Writing in Your Major

Tips From Tutors

Poetry

Below you will find a brief discussion of what makes a poem good,some useful tips on several poetic forms, poetic devices,as well as some general tips on composing a poem, that you will hopefully find helpful as you embark on the beautiful and genius manipulation of language that is poetry in order to explore the world and our experiences in it.

What Makes a Poem Good?

"The theater of any poem is a collections of decisions about space and time - how are these words to lie on the page, with what pauses, what headlong motion, what phrasing, how can they meet the breath of the someone who comes along to read them?"
- Adrienne Rich

This is a question that has been asked since poetry came into existence. It is a hard question to tackle, and the best way to approach it is by consulting poets.

According to Louis Zukofsky, an important American poet, "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellect." Poetry should combine these three aspects.

Sight:

This refers to the layout of the poem on the page. Poetry is not just about the use of words. Although the words are of great importance, the use of space is equally important. Frank Bidart is a poet who is noted for his use of the page, as well as his interesting use of capitalization and punctuation. His decisions, no matter how odd, are intentional and contribute to the power of his poetry. One example is his poem "Herbert White," a dramatic monologue in the voice of a necrophiliac child murderer. The topic is powerful enough, but the way his words string down the page is truly remarkable. The layout of a poem is something a writer should keep in mind while composing.

Sound:

Sound refers to the relationships that form between words within your writing. This does not mean that it is necessary to use alliteration or onomatopoeia (unless it is appropriate). It means that as a poem is being composed, the writer should be aware of these relationships. Words will fight against one another, or they will embrace each other, stringing together to form beautiful lines and sentences. A writer can "hold an image within the line by sound." A writer can make the decision to allow their words to clash. The writer can decide the way in which a reader will move through the lines. Sound not only refers to words, but also to rhythm. The rhythm of a poem will become apparent when it is read aloud.

Intellect:

A writer must be able to present information effectively. The challenge with poetry is figuring out the best way to present the information that needs to be conveyed. Poetry has the ability to suggest meanings that go above and beyond what the poem actually says. This can be done through the use of sight and sound as suggested above. Intellect will allow a poet to contemplate abstract ideas, and convey them through the use of language. Poetry is "an exchange of electrical currents through language." Controlling the currents and placing them on the page in an effective way will create a good poem.

A good poem is a combination of these three elements.

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A Crash Course in Poetic Forms

We would guess it's fair to say that many people are shy when it comes to writing poetry. Or maybe you're one of the lucky few that is glad to get the chance to work on something different than an essay. You may be thinking, "A couple of metaphors, some obscure emotions thrown down on paper, free verse is a piece of cake." But poetry can be (and is) so much more than that…and sometimes there will be very specific forms in which you will have to compose. Here, we will break down some of the major (and more difficult) poetic forms—they are not as scary as they might seem!

Some Terms to Know
  • Foot -a rhythmic unit of metrical measurement usually containing one stressed and one unstressed syllable
  • Meter the (usually) regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in a poem. (For example, in iambic pentameter, “pentameter” refers to five feet and “iambic” refers to the pattern of each foot: one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable. Here is an example of iambic pentameter from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism: True wit is Nature to advantage dressed: What oft was thought, but ne’re so well expressed).
  • Rhyme scheme -the pattern of rhyme in a poem, usually noted by letters representing the rhyme.
Roses are red A The rhyme scheme here is very simple.
Violets are blue B The first three lines introduce a new rhyme
Sugar is sweet C while the fourth matches the rhyme of the
And so are you B second line.

Stanza

-a section of lines that divide the poem. It's like a paragraph within a poem. The following poem has three stanzas in it:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
Stanza 1
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Stanza 2
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
Stanza 3

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Some Terms to Know

We'll do the top six: sestina, villanelle, sonnet, haiku, Ghazal, and ode.

Sestina

A poem with six six-line stanzas and finished with one three-line. No refrain (A refrain is a stanza or line repeated again and again during a poem. It is similar to the refrain of a song that is sung after each verse.) Usually unrhymed, but uses the same six words in different orders to finish the lines in each stanza.
Here comes the tough part: The order. Let's number the end words 1-6. They should then be aligned in the following order.

Stanza 1 12– 34– 56
Stanza 2 615243
Stanza 3 364125
Stanza 4 532614
Stanza 5 451362
Stanza 6 246531
And a final '3 liner' should contain all six end words somewhere in the lines.

