A Lesson on Writing Poetry
Poetry is a great way to say a lot with as few words as possible. It could be said that reading a story is like eating a long, satisfying meal, but reading poetry is like savoring a very rich dessert with a spoon. The language is dense with meaning. It is not meant to be consumed in large amounts.
Poetry is a great fit for the “quick-fix” mentality of our modern technological world where we can seek and receive information in a moment’s notice. Poetry does that, too. It is a quick and meaningful connection, as long as we can understand it:
By the way, did I mention that you can throw grammar rules out of the window when you write poetry? Hey, what could be better than that?
Let’s talk about some practical ways to enjoy poetry:
1. Read the poem more than once. Sometimes it takes a while to wade through those heady images and/or the lack of practical language and explanation.
2. Read the poem out loud. You’ll catch every syllable and you’ll keep your mind from wandering.
3. So far, poetry sounds like a bit of work, but it’s best not to try to dig out a meaning. Some poems are about very mundane moments and things that are made magical by words.
4. Pay close attention to the title. Again, keeping in mind the deliberate placement of words in poems, the title can provide a lot of information and insight.
5. Recognize the speaker (are they speaking to you or someone else), the voice and the mood (is it humorous, melancholy, philosophical, or playful). Is it a narrative poem, meaning, does it tell a story? Is it more abstract? Is it about nature? (a common theme)
6. Figurative language. These techniques are used to create rhythm, enhance a poem’s meaning, intensify a mood or feeling. There are many, but we will focus specifically on similes and metaphors.
Metaphor – a comparison between two different things, where one thing is the other.
Simile – a direct comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as.”
Take a look at some metaphors and similes to describe something we are all familiar with – the moon.
The moon is a purple-veined eye rolled back inside a socket; The moon is a white balloon tied to the bumper; The moon is an urn of carved ivory spilling lotus petals on the sea.
The moon is as white as a powder sugared wedding cookie; the moon is as thin as a blond eyelash; the moon is as shiny as a drop of iridescent glaze.
Do you get the idea? Do you have any metaphors or similes to describe the moon? The sun? How about your dog? Anything else?
I’ve included a poem of mine called “The Writing Lesson.” I used to be a writing coach and worked with fourth-grade students to help them get ready for a big writing test. One day I brought in some seashells to help the students learn about metaphors and similes, and then I wrote about the lesson myself. Look for similes and metaphors. What did you see?
The Writing Lesson
Lake County, Florida
Some of the children I teach have never held a seashell—
a collection I’ve gathered from the beaches
of the state where we live.
They marvel at pearly-throated helixes
that open quietly with the ocean,
each exoskeleton exotic in their fingertips
as ivory or amber. They fuss over the sand dollar—
fragile beneath its filigreed petals, and ask
to keep the halves of clams, cockles
and carapaces, cones of whelk— stiff-peaked
as whisked cream. They want to lick
the wild salt they smell from serrated edges,
the hollows of abraded iridescence,
but instead they’ll compose
a tide of metaphor and simile — compare
a corm of coral to a wasp nest, barnacles to bubbles,
whorled eyes to hurricanes. Coquina, delicate
as a baby’s pink toenail. One perfect
angel wing brittle as eggshell, a boy writes,
is furrowed like a golf ball, a waffle, and another
orange calico scallop, muses a girl,
is a Japanese palace fan,
the color of an autumn leaf beneath
these same trees that never lose their green.
(I’m including a couple of extra poems by some great American poets at the end of this lesson that you can use to practice identifying metaphors and similes)
Okay, are you ready to write?
Before you do, I want to go over some of the basic types of poems: lyrical poetry, where the speaker expresses a single thought or idea. Sometimes these can be almost like a tribute or like an expression of grief. Then there is the narrative poem. What do you think narrative means, like “narrator.” It means to tell a story through your poem. Then there is the dramatic poem which is written like a long, long story.
There are also form poems, several of which we’re going to write about today. They are a good place to start. They can be rhyming or non-rhyming. Whichever it is that you’re more comfortable with.
