So you’re a poet who wants to improve your craft. Maybe you’re a writer who’s thinking about making the jump into poetry. Or maybe you’re a creative person looking for a new way to express yourself.
Whoever you are, wherever you are in your life’s journey, welcome to poetry.
Poetry is a powerful, timeless art form unlike any other. It twists and conforms language into unusual combinations to deliver meaning and expand our perspective of the world.
What is a poem?
A poem is whatever it wants to be. When someone says “poetry is ____” they destroy the essence of a poem. If that’s the case, then how do you define a “poem”?
A poem is a brush stroke on an empty canvas.
A poem is a gust of summer breeze that clutches your hair on its way to the north pole.
A poem is a mud puddle.
A poem is a falling leaf.
A poem is the first sip of a fresh beverage.
A poem is a broken pencil covered in dog sh*t on the sidewalk.
A poem is whatever you want it to be.
How to write better poetry
Now that we know what a poem is, let’s get down to brass tacks: how to write better poetry.
Instead, let’s take a look at three strategies that have served me well in my personal journey as a writer, both in terms of growth and getting poems published.
Want to read some of my published poems? Check it out.
1. Describe around something
This technique is one of the most helpful for a poet. The idea here is to describe something without ever directly labeling it for what it is. In labeling something, you diminish it only to the 1- or 2-dimensional image conjured by the label’s name.
For example, try describing a tree without using the words “tree,” “wood”, “forest,” or “bark”—much like what we did in the What is a poem? section above.
Try it out, see where it leads you. Surprise yourself with what you get.
In the following poem by Erin Cunningham (used with permission), the poet describes a river without using the words “river,” “stream,” or “water.” The subject matter is only labeled in the title, but not in the body itself.
American River, North Fork by Erin Cunningham foam tents tumble down the forest’s snake ice scurries through my toes, my fingers immersed with angled stones, silt, sand shimmers spent sun paints your road white like gems, it glitters how your calm rinses city’s stain, the stink of stress and toil what wonders wait around your emerald elbow what secret snakes, minnows, bears, hawks hide? will golden flecks settle in slick palms? will my feet sink into her bed become her loam? perhaps I’ll build a roof upon her beachy banks retire from all societal care my mind made smooth as her whispering rhythm but with daylight’s eclipse Monday is waiting
Note how, at the very end, she gives the poem an additional layer of meaning that makes us re-examine the entire poem with a new perspective.
2. Write write write, then cut cut cut
This is another powerful technique to add to your poetic toolbelt. After you’ve written your poem, go through and cut all unnecessary words. Then go through it and cut out even more. Small words like articles and prepositions and even many adjectives should be at the top of the list.
Now cut out even more words. Chop down each line to just the bones.
And then cut it again.
Cut beyond what you’re comfortable with and see what’s left (remember, you can always add words back in).
Experiment with using punctuation, white space, formatting, and placement on the page to enhance your minimalist poem and replace eliminated words.
As with technique #1, you’ll surprise yourself.
For example, let’s take the four-line stanza:
When the lightning rod stands upright defiant in the weather, unbreakable femur bone against the rain, you are thunder’s shivering spear strike deep, Thor’s arrow, find your mark!
And cut cut cut, then cut some more. Until we get the much leaner, more modern:
lightning rod weather bone thunder's spear strike deep
Has a completely different feel, doesn’t it?
You don’t have to write every poem like this—you don’t have to write any poem like this—but it’s a good technique to master to help improve your poetic craft.
Less is more.
3. Imitate another poet
Life imitates art. Art imitates life. Poets imitate poets. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, many poets find themselves so inspired by a poem that they simply must write a poem of their own to celebrate the original.
In this technique, you will use an existing poet’s style or individual poem as a jumping-off point for your own.
Look to the poem in question as you write, following the phrase structure, line length, punctuation, topic—whatever you feel in the moment—as you go.
Here are a few helpful tips to get you started:
- Use the same number of words or syllables per line.
- Follow the same phrase structure, but change the text itself.
- Start the poem by replacing words with antonyms.
- Copy the shape, lines per stanza, or length of lines.
- Write your poem on the same subject but with a different perspective.
- Contradict the original with a direct rebuttal.
You may find that halfway through this exercise your poem has taken on a life of its own. That’s wonderful! Feel free to leave the original poem behind as you explore your own poem’s life.
How to become a better poet
Write. Keep writing. Continue writing every day, all the time, forever and into infinity.
Even if no one ever reads half of your work, every new poem brings you one step closer to becoming a stronger poet. Practice makes perfect, right?
In addition to writing, seek to explore new forms, styles, and subject matter. Instead of just imitating the greats, try perusing published works in several of the hundreds of online poetry journals out there. You’ll get a lot out of the amazing and daring poetry you find there on the cutting edge. Besides, there are too many under-celebrated poets out there.
In the meantime, we are always growing. Life is a process of becoming. We are always becoming better poets.
Never stop writing!