urge you to study formal verse and master several forms before flying without a net.

Poetry: Therapy or Art?

Ever read a poem that left you speechless? I mean, how can you comment on the utter turmoil of a human soul? When someone is laying their raw emotions out on the dock to dry, do you step over their supine form and say, "Gee, the meter's a little off, and 'angst' doesn't rhyme with 'dagger,' what the hell were you thinking?!" 'Cause you probably don't really want to know, and there are better ways to ask for a lesson in free verse. This is what I call...

Bleeding on the Page
by Holly Jahangiri

Teardrops of blue-black ink fall to the page.
Souls bleed in fourteen lines of tortured verse,
That limps along, five-footed, filled with rage.
What angst! How could it possibly get worse?
But worse it gets - for he's compelled to share,
As literature, the sorrow and the pain.
This solitary madness must ensnare
And captivate, and drive us all insane.
Oh, certainly to this we can relate -
Soul-sucking torment's siren call.
Let's just give in to cruel whims of fate,
Then, pen a poem! Entertain us all!
The poet shares the anguish in his heart;
Some turn away, but others call it art.


Holly Jahangiri is the author of the blog "It's All a Matter of Perspective". She is a professional writer, with 4 books to her name: Trockle, Dealing With the Demon and nine other stories , Mood Swings (A Collection of Poems), and her most recently released book - A Puppy, Not a Guppy.

I find Holly to be a head strong woman, who says what's in her mind candidly but is also a caring and loving friend. She's one of the bloggers that I respect a lot. Thanks, Holly for this guest post. Mabuhay ka!


  1. Thank you, Jena, for inviting me to be a guest writer in your blog. You do know how to make a fellow blogger and friend feel right at home!

  2. Wonderful insightful article. I think this will help many. I feel that writing is ultimatetly for us individually, and secondly for the world. Writing is another means of a messenger and it reaches new heights when it touches people in healing ways.

  3. I have struggled within the confines of poetry and tend to go off in my own direction. I think I will look into some of the different forms and pick one to practice each week. This could turn into a great writing exercise. =)

  4. Hello Holly,

    I've learned so much from your article. Indeed, very insightful. Your book of poetry is cool. I'd like to buy one eventually. And so with the trockle, etc.

    TC and All the best.

    N.B. Feel free to interact with the commentators. Thanks.

  5. Hello Anne,

    That's good. I've been into poetry too, even had a Jenanian poem to satisfy my whim, but I'm still learning, it's a lifetime struggle.

    All the best.

  6. Excellent post, Jena and Holly! And Holly, wow, what a well-crafted poem. I am very interested in learning to craft poetry. I didn't know I was until starting some writing exercises two months ago (that I've since put off for Nano and subsequently to move).

    I made a link to this article and will check back again early next year when I can start to pursue it again. I made a link to the book you recommended as well, since I have an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my wallet.

    One note, I do need to study the different forms per your suggestions. Mine always end up with the same irritating sound to them. I was reading Dr Seuss to my son the other night and it hit me that my Mom must have read a lot of Dr Suess to me as a child because that is the cadence I follow in my adult poetry. I don't want to do that anymore. :)

    I read a poem a month or so ago that made me cry. To this day I tear up even at the thought of it. Perhaps because I have a fair son myself. I would like to write like that someday.

    Here is a link to the poem, Peter Meinke's "Untitled":

  7. In form, there is freedom. Yes? Ah, when you've mastered them then you earn your freedom. Preposterous trashing the rules when one can't even claim some measure of mastery of these forms.

    Love your advice about using natural, contemporary language.

  8. Hi Heather,

    I liked the poem so much too. I hope I could compose poems "that" way. Holly composes poems in her own unique way.

    Some knowledge of the structured forms would be of great help, to establish her/his own form of poetry, or it would never be called a creative venture.

    Go, Go, heather, I can't wait for your poem. Good luck.

  9. Hello Jan,

    That's right, if you know the forms , then you can modify them according to your brand of creativity.

    Now, I hope you're inspired to write your own poem.

    Go, go, Jan.

  10. @Heather, have you read this one? This is my favorite contemporary poem, and every time I read it, I want to say to all the little boys out there - yes, it IS enough:

    "The Lanyard," by Billy Collins @

  11. It is a nostalgic poem for me. How often do we learn of mothers loving unconditionally. That's the perfect example of unconditional love - the mother's love.

