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Poetry is the most subjective and difficult literary genre, but it also carries with it the most weight as a form of expression. A well-written poem can inspire, and even change the world. And as a writer, there is no better feeling than having your words move someone in such a deep way. But how do you write a good poem? It’s a daunting task, especially for beginners. The good news is that with practice and a little patience, you’ll be writing poems that readers love in no time.
The best place to start with any new project is to read about its history and conventions of the genre, beginning with the content and context it was written in and old favorites that have stood the test of time. By taking in the history of the genre, you’ll know what works and how the poems before you have been received. Then you can start writing something for the modern-day viewers of your poem.
There are other ways to educate yourself about writing poetry other than just reading, of course. You can research rhyming schemes and write them on flash cards to create drilling sessions. To help yourself internalize rhyming patterns, you can learn techniques from the masters by analyzing their poems from front to back and seeing how different rhymes fit into their sentence structure or move from and into common speech or prose.
The only way you can learn how to write a good poem is to start reading poems, lots and lots of poems. Figuring out how to write a poem after reading your favorites takes time, but you’ll be surprised to find that some techniques are easy to identify. Some might encourage you to follow subtle details of human perception, or reflect on daily life in a gorgeous and startling way. You can even try to replicate the sounds that you hear, or pick out motifs and images. The beauty of these poems is in their differences, and that you have a unique way to express your thoughts. Cherish your own style — you’ll find the next step of how to write a poem a lot easier if you do so.
So now that you have a starting point, develop it. Don’t think of it as repeating what you see, but using it as inspiration. If a line feels particularly powerful, or seems to speak to you, write it down. You can even write the poem down immediately — either simple fragments, or a more formal document — so that if you find yourself stuck, you can look through the notes for ideas or inspiration. No matter how you write, keep in mind sentence length, pacing, repetition, and finding meaningful leitmotifs, and you can create a focused, coherent piece. You’re writing the poem — now how can you make it your own?
Know the names of the common poetic forms
In order to write a good poem, you first need to understand the different forms poetry takes, what defines them, and how each of them is put together. The two major divisions in poetry are a poem’s form and meters. Form refers to whether the poem is narrative or non-narrative, or metered or unmetered. Meters are simply the number of beats each line in a poem takes. The most common meters in English-language poetry are iambic pentameter, common meter, and blank verse. Imagery is also essential to good poetry. As you know, imagery is an expression of sensory perception through language. It is essential to every poem you read, and will be central to the poems you write yourself.
One of the biggest concerns for most people when it comes to writing poetry is choosing the right form. Forms can be ruled based off of their specific narrative and evocative elements or their meter. Some of the common lyrical forms are opus, ghazal, limerick, pantoum, prose poem, tanka, haiku, cinquain, sonnet, villanelle, and sestina. These forms can either appear singly or grouped together in a cycle. For instance, a sestina is like a sequence that will always end where it started, leaving a pattern in place. Tanka is also an example of a poem in a set pattern that spreads out over a group of linked work. The long sestina, for example, might be seen as an extension of the sestina that will not be ending.
Learn how to use poetic devices
Writing a poem is challenging because it must work within very specific parameters. One of the most important parts of writing a poem is to learn and study poetic devices so that you can create a work that sounds distinctive, unique, and—most importantly—disciplined. You may not realize it, but the way you use words has been influenced by poetic devices—even if you don’t identify yourself as a writer of poetry. For example, if you’ve ever said something like, “He’s as sad as a mile,” you’ve used simile. It’s impossible to create a unique, catchy, memorable poem without being familiar with some of the key tropes of poetry. So, we recommend reading, studying, and learning from great poets like Langston Hughes, Sappho, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Philip Larkin.
There are several kinds of poetic devices. The first is meter—the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. Roman and Anglo-Saxon metrical systems dominated for centuries, with some withering away into obscurity and others adapting to modern pronunciations. On a modern page of poetry, you’re likely to come across iambic pentameter, trochees, dactyls, anapests, and amphibrachs, among others. These are different ways to organize syllables, all suited to different kinds of poems. Iambic pentameter is perhaps the most famous English meter, found in Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. The exact definition of iambic pentameter is four iambic metrical feet per line and a strong/weak stress pattern in terms of sounds and syllables, but there are plenty of ways to bend, break, and play with this meter. Ecclesiastical is a variant that omits non-stressed syllables to make it easier to read.