Example

The Concord Art Association Regrets
by Pam White
Your entry was not accepted. We regret
it wasn't (enough for us), a work of love.
We liked many of the colors on the whole
but the mass was just something unrelated
to the rest of our show. We hope your work
will have a bright future in another place.
We remember last year you tried to place
another photograph and it was also with regret
we turned you down. Though for that particular work
we found nothing about it (no one could) to love.
It was obscure and a little upsetting in relation
to the rest of our show which we look on as a whole.
Now you may think us ungenerous. On the whole
you are probably right, but this is our place
and we can do what we want whether you relate
to it or not. However we don't want you to regret
your association with us. We want you to love
us, send us money, but please, no more work.
You see right now we need money to work
on the building we're in. There's a hole
in the roof and one wall needs all the love
and attention it can get. Really the place
needs so much, which all costs. I regret
to remind you we need more space for related
works. We're trying to expand and relate
to lots of different kinds of work
so different people won't regret
their visit with us but will see the whole
beauty and tranquility of the place
and come with us, a journey of love
where people of all races, colors, and creeds love
to look and bask and of course bring relations,
friends, and lovers. All are welcome to our place
here where all the world's magnificent work
can be shown in its entirety, the whole
place filled - with your exception, we regret.
We know you'll love the whole
work we're doing for this place.
We can't relate enough our regret.

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Villanelle

19 lines long, but only uses two rhymes whilst also repeating two lines throughout the poem.

The first five stanzas are triplets (containing three lines), and the last stanza is a quatrain (a stanza made of four lines.) The rhyme scheme is as follows: "aba aba aba aba aba abaa. "

The 1st and 3rd lines from the first stanza are alternately repeated so the 1st line becomes the last line in the second stanza, and the 3rd line becomes the last line in the third stanza. The last two lines of the poem are lines 1 and 3 respectively, making a rhymed couplet (a set of two lines that rhyme). To break that down it means the line structure looks like this:
1-2-3, 4-5-1, 6-7-3, 8-9-1, 10-11-3, 12-13-1-3

Example

Do not go gentle into that good night
by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a
b
a
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
a
b
a
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a
b
a
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
a
b
a
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a
b
a
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a
b
a
a

Luckily, it needs not particular meter or line length.


Sonnet

There are two major types of sonnets: the Italian or Petrarchan and the Shakespearean or English.

The Shakespearean is the more common form. It is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter, usually with an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme. A Petrarchan sonnet follows an abbaabbacdecde (or abbaabbacdccdc) rhyme scheme.

Example of a Shakespearean Sonnet:

Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far;
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar.
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman's bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild;
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.
a
b
a
b
c
d
c
d
e
f
e
f
g
g

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Haiku

A 17-syllable poem made of three lines following a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

Example (we made this one up ourselves):

Twilight
Warm summer evening
Sitting by the quiet lake
Pink sun disappears.

Ghazal

(pronounced like "guzzle" with a soft g)

The Ghazal is a poem written in couplets, in which the last word of each couplet is the same. In the first stanza, the repeated word ends both lines. All lines should be similar in length, and the poet will put his or her “signature” (some type of self reference, like his or her name) in the last lines. It is traditionally a form of expressing love and longing, but today it can be used to explore other feelings too.

Example

Tonight
by Agha Shahid Ali
Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar
— Laurence Hope
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture's road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere-” “to make Me beautiful-”
“Trinket”-to gem-“Me to adorn-How tell”-tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates-
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar-
All the archangels-their wings frozen-fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open-for God-the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron's left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day-
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I'll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love-you've invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee-
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

Ode

Generally speaking, odes have no specific form and the only requirement on length is that it must be long. Unlike the other poems, in order to be considered a traditional ode the poem must be serious and address a noble subject in a dignified manner. (Previously used topics include "Ode to the Confederate Dead" by Allen Tate and "Ode to Joy" by Frank O'Hara.) Newer odes, however, may present a lighter topic as Pablo Neruda often does.

Example

Ode to a Lemon
by Pablo Neruda
Out of lemon flowers
loosed
on the moonlight, love's
lashed and insatiable
essences,
sodden with fragrance,
the lemon tree's yellow
emerges,
the lemons
move down
from the tree's planetarium
Delicate merchandise!
The harbors are big with it-
bazaars
for the light and the
barbarous gold.
We open
the halves
of a miracle,
and a clotting of acids
brims
into the starry
divisions:
creation's
original juices,
irreducible, changeless,
alive:
so the freshness lives on
in a lemon,
in the sweet-smelling house of the rind,
the proportions, arcane and acerb.
Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little cathedral:
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
altars,
aromatic facades.
So, while the hand
holds the cut of the lemon,
half a world
on a trencher,
the gold of the universe
wells
to your touch:
a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet.

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Some Poetic Devices
Here is a brief list of common poetic devices that can enhance the sound and experience of your poem:

Imagery: Try using all of the senses, not just visual imagery.

Metaphor: A simile compares two things using like or as.
 metaphor compares two things by stating _____ is ______. Not like or as.

Allusion: Referencing another work or historical event. This could be anything from high art to pop culture, etc.

Meter: the measurement of accents in the words within a line, creating a rhythm

Diction: word choice. High diction vs. colloquial diction. Mixture? Why? Diction can help with the tone.

Sound: rhyme (end rhyme, near rhyme, internal rhyme, sight rhyme, etc.), meter, alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase).

Enjambment: use of line breaks to avoid ending a line on an end-stop.

