Fun

Express Yourself

Pointers for aspiring poets.

Illustration by Emma D.

Writing poetry was one of the only things I liked about high school. Where other people saw an algebra class, I saw a private writing workshop. Ever since I was very young, I’ve wolfed down poetry like it was a delicious burrito, and I’ve been writing it for just as long. When I was about nine, I sent out stapled manuscripts of handwritten poems to the addresses I found in the front pages of books that I liked, thinking that the literary world would HOP AT THE CHANCE to publish my verses on household chores and science projects. They didn’t. (Their loss.)

One of the many wonderful things about poetry, though, is that you don’t have to do this—you don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to. Your notebook (or computer, or cafeteria napkin) can be your own private solace, a place for you to experiment with words, express your thoughts, and turn the shittiest or most boring parts of life into works of art. And if you think that you’re not capable of getting into poetry, I ask you: who here hasn’t had the experience of finding the perfect song lyrics and scrawling them on your arms in ballpoint pen, or turning them into a Facebook status, or actually just holding them closely in your heart forever? Just as certain lyrics can connect us to our feelings and wants and hopes, reading and writing poetry can make us feel less ~alone in the world~. I memorized “The J Car” by Thom Gunn in high school, and I find that certain lines still get stuck in my head sometimes.

But before you make the decision about what you want to do with your poetry, you have to get to actually writing it. While I know that many of our readers already do this, I thought I’d share some exercises that help me unclench my brain. Onward! (Or should I say onword??? Ha ha. YIKES.)

1. Gather your thoughts.

By now most of us know, per our English teachers, that POETRY DOESN’T HAVE TO RHYME. Obviously, your poetry can take any shape, and make any sounds, that you want it to. However, for me, that can be daunting. I don’t always know how to proceed in terms of structure. This is where playing with classical poetic forms, like haiku, sonnet, and the formidable SESTINA, helps me immensely. These kinds of poems assign limits, like rhyme schemes or an allotted number of syllables; I think of them as paint-by-numbers as opposed to the blank canvas of free verse. The shorter ones also provide quick exercises that can be instantly applied to anything going on around you. Like, I am writing this haiku RIGHT NOW:

A/C wind at Ben’s,
keyboard ruins my nail art.
Worth it for Rookies

Anyway, here’s a great list of different poetic techniques that you can try out. The heroic couplet, although not a part of that list, is perfect for beginners. It’s a long, long poem with groups of rhyming lines, sort of reminiscent of song lyrics. “Supernatural Love” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (whatta name, huh?) is an example of this form executed beautifully.

I do some of my most productive poetry-writing when I take a thought that I’m struggling to express in free verse and play with it in an established poetic model instead. It feels like an equation, but instead of solving for x, you’re finding new solutions for artistic expression (and this is coming from a girl who totally hates math).

And you don’t have to think of any specific form as a rulebook. Many famous poets have fiddled with form to great effect—check out “Dream Song 14” by John Berryman, which is a sonnet that he chose to screw with by changing the traditional rhyme scheme and, in the process, creating one of my top-five favorite poems of all time. Classical poetic techniques are fantastic and can be truly helpful, even if you choose to FUCK THE SYSTEM.

2. Keep it light, keep it tight (sometimes).

I used to think that in order for poetry to be valid or whatever, it had to be about the VERY SERIOUS stuff: sex, love, death. While of course it’s possible, and sometimes very cathartic, to write about these topics, you absolutely don’t have to. Try getting absurd or funny or otherwise detached from the big stuff, and see what happens. Some of my favorite poems, as well as some of the ones of mine with which I’m happiest, have nothing to do with the topics that are heavyweight champions of drama—I recently wrote a collection of five poems about how I’m obsessed with hair, including one inspired by a mouse I found in my shower:

I Dream of Having Smoother Hair

Now you. The mouse in my bathtub this morning
Was a story I could tell you, too.

I ran into the bedroom, as usual. Hot pants and big sweaters
On my desk, half a dirty-looking apple. Squalor, but the well-made bed
Steels itself against lipsticks and bright flags mixing guilelessly, well, everywhere.

I am uncommitted except to my smallest pillow, the mouse,
Bart Simpson, Gary Snyder, and, I guess, you; dreaming, the next day,
Holding the door at Duane Reade, the pilgrimage
Toward the hair-care aisle. A new shampoo offering for the vermin.

The wind makes sounds that catch my hair
I am trying to care more about the things beyond the two.

You can also try using not-so-serious topics as metaphors for very serious stuff. Take “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, which seems on the surface to be about plums, but is widely considered to be an explanation to his wife about his extramarital affairs. Sexy, apologetic fruit! I just love it.