1. The first type of poem that we’re going to write is called a phrase poem. I want you to think about a season, an event, a person, or pet. Any kind of “thing” that you want to write about. You are going to attach images to that subject by only using phrases.
Here’s an example.
My Year in Fourth Grade
Fun facts every morning
Fun on the Playground
Lunch with the Teacher
Crazy Science Experiments
Field Trip to St. Augustine
As you’re thinking of this subject, and it can be anything you want, let the images float into your head and write them down. Think about how this subject makes you feel. Add your senses – what do you see, hear, touch, taste, smell? You can just write your images like a list beneath your topic. You’ll be surprised at how easily this paints a picture. Also, your list doesn’t need to rhyme.
How did it go? Share your poem with someone and see what they say.
Before we write our next poem, I want to share a poem called “Why I’m not Afraid of King Cobras” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Why I am not Afraid of King Cobras
Forests equal fairies for a girl of eight.
What I did not equate was this was jungle,
just off the edge of coconut groves
and rubber trees, land where even my father
never ventured alone as a boy. But this
was vacation, time off from spelling tests
and fractions. All of a sudden I had grandparents
to buy me pieces of pink candy, and glass bangles
that clicked with each swing of the arm. After dinner,
I loved to gouge the rubber trees with a stick, watch the plastic
ooze from each gash. Roll the warm sap into a ball—
each bounces so high, I’d lose them in the last flicks
of sun. I had wandered further that day, deep
in groves where cinnamon and sweetleaf grew like weeds.
When I reached for a stick, I saw him there, standing
in what I learned later is the Imperial pose— eye level,
his teeny tongue tasting the air for what I smelled of:
candy and glass. The ribs of his neck spread wide
as my father’s hand, then smoothed down, and I laughed—
he was suddenly small, and naked, like he’d lost
his hat. We stood there for some time before I turned around
and went back inside to tell no one that just moments before,
a girl and a snake had made their introductions— the birds
overhead holding their breath, the pierced trees bubbling at their bark.
Could you feel this poem through your senses? How did it make you feel? If there were any words that you didn’t know, look them up. It’s a great way to boost your vocabulary!
2. The next poem we’re going to write is called the “I Don’t Understand” or the “I Wish” Poem.
Here’s an example:
I do not understand why my father talks on the phone so much.
I do not understand why I can’t play video games longer.
I do not understand why people get sick.
I do not understand why I can’t have more pizza parties.
I do not understand why people can’t get along.
I do not understand that life is so unfair sometimes.
You begin each line of the poem the same way, either all of them will say “I do not understand why…” or you can start them all with “I wish…”
This is an easy way to write a very meaningful poem. When you are finished, remember to edit your poem. Read it out loud. Look for spelling errors or omissions. Change out boring verbs for something more specific. For example, “went” might be replaced with zoomed or strolled or skate-boarded.
3. The next poem we’re going to write is called a cinquain (sinkane). This will help you remember parts of speech like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. A cinquain is an easy and effective way to write a great poem.
Here’s an example:
Orbiting, Traveling, Spinning
Star in our sky
Here’s how to write a cinquain:
Line A: One vague or general one-word subject or topic
Line B: Two vivid adjectives that describe the topic
Line C: Three interesting -ing action verbs that fit the topic
Line D: A four-word phrase that captures a feeling about the topic
Line E: A very specific term that explains Line A
The point of the poem is that you’re starting with a general subject and you’re narrowing it down to something specific using parts of speech (adjective and verbs) and your imagination. Use words that are strong and specific in your poems. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun, to be creative, and to show your sense of humor.
4. The last poem we are going to write is less of a form poem. I want you to think of five symbols that represent you. Take some time to brainstorm and think about it. When you are ready, you can write and/or draw each symbol. I want you to explain for each symbol, why it represents you. Remember to use description, similes, metaphors, emotions, and senses if you can.
Again, when you are finished, read your poems out loud. Think about words that might make them more accessible to your reader through senses or feelings.
Share your poems if you would like. Listen to someone else’s.
One more thing, and it’s important!! Keep writing!!
More poems with metaphors and similes for you to find:
…Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away…
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?