Tone: attitude of the writer toward his or her subject Syntax: playing with sentence structure can make a phrase much more interesting.

Personification: attributing human qualities to inanimate or inhuman things.

Things to Avoid

Clichés: An idea will always be more interesting if it is said in a new way.

Too Many Broad Abstractions: Readers can get lost in broad abstractions (love, injustice, etc). The more concrete the image, the easier it is to connect to and the more powerful it will be.

Ending a Line on a Weak Word: The end of a line receives the most emphasis so try to end on stronger words such as verbs and nouns.

Writing Poetry: Some Strategies
Brainstorm ideas

What has been on your mind lately? Are there any recent personal experiences that stand out in your mind? What about in the past? Are there any topics that you have been meaning to explore in writing? Use personal experience as a starting point, because you can always refer to reality and then change it to fit the purpose of the poem.

Try using an exercise

Have a friend create an exercise for you. Possible exercises:

  • Include a list of words.
     - Ex: morning, draw, stomp, golden, charred

  • Write from a certain persona.
     - Ex: Ex: the bagger at the grocery store

  • Use a specific setting.
     - Ex: under a porch
  • Change your location - if ideas aren't coming to you, try writing in a cafe, on a park bench, in the library, anywhere.
  • Favor concrete images (things you can see, touch, taste, hear, feel) over abstractions (ideas of concepts that are not experienced directly throught the five senses).

Beginning a poem can be the hardest part, so having a list of words or a specific topic can help you to begin. Once you begin, the poem can take many different forms.

Start Writing

Don't worry about form yet, unless that is the purpose of the exercise. Write down words, phrases, and sentences that relate to the topic. Explore different angles; try to capture your idea completely.

Work with the idea

Figure out what you want to say. Ask yourself what you want the reader to experience. What mood do you want to create? What tone best fits the meaning you are trying to convey?

Link the ideas

Once you have a better idea about what you want to say, connect the words and phrases in a logical order. Decide where to begin and then expand until you have a rough first draft, something that resembles a poem. Don't feel obligated to use all of the phrases that you wrote down initially. Rework them if necessary, and always feel free to add or subtract.

Read the first draft out loud

How does the poem make you feel? Ask if the goal of the poem is accomplished. Does it elicit the desired response? Does it have the right effect? Effectiveness of a poem is hard to judge. Basically, it's the "so what?" factor. If the poem creates interest and elicits an emotional response, then it is effective. You want the reader to ponder the poem when they finish reading it. Refer to your goal in "Work with the idea." Was this meaning realized? Did you find new meaning through writing?

Mess around with the poem

Try reordering words to create emphasis. Remember that as a poet you have poetic license and don't have to conform to grammar rules.

 - Ex: change "the bottle sits silently" to "silently sits the bottle"
  The second version emphasizes silently.

Try to condense the poem by taking out unnecessary words.

 - Ex: change "the dog was barking" to "dog, barking"
 - Ex: change "the darkness consumed me / And I felt alone" to "consuming darkness, me alone"
  The second version emphasizes silently.

Contemplate each word

What are the connotations of each word? Do those meanings connect with the meaning of the poem? Is there a better word? Try to capture the idea exactly.

Examples of different connotations:
 - The ornate spider web: lavish, religious
 - The complicated spider web: confusing, detailed
 - The delicate spider web: vulnerable, ladylike

Determine which connotations are appropriate for your poem's meaning.

Try using figurative language.

Metaphor (this = that)
 - Ex: The spider web, an ornate church

Simile (this is like/as that)
 - Ex: The spider web, as ornate as a church

    • The spider web with golden threads
    • Strands spun meticulously
    • As ornate as church windows,
    • The light glistens through.
Contemplate rhythm

Rhythm is affected by the sound and pace of the words and lines. When you read the poem out loud, notice where you pause to take a breath. Are there commas or line breaks there? Mess around with punctuation and line breaks to change the rhythm. The rhythm should enhance the meaning.
 - Ex: Change:

    • As I fell the wind rushed around my face
    • TO
    • I fell
    • The wind rushed
    • Round and round my face

Notice how the second example is more effective because of the line breaks. Use rhythm to emphasize important words and phrases.

Try working with sound as well. Try using alliteration, repetition, and rhyme. The example above uses alliteration (rushed, round) and also repetition of the word round.

 - Ex. of rhyme:

    • I fell
    • The wind rushed
    • Round and round my face
    • I hit the floor and found
    • A place for my face

Place and face rhyme, as do round and found. Rhymes can occur within the lines, or at the end of the lines.

Read it out loud again

Did revision give you more ideas about the meaning of the poem? Add ideas if you want, and then edit the new lines as explained above.

Look at the beginning

Is it interesting? Effective? Does the reader want to continue? Is there another part of the poem that could work as a better beginning? What if you started from the middle? The end?

Look at the ending

Does it create the effect that you want? Does it leave the reader feeling how you want them to feel? Could the ending be more effective by being either more or less specific?

Read it out loud a final time.

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