    Thanks for sharing the poem.

  12. Holly,

    I agree with Holly for the most part but disagree in that we as poets should write for the audience. I think writing for any audience or particular publisher takes away from the genuineness and honesty of the piece. While I agree that "I" should never be injected into a poem, the feelings and emotions of the poet are of the utmost importance to a piece.
    It's got to be real or the reader will be turned off.

  13. I don't consider myself to be much of a poet, I write poetry but other than reading the classics and knowing basic structure (acrostic...etc) I don't really follow any form whatsoever.

    Poetry is an art, and like any art from painting to music it is subject to people's likes and dislikes, there will be critics who dislike what is written and there will be people who like it.

    You write poetry to express your own feelings, few people write poetry with the intention to make something interesting for the reader, it is meant to be an artistic expression.

    I agree though that people should not share their work if they are afraid or are going to be hurt by criticism and feedback, I have had my fair share of people telling me they didn't like some of my stuff, but I get maybe 1 negative for every hundred positive comments.

  14. Poetic Shutterbug, do you really think that it's impossible to be "real" and write for an audience at the same time? When you invite family and friends into your home for the holidays, are you less real than you are at other times? (Okay, maybe we're less inclined to double-dip straight out of the peanut butter jar, and maybe we don't drag out the "good" china on just any Wednesday night - but are those our finer moments, anyway?) I'm not saying we should pander to a particular audience or publisher, but my greatest satisfaction in writing is having an audience and enjoying their reactions to what I write. Certain themes and emotions are universal; what a writer ought to do is to show those themes and emotions in a fresh, concrete, imaginative way - if the symbolism is too intensely personal, and no connection is made with the reader, then I'm not sure what the point of writing - or at least publishing/sharing that writing - is.

  15. Speaking of forms, is there such a thing as a list poem? Ahehehe

    What makes poems special is the ease with which they plunge a dagger in your heart - and yet you live through it. Oddly, you feel invigorated even.

    Lends itself well to intimacy. And honesty. Of course, many poems out there are overheated meanderings. Some are virtual bonfire of mellifluous words heaped on top of each other and nothing more.

    But when we get lucky to stumble into one we sigh, pause, and sometimes make us wonder, what on earth I'm writing a blog post when I can very well try my hand at such magnificence rendering of experience?

  16. Hi Joan,

    I can see what you mean, but for me, I think it's possible to strike a balance between - totally expressing yourself, and thinking of your audience.

    When I started blogging, I never considered my audience , I wrote for myself. But eventually I realized, I will have to think of my audience too. Right now, I'm trying to strike a balance, between writing for myself and for the audience as well. If we can do that, then it would be wonderful.

  17. Hi Holly,

    Yes, having and audience and knowing that they react to what we write is fulfilling. It motivates us to create more and write more.

  18. Hi Jan,

    Yes, there is such a thing as "list poem".

    RRchard's poem , more or less fulfills that criteria.

    I, too am not aware of the other types of poems. There are hundreds of them.

    You should start writing your own. I look forward to reading one from you. Cheers!

  19. Hi Holly and Jena,

    Interesting and exciting post. When I started writing poetry, I only wrote for myself and for my crushes. I was still in elementary then. (Not so long ago LOL).

    Then, when I wanted my work to be read by other people, like in blogs, I realized that there is a bigger impact in things that the readers can relate. Like global warming, the weather, etc. Of course the more popular, love, religion, and sex are still there.

    I guess what I wanted to say is that poetry is an evolving craft. You can learn from the structures, make your own, and them go wild (maybe not too wild he he he).

    I am still learning poetry and because of interactions with bloggers/writers/poets such as you two, Justin, Joanne, and many more out there in the blogosphere, I think I have been honing my skills too and my craft has evolved from what it used to be.

    Always a pleasurable read Holly.

    Jen this is a wonderful guest post like most of your guest bloggers here at gewgaw (don't make me pronounce it in real life LOL)


  20. Hi Doc Z,

    As organized as ever - the doctor. You've described it aptly. Poetry is evolving. You glean lessons from everyone you come in contact with and sit down and create your own. Every poet has his own unique, creative style and I would like you to know, that your style resonates with me, among others.

    Keep writing and congrats on the NaNo. Will I make it? Now, I can't say yes.

    All the best.