Study a structure
Highly regarded poems follow a basic format. This may be as simple as an ABCB rhyme scheme, or there may be an intricate, multilevel rhyme scheme working within a complicated meter. You’ll want to write a draft of your poem, and then make notes as to which syllable counts most in your meter, which syllable gets the most emphasis in your rhyme scheme, and which words fall most heavily in your rhyme scheme. This will give you a basic outline to build off of while writing, and you can be sure that you’re giving each element of the poem the attention it deserves.
Once you understand a structure, you can write about pretty much anything and turn your writing into a poem. If you want to write about a relationship, make sure that your poem includes all of the prevalent motifs. Is the relationship declining? If so, use lines of fewer syllables to ‘enjamble’ the end of your couplets, and have those final words rhyme. Is the poem about rebuilding a connection, where you’ve become accidentally estranged from a partner? Inverse your syllable and rhyme structure to enlarge your syllables and provide a substantial caesura between your couplets. You can also expand your subject matter, using your knowledge of the typical elements of a specific poem form. Adapt a sestina, as if you were writing a poem about a relationship. Vary your rimes and gradually shorten each subsequent stanza — do this for six separate stanzas, and on the final one, even shorten your tetrameter lines and change your rhyme scheme to an ABAB to bring the poem full circle. You’ll never want to write a poem the same way again.
Learn good poem formatting
It may seem like a skinny, scant sliver of rules, but knowing how to format a poem is a vital part of learning how to write a poem. Nearly all poems get some form of format that identifies them as such. And while many people feel free to ignore any poetic formatting rules, there are important reasons to adhere to the standard format. First of all, following the poetic format will help you make your poems look like other poems. The shape of a poem itself actually affects the way a poem is read, and the various types of poetic format offer certain inflections and formalities that will help you to create progression and add subtle weight.
If you already have a clear understanding of good poem formatting, using that knowledge to spitball some ideas will help you figure out what you’re aiming toward. Adapt your poem to fit into the format of this sample poem. If you feel that such a constraint would be difficult, consider that just as many great poems have changed the world by going against the grain of public expectation, a good poem never has to be a genre-formatted poem. This is only a tool to help you with your writing, not a roadblock impeding your poem’s natural style.
Figure out what it is you want your poem to accomplish
Choosing what type of poem you want to write will dictate the form of your poem. Most poems will naturally take the form of a haiku or a free verse poem, since new beginners often struggle to make the more traditional forms work. When faced with this choice, it can be helpful to write your poem backwards, lining out the words you have left to write until you reach the correct margins, while still treating each line within that structure as a separate poem. This will help you cut and maintain a consistent voice throughout your poem.
Once you determine what kind of poem you want to write, write a short summary of its theme. This can be something as simple as “a happy poem,” but make sure that it lines up directly with what you’re trying to accomplish with your poem. For example, if you want to write a sad poem about heartbreak, “sad” isn’t enough. You have to be more specific, and explicitly describe why you are writing a sad poem. For example, if you want to use romantic love as a metaphor for the way humans interact with the world, then more traditional love poems and poems that use animal imagery land on the mark.
Write about what’s next to you
Finding inspiration for poetry often means finding inspiration in a boring or common subject to make it feel new. A good way to begin your poem is to spend time noticing and observing things in your natural surroundings. Watch the trees outside your window. Remember the scent of a rose you held. Spend time with the sound of cicadas buzzing in the background. Notice the uncurling patterns that lace shrimp make on an asphalt road. If you can take those ordinary things and turn them into symbols, you can align your imagery to convey greater meaning through the subjective filter of your writing.
