So, You Want To Write Poetry, Part Three


You cannot escape meter. It is in all writing, all speaking, and whether you do it intentionally or not, it is always there in your work.

Meter is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in your words.
For the Roman poets, for example, meter was everything. Catullus, my favorite poet, wrote hendecasyllabic poetry. Shakespeare wrote most of his work in iambic pentameter. From Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;

If you over exaggerate each stressed syllable, you can hear it. da DA, da DA…

If music be the food of love, play on;

You can hear it now, the beat of the words.

Iambs are only one of many patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. There are also dactyls, spondees and pyrrhic feet.

You will hear meter as you read aloud during editing. Particularly when a misplaced word sticks out. Breaking the meter has an effect on the ear, and can be used intensionally for emphasis or sometimes to the detriment of the line.

When rhyme started to fall out of favor, a form called Blank Verse rose. This is verse that retains a strict meter pattern, but has no rhyme (or at least does not require it). Lines would have a set number of syllables, stresses a certain pattern.

Structure, it seems was an important part of how poetry was defined for a long time.

When you write free verse (or prose, or blog posts, or even tweets), meter is both present, and in the background. You aren’t writing it to a set pattern, but it will still have an effect on the poem as a whole.

And I am not suggesting you need to scan your poetry, marking stressed and unstressed, looking for patterns–but I will suggest you should be able to. And as you read to edit, if you have a word that sticks out, but aren’t sure why, see if it fits the beat.

So, You Want To Write Poetry, Part Two


I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.
– Robert Frost

Rhyme is, perhaps, the biggest elephant in the room when we talk poetry, so I think we should just jump in.

Rhyme is hard. Good rhyme more so.

At one time, rhyme was an essential part of poetry in English. Poetry was mostly rigid forms, like ballroom dance. You wrote poetry, but restricted; you wrote sonnets, ballads, you wrote odes and villanelles.

Even as we move forward in time, poetry still keeps a meter and rhyme scheme. The form is more fluid–poets are creating the form they desire in their poem, and adhering to their own rules. Metered couplets, patterned quintets, etc.

Now tastes have changed, and, in a general sense, we have expanded past these restrictions on rhyme and meter. Most (I would estimate) of the poetry published today is free verse, that is without rhyme or strict meter. And while it is not verboten, rhyme has fallen out of favor.

Rhyme is hard. It is hard because it is a restriction on the word choice for the end of your line. It is hard because it will dominate the sound of your poetry. The danger being that the poem will sound ‘sing-songy’ with the stresses of the poem falling harder on the rhyming word than anywhere else.

Rhyme and meter tend to go together, because the pattern of sound becomes important as well. Not just ‘do these words sound alike’ but the spacing between them becomes important.

One way to combat this is to not make the end of your sentence (or phrase) the end of the line. By adding in a pause elsewhere, it helps spread the flow of sounds, rather than hitting the end of each line as a punch.

Other tool is off rhyme, or slant rhyme. These are words that aren’t the traditional rhyme, such as tours and yours but rather focus on the stressed sound. Yours and years are slant rhyme. Also eyes and light. That long I sound is matched between the two.

My recommendation is to come back to rhyme. Build up your other tool set first, working on your own voice. It may be that your voice and rhyme aren’t compatible. It may be they are perfectly matched.

That said, I do think everyone should go through the various forms. Writing a sonnet or villanelle offers structure, which can actually help free you to work. We’ll get to that soon.

at a later time
we will come
back to rhyme.

So, You Want to Write Poetry, Part One

First off, let’s take a moment to talk about poetry. Poetry is not a form of fiction, nor is it a form of non-fiction. It is a third tier, equal to both. Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry. Poetry can be real, made up, and any combination therein, in the same poem, much less in the same poet.

Poetry is a form of sound, first and foremost. Sound, word choice / word play. A form of language in all of its components. This is not to say there can’t be plot or narrative structure in a poem, only that they are not required.

The first thing you need to do if you want to write poetry is read poetry. I will suggest a starter: daily poem emails from the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poets. Two poems each day in your inbox to read.

Now, when possible, you should read them aloud. Some of the poems on have recordings of the poet reading as well.

This homework will be the very basis of the rest, because you have to change your mode when you write poetry. This isn’t fiction. You aren’t writing with a story in mind–you are writing with your ear, your breath.

Poetry is not flash fiction with line breaks. And yes, the line between good flash fiction and good narrative poetry is blurry at best, but in the end, they are still neighbors, and not mirror images.

This reading will come over into your own work as well. The first editorial task for any draft will be reading it aloud. Often, it will be to listen to what you are saying–does it match what is on the page?

In class we would get someone else to read our poems aloud to hear how they sounded from someone else. Then we would read it outl0ud ourselves, and the fellow students would markd down were we strayed as we read.

Your ear will edit for you, once it has been trained. Training starts with reading. So sign up for some poems, and let’s start training.