Learning How to Write Poetry

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

This lesson will explain the basics of poetry for any aspiring poets. We will discuss the key elements of poetry and how to decide on which type of each element to use depending on the subject.

No Magic Needed

Imagine your refrigerator stopped working. If you wanted to fix it yourself, you would probably consult the owner's manual or the internet instead of just trying to figure it out yourself and hope some miracle happens. Writing poetry is like this--while a few might be able to jump in and write a great poem or repair a refrigerator without knowing how, most people do not have or need this ''magic,'' but instead need to consult an owner's manual to learn what types of poetry exist and how people write poetry. This lesson will explain popular poetic structures and devices to guide you in writing your own poetry.

Poetic Structures

There are many types of poetic structures, but most people are probably not attempting to write an epic poem like 'Beowulf', but instead a lyric poem which is usually written in first person and expresses the speaker's feelings and emotions. There are several different types of standard lyric poem structures, but lyric poetry is also open to interpretation and uses different types of meter and rhymes to get the meaning across. The basics to consider in poetic structure are stanzas, meter, and rhyme. Stanzas are groupings of poetic lines and commonly range from octaves, groupings of eight lines, to couplets, groupings of two lines--though some poets will use much shorter or longer stanzas for emphasis. Poets will often choose a type of stanza and use it throughout, using a new thought for each one or presenting a problem, then resolving it.

Meter is essentially the rhythm of the words as they are read. This is like playing a drum--when you hit the side of the drum, it produces a sound, but it is muted, whereas when you hit the middle of the drum, it produces a strong, resounding sound. There are different types of feet, or the groupings of each two or three syllables of rhythm, that use these muted or unstressed syllables with the strong or stressed syllables in a certain pattern. The iamb is the most common and is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, so a 'da DUM' pattern. When you see words like ''pentameter,'' they just indicate how many feet of each pattern are in the line; therefore, iambic pentameter (which is used in Shakespearean sonnets) is composed of five iambic units. There are a variety of these feet and choosing which to use depends on what your subject is. If you wanted to write about a river, you might choose an anapest, or unit of two unstressed followed by one stressed syllable, to create a rolling and soothing sound: 'da da DUM da da DUM'.

Rhyme Patterns

Rhyme, or using two or more words that have similar end sounds, is the other major factor in poetic structure. Some lyric poetry like sonnets have a set rhyme scheme: the 'abab cdcd efef gg' structure means the first line will end in a word that has a similar end sound to the third line and the second and fourth lines will rhyme (and so on through the quatrains) until the last two lines which rhyme. Considering what rhymes to use and how often is essential in writing poetry. Poets often use techniques called enjambment and caesura to avoid the monotony that rhyme schemes often create. Enjambment is when you do not end a line with punctuation and instead let the sentence or thought naturally flow into the next line while caesura is putting a pause in the middle of a line. Using these techniques can keep your poem from sounding too overly rhyming if you are sticking to a certain rhyme pattern.

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