Some really great poems blend the weighty stuff with everyday observations and happenings, which is cool because that’s pretty much how real life works: one minute you’re thinking about whether there’s an afterlife, and the next, you’re getting yourself some ice cream. Everything mingles in our brains, from our most philosophical questions to tying our shoes, and I love it when poetry reflects that. Frank O’Hara, one of the biggest figures in the New York School of poetry, was particularly good at bringing the highbrow and lowbrow together in a way that rang true. Check out “Having a Coke With You,” which mixes references to Michelangelo with yogurt. Amazing.

3. Write a little, say a lot.

Not every poem has to be long. A tiiiiiiiny bit of verse can express as much as something 12 times its size. Take “Separation” by W.S. Merwin, another one of my favorites:

Your absence goes through me
Like a thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Excuse me while I bow down to this minuscule, brilliant piece of writing. In three lines and 19 words, it conveys longing, love, influence, and beauty in an accessible, gorgeous way. If you have some great lines, sometimes it’s enough to let them exist on their own. In fact, why not see how small of a poem you can make, just for kicks?

I’m also a sucker for long poems made up of short ones that are built around the same theme. This can make for a great writing exercise. Pick a concept and write about it in as many different ways as you can think of—a great example of this is Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is one genius poem made of 13 bitty ones, all of which consider the same central focus. I once got a solid seven poems out of the phrase “seven pearls,” which led me to write a series of one- or two-liners about oysters, baby teeth, and costume jewelry.

4. Title first, ask questions later.

I used to play a game with a friend where we would write down a word or phrase on a piece of paper, then swap. Whatever one person had written would become a title for the other person’s poem, which we would then write on the spot. I remember one really great one that I came up with: “The fuck that we together give.” We’d time it (usually three minutes), then read them to each other and see what had resulted. Honestly, guys? It was a lot of fun. (I know, I am a total delight at kEwL parties.) I often came away with tons of ideas for new poems, but you don’t need a friend to slip you a piece of paper in order to assign yourself a title that you didn’t come up with on your own. Write down a short phrase from an overheard conversation. Borrow from billboards. Potential titles are everywhere.

5. Use the internet.

If you liked the game my friend and I played, get ready, because there are tons of similar poetic exercises for you to try. In high school, I would write something on the website oneword.com every single day, because I loved the concept so much—essentially, you click a button, a word pops up, and then you have 60 seconds to write about it. Once you’re done, it’s published alongside whatever other people wrote using the same word, and the differences are always dizzying and marvelous. (Again, I AM A BLAST AT KEGGERS.)

Another good online service for writing exercises is Figment, which emails you a writing prompt every morning when you sign up for their mailing list. Sometimes they send you a photograph, or a brief scenario, or just some gentle guidelines, like choosing 10 words that make you think of anger and using them to write about something you love. The internet doesn’t have to be all cats and weirdly aggressive commenters, guys!

6. Read. Other. Poetry.

Above all else, this is the thing that drives me to write poetry. I get so inspired when I read a game-changer, a poem that completely defies my expectations as to what a poem can do or how it can be written. Some of these, for me, are “Your Catfish Friend” by Richard Brautigan, “The Paper Nautilus” by Marianne Moore, “A Song for Many Movements” by Audre Lorde, “Sonnet XVII” by Pablo Neruda, and “The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke” by David Lehman. Reading a ton of poetry will help you figure out not only your own tastes, but also how to apply your preferences to your own writing.

Some people even take it a step further by writing a direct homage or parody of a poem that they love (or hate). Remember the William Carlos Williams poem about the plums that I mentioned earlier? Kenneth Koch, another one of my favorite poets ever, wrote a clever parody of it. It’s a great poem in its own right, and a loving spoof on ANOTHER great poem. POEMCEPTION! But be forewarned: if you do this, you need to make it explicitly clear that you are referencing another poem, because plagiarism is the ethical worst.

7. Listen to poetry out loud.

You know how sometimes what was meant to be a friendly a text message or an email can read as rude, because you can’t hear the tone of voice of the person who sent it? This is sometimes the case with poetry, too. I find there’s a lot of value in hearing poems in addition to reading them. I recommend reciting the ones you love aloud, going to poetry readings, or finding YouTube videos of poets performing their own work. Giving written words a human voice helps me understand their rhythm and gives me a feeling about what they might be saying, both of which are often very important to the way a poem is experienced. In short, develop an ear for poetry and you’ll be able to listen more closely to what your own writing is saying, which, I’m sure, is multitudes.

