a person reads poetry to become a better poet

3 Ways to Write Better Poetry

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.

I could tell you to go out and experiment with poetic forms , classic rhyming poetry and modern free verse poetry, but you can learn how to do that from anywhere.

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!

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