6 tips to great poetry writing

It’s impossible to dictate how to write a good poem.

Use of established meter and poetic rules will yield lyricism, as can (sometimes) experimentation from talented innovators (like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who invented a meter called sprung rhythm).

Here are some thoughts on how to look back at poetry to get your revisions just right. Be sure, meanwhile, to read as much poetry as you can. Read up on theory, on terms. Familiarise yourself with ideas like iambic pentameter, tetrameter, trochees, etc., etc.

Consider these top tips from poet Sarah Law.

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Points to consider when revising poetry

‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ (W.H. Auden.)

‘When you feel you’ve got a draft that seems finished, it’s time for the ‘frisk draft’. Think of how international air travellers are frisked before they board the plane to see whether they’re carrying anything that might be detrimental to the flight.’ (Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams.)

1. Avoid adjectival infestation

Beware of over-use of adjectives. Too many qualifiers can weaken rather than intensify a poetic reading. If you are unsure, go through your draft, underlining each adjective and present participle (those ‘-ing’ words). If you are underlining once or twice in every line, it’s time to cut back.

2. Avoid waffle

Is there too much padding in the poem? Good poetry is often a case of ‘less is more’. Don’t repeat or sum up what you have already said, unless you are using repetition and refrain as a specific device.

3. Avoid stale language or cliché

Steer clear of archaic phrases, or dead metaphors, unless you are deliberately subverting them. If you are sounding pompous or wordy, you will lose your reader. You are a 21st century writer and it’s no good sounding like Tennyson or Wordsworth.

4. Be clear and evoke images to create ideas

Be as specific as you can. It will give your poem an edge. An image or a narrative fragment about a specific person or incident will hook your reader much more successfully than a generalised statement about ‘them’ or ‘us’.

Don’t be abstract and try not to generalise. (‘Go in fear of abstractions’, as Ezra Pound said.) Let big themes (like love and loss) haunt your poem, rather than ever be explicit.

5. Check layout, syntax and rhythm

Word order and rhythm shouldn’t sound false. The challenge is to make language sound natural, even when you’re writing a formal poem. It’s also a good idea to make sure you are using verbs and nouns in a strong way. Lines that are merely descriptive with no verbs will sound weak.

If you are not writing to a specific form, as in a sonnet (or, in some cases, even if you are), consider experimenting with layout on the page. Should you indent some lines, or fragment others? Rearranging lines can enhance the impact of the poem.

6. Read it aloud

Leave the poem in a drawer when done. Lay your work aside a week or two, and then look at your poem with fresh eyes.

Read aloud, even if only to yourself. Sound it out. Does anything need changing?

Also, pay close attention to the ending. As Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley William observed: ‘a good ending should flash a light back up a poem so the reader starts it again’.

Good luck!

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