But above all else, these exercises are for you, so ENJOY YOURSELF. Just try not to do it during math class. ♦

63 Comments

  • bugaleeto November 8th, 2012 3:38 PM

    sometimes i wonder why kids are so cruel…
    then i remember:
    I AM IN MIDDLE SCHOOL

    written in gym class

  • danzelbanzel November 8th, 2012 3:39 PM

    i am about to start a poetry unit at school-b so excited now

  • jenaimarley November 8th, 2012 3:41 PM

    So wonderful!
    Thanks!
    Love,

    an aspiring poet

    Also Emma D, AGAIN YOU AMAZE ME.

  • Libby November 8th, 2012 3:43 PM

    This is fab! I need to finish the last two hundred pages of Dracula and read the first two chapters of Great Expecations for my English class tomorrow, but instead I’ll read all these poems and write some of my own and talk about FUCKING THE SYSTEM and writing weird sonnets in my class tomorrow.

  • lovegoodideas November 8th, 2012 4:07 PM

    A really good resource for discovering other poems is poetryfoundation.org. They let you sort by movement, time period, subject, or go for the random poem.

  • giogicar November 8th, 2012 4:17 PM

    about short poems, here in italy there’s a really famous poem by Ungaretti which is just one line long. the title is the poem itself :”Mi illumino d’immenso”…”I illuminate (myself) with immensity”

    • Libby November 9th, 2012 3:04 PM

      the title itself makes me want to read the poem. ‘I illuminate myself with immensity…’ That’s awesome.

  • Mela November 8th, 2012 4:23 PM

    E.E. Cummings. Always, E.E Cummings.

    • amanda November 8th, 2012 4:44 PM

      And Nikki Giovanni! They’re my two favorites <3

    • karastarr32 November 8th, 2012 5:06 PM

      After I read this article, I got my new notebook and the second poem I copied into it was I Like My Body When It Is With Your. Now Working on copying I Love You Much. Last year I had an amazing English teacher and he had an ee cummings poster in his classroom at the front, and a picture of Tennesee Williams at the back. I was in his old classroom for the first time today, and his picture of Tennesee Williams is replaced by a dopey sonnet thing, and his old ee cummings poster has beem replaced by a poster of The Godfather. I nearly cried.

  • Abby November 8th, 2012 4:25 PM

    I don’t write poetry, but I think I’ve gotten a lot more interested in writing since I’ve been journaling and writing… erm… erotica. Anyway, I really like this, especially because it can apply to so much more than poetry. I’m going to try that oneword.com thing… it sounds really cool! Anyway, thank you for this… it’s great!

    • all-art-is-quite-useless November 10th, 2012 8:27 AM

      write erotic poetry! I bet whatever you write will be way better than fifty shades….

  • AlexH November 8th, 2012 5:09 PM

    This week in English I read some Edgar Allan POE-ems.

  • koolkat November 8th, 2012 5:16 PM

    I’ve always hated poetry… because I suck at it and I don’t understand it, but the poems I just read were so good I’m, like, interested now! The separation one was just :O :O :O

  • pez-darling November 8th, 2012 5:19 PM

    I’ve been trying to get into the habit of writing poetry more often, and this article is just the boost I needed!

  • Kristen November 8th, 2012 5:22 PM

    Magnificent!

    Also Emma I can always tell when a collage is by you, without even scrolling down to look at your name. They’re so beautiful.

    • Emma Dajska November 9th, 2012 10:38 AM

      aww how is that you Rookies are so sweet to me? thanks a lot girl!

  • bookworm123 November 8th, 2012 5:26 PM

    Rookie has been totally reading my mind as of late! I have been a bit writer’s block, perhaps since there hasn’t been a meeting of my school’s poetry club lately, but now I just want to WRITE and READ stuff.

    • all-art-is-quite-useless November 10th, 2012 8:23 AM

      are you me? these are my exact thoughts.

  • AnaRuiz November 8th, 2012 6:21 PM

    Rookie seems to write for me and for me alone.

    http://anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • lubs November 8th, 2012 6:49 PM

    my book ‘the 100 best brazilian poems of the century’ is one of my biggest treasures (I’m brazilian). Some pieces of poetry are irrelevant right now but in the future you might look at them again and ~understand~ them, ya know. That’s why i like poetry. There’s always something that fits your life perfectly for a moment.

  • Chickinpickin November 8th, 2012 7:00 PM

    OH MY GOD. SONNET XVII. I cannot describe how much I feel that poem.

  • Aurora November 8th, 2012 7:06 PM

    AHHHH i love this. I had poetry club today at school and shared for the first time. This artice will be helpful for next week. I <3 ROOKIE.

  • isadora November 8th, 2012 7:20 PM

    I’ve always liked reading poetry, but I never felt confortable enough with my skills to venture into wrting it.
    But lately, I’ve been trying and it feels so good and it’s so cathartic that I (kind of) stopped caring that I’m not the best poet ever.
    Anyway, if anyone wants to exchange poems, lemme know.

  • katie November 8th, 2012 7:24 PM

    my favorite post

  • I.ila November 8th, 2012 7:26 PM

    I really really love writing in meter. Does anyone else feel this way? once my friend dared me to speak in iambs for a history class, and I think I did it. I feel like using some sort of parameter makes you think so much more about your word choices.

  • Cerise November 8th, 2012 7:37 PM

    I LOVE poetry! I’m actually enrolled in a poetry workshop right now, which is a first for me, but it’s fun. And “Having a Coke With You” is one of my favorite poems.

    Also, I read a very intriguing book on poetry this summer called Poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge. It was lovely and thought-provoking. I definitely recommend it if you’re needing some inspiration. :)

  • DreamBoat November 8th, 2012 7:41 PM

    SWEET BABY JESUS, THIS ARTICLE RIGHT HERE.

    Poetry is like, my heart and soul. I really want to be a poet when I grow up, and this has given SO MANY NEW IDEAS! Ughhhh, I LOVE YOU AMY ROSE!

    P.S. Amy Rose, your poem was effing boss. Total inspiration.

    P.P.S. I was thinking it’d be really cool if Rookie did a poetry collection kind of thing? Like, maybe once every month you guys would feature a few reader poems on Rookie? I’d totally love that (and love to enter something), and I think it’d be super fun for readers <3

    http://psychedelicdaisy.blogspot.com

  • Yayo November 8th, 2012 7:47 PM

    Oh I really like this. You’ve really inspired me. I think I’ve always assumed I’d be shit at poetry, and I’m not too sure why. Experiences from year 7 English haunt me, I suppose; having to read out my scrawly, 11 year old ‘literary art’ about a dead hamster to a class of people I disliked. *shudder*

    I have stacks sticky notes on my desk and school books with song lyrics, phrases, overheard conversations, [quotes from the Daily Mail], movie quotes, book titles which inspire me or have made me think. I’ve never done anything with them. I’m a fucking idiot.

    I’m a creative person, I just really devalue myself. I’ll definitely give poetry a go.

    • punkysdilemma November 9th, 2012 4:18 AM

      I have stacks of sticky notes with words I’ve collected! I was insecure about writing at first but now my compulsion to create is unstoppable so go for it and have fun.

    • karastarr32 November 9th, 2012 6:01 PM

      Any advice on getting through Year Eight poetry lessons?

  • kolumbia November 8th, 2012 7:49 PM

    I’m an aspiring poet too, and this is a great article!! I write constantly during the school day; my marine biology grade suffers, but it’s worth it!

  • heatherstarfish November 8th, 2012 7:51 PM

    LOVE THIS! I love writing poetry, but I’ve been having writer’s block for weeks. This definitely helps :)

  • punkysdilemma November 8th, 2012 8:09 PM

    I fell in love with poetry when I discovered Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath and “I’m Nobody, Who Are You” by Emily Dickinson last year while looking for band names in ap Lit.

    • DreamBoat November 8th, 2012 8:38 PM

      Sylvia Plath is perhaps my favorite poet. From the moment I read “Daddy” for the first time, she immediately influenced my poetry. I own her journals and her complete poetry collection. She is an absolute effing genius!
      And Emily Dickinson is another favorite of mine!

      Mad Girl’s Love Song would be the most radical name for a band. DOITDOITDOITDOIT

  • Delilah November 8th, 2012 9:06 PM

    Amy Rose, have you read Matthew Dickman? I think you’d like him. Check out All American Poems; it’s great.

    http://bostonreview.net/BR32.6/dickman.php

    http://delilahofthesky.blogspot.com/2012/10/between.html

    (that last link is me, not M. Dickman)

  • Sparkie November 8th, 2012 9:31 PM

    Ah, how I’d love to be able to write good poetry, sadly I’m really awful at it. But I love to read poetry though.

  • marengo November 8th, 2012 9:44 PM

    I have to do a presentation about a poem for english class and after researching for a few hours, was really thinking hard about writing some poetry of my own. And then I checked Rookie. BLESS YOU.

  • irritum November 8th, 2012 11:34 PM

    Ugh thank you so, so, much for this article!

  • Lila Gracie November 9th, 2012 1:39 AM

    i actually wrote a poem in math class the other week! it’s kinda long so i can’t put it in the comments here, but if anyone wants to read it, it’s over here on my school’s online magazine
    http://footscraycityblogs.com/harbinger/twelve-by-lila-orourke-yr-12/

    and how good is oneword?? love that site.

    • dreamweaver November 9th, 2012 11:10 AM

      I just read it <3 I loved the "future comes so slowly, but the past speeds away so fast" line. I wrote it in my notebook. <33

  • Lillypod November 9th, 2012 3:07 AM

    frank o hara.
    I love all the poetry you mentioned here.
    I love listening to poetry being read on utube.

  • Stephanie November 9th, 2012 12:25 PM

    LOVED THIS! I haven’t written poetry in a long while, and now I’m remembering why I loved it so. I’m inspired to start to play around with it again :)

  • Moxx November 9th, 2012 5:54 PM

    ughhh I love your articlesss!

  • yourface November 9th, 2012 7:29 PM

    Ohhh this is amazing!! I’m now hooked on oneword.com!!!! In fact, so amazing i sent it to my poetry teacher! Hopefully we’ll be doing that fun title switching exercise you mentioned!

    Also, your collages are spectacular!! I always look forward to your post on rookie!

    • Amy Rose November 9th, 2012 11:17 PM

      They’re Emma Dajska’s collages! She kills it. I hope you get to do some fun exercises in poetry!

  • airplanes.books November 9th, 2012 7:46 PM

    Favorite poem: Jeffrey McDaniel- The Benjamin Franklin of Monogamy

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-benjamin-franklin-of-monogamy/

  • Sea goddess November 10th, 2012 2:10 PM

    awee yeaaaah so so sweet! I love writing poetry, and I just recently found out that I have a hard time reciting it!! and its really weird because I really like being up on stage …so thanks alot for that last pointer!! :)

  • molly mazahs November 10th, 2012 4:20 PM

    i thought the part about math class was hilarious bc just the other day i got angry at the people in my english class so i started writing angsty poetry and then crumpled it up
    ~~teenage lyf

  • caro nation November 11th, 2012 9:07 AM

    You guys, I was seriously into this poetry site back in the day (okay, a month ago. Folly of youth). I wrote one nonsensical poem and thought I was all that because someone told me it was like “e.e. cummings dropped acid” and I just as soon took it as a compliment. But now I’m TOTES GONNA GET BACK INTO THE SWING OF THINGS.

    I see myself in you, Amy Rose.

    http://carolinesaysiii.tumblr.com/

    • caro nation November 11th, 2012 9:09 AM

      also HOLLA CHARLES AND RAY EAMES BACKGROUND. GIVE IT UP FOR MY MIDCENTURY HOMEMODS.

  • Lydia Jane November 12th, 2012 5:29 PM

    oneword.com has officially become my new procrastination device of choice. Great article! :)

  • shelley November 12th, 2012 7:42 PM

    this is so good! an autocorrect today inspired me to write some poetry. I thought I was writing haiku but I had the syllable pattern all wrong- five, five, eight instead of five seven five. But I think I’m just gonna own it and make it my own thing.

  • Miss Erin December 3rd, 2012 1:20 PM

    I love this post, so much, and I love all the added poems in the comments, so here are some of my recent favorites, too:

    Antilamentation by Dorianne Lux – http://misserinmarie.tumblr.com/post/36598036685/antilamentation

    I Wanted To Write It For You by Alex Dimitrov – http://misserinmarie.tumblr.com/post/36968624327/i-wanted-to-write-it-for-you-by-alex-dimitrov

    Song for Baby-O, Unborn by Diane Di Prima – http://misserinmarie.tumblr.com/post/36966036546/song-for-baby-o-unborn-by-diane-di-prima

    favorite poets: charles bukowski, e.e. cummings, and andrea gibson.

  • Tara Rose December 10th, 2012 12:45 AM

    This is probably #1 on my top ten favourite Rookie articles! As a fairly new poet (1.5+ years, that’s it, haha), I always find pointers amazingly helpful.

    http://tarawithroses.blogspot.ca

  • Maddie December 16th, 2012 8:38 PM

    Thank you so much for this post, it really inspired me! I loved the poem you shared, I want smoother hair too!!! :) Also, the site oneword is a gem, so thanks!!!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 15th, 2013 3:03 PM

    Thank you for introducing me to This Is Just to Say and Your Catfish Friend – I absolutely adore them, they’re beautiful! I love this inspirational article and delightful collage! :)

    PS – I smiled at “Worth it for Rookies” :DDD