Find symbolism in the things around you to inject new life into them. Similarly, if you can find new meaning in an object you think you already know, you can enrich your poetry. If you spend time observing the example of a single pebble, you’ll find so many little shapes and unique runes upon it, that deciding what to write about will be easy. You may notice parts of it that spark thoughts of travel, changes, or shifting relationships. Think about the different combinations of the pebble, and contrast each shifting change of surface with the permanence of the stone. Not only will it disclose deep secrets, an old, smooth pebble will exhibit an old, smooth charm.
Decide what form you want to write in
A poetry form is a specific type of poetry structure. It’s based on traditions that poets have followed for centuries — like how a short poem is always ten lines long, or how a sonnet is fourteen lines, but only has ten syllables in the first line, followed by eleven in the second line, nine in the third line, and so on. The rubric that governs the outline of fourteen-line sonnets, for example, is so distinct that experienced poets can virtually smell them from a hundred yards away. Often, imposing a structure like a blank verse sonnet onto a poem allows poets to unleash their creativity and produce memorable poetry.
It’s also worth noting that poetry’s traditional forms aren’t the only possibilities. Formal or traditional poetry is when poems follow specific rules and sounds and meter in the language, whereas free verse goes across traditional form or structure. Free verse tends to have no rhyme and predetermined syllables a line must follow. Experimenting with different forms will help develop your skills as a poet.
Use figurative language
The art of creating imagery with words is fundamental to poetry, so to be a successful poet, you need to ensure that your poems do this. But it’s also important to note that using figures of speech should be carefully considered. There can be a fine line between a striking image and bombast. For instance, the “pregnant pause” is an example of this, and has likely never been considered on its own, but when examined, it’s fairly obvious that it’s not a figure of speech of value, as one of its elements actually disorients the reader and disconnects their experience of the work.
The most effective figures of speech either spark startling resemblances or create an instantaneous emotional connection with the reader. For example, epithets and descriptive titles, such as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet, the melancholy Dane” are simultaneous narrative devices and cues of character. You could also consider similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, metonymy, onomatopoeia, and other poetic devices that bring both rhythm and vividness to your words.
Contrast description and cliché
A writer’s choice of words should be deliberate, producing clarity through detail and a sense of freshness through creativity. Unfortunately, all too often much of what is written descends into triteness through simplicity and meaninglessness through lack of detail that stand in stark, boring contrast to what details they do have. As you seek to create your own balance between colorful and frugal you may find yourself caught between a poetic cliché and a boringly specific micro narrative. A simple contrast of the two provides resolutions of trustworthiness, readability, and coherence for a poem, essay, report, and everything in between. By amplifying a sentiment of feel in your writing through choosing the descriptions a reader would feel to be just honest and timeless and by minimizing them with details given as to be authentic and specific, your prose will find its most resonant form.
Boasting a mastery of all conventional expressions of a certain mode of action usually misses out on the best of what that poetry can uniquely offer. For in saturating a report or narrative with the conventional modes of expression you will be eclipsed by the pastorals and psalms, et al. of the times. Going right ahead into the specifics will swamp you with any moment in the life you address and miss out on the ability to detail without sinking into a bottomless sub-noosphere of content. Execute this rule for poems and oratorios, essays, and everything in between, and you will surely find your trusted rhythmic balance between colourful and frugal.
Use unusual rhymes and sounds
When poets want to make their poems more interesting, they can use two additional methods of rhyming beyond the typical “end rhyme.” These methods are called “internal rhyme” and “forced rhyme.” Each one sounds a little confusing because its definition describes the word used in an unfamiliar way, but each one is very easy to apply. To use forced rhyme, put a vowel sound before the rhyming syllable instead of a consonant sound. poems that use forced rhyme will make greater use of consonant sounds in other places in the line – and you may even find yourself with more consonant sounds per line than lines with vowel sounds. Poems that use internal rhyme rhyme words that are not adjacent to each other in the poem. Listen for words that fall just the right number of syllables apart for a pair of internal rhymes, and write your poem so that its strong rhymes are falling on weak vowels. For example, the word “dumb” rhymes with the words “up,” “fog” and “tug,” but the word “count” does not rhyme with these words. Though the examples are in poetry, they are also useful in short stories and prose.
Another way to make the words in your poem more interesting is to add unusual and unexpected sounds, even if it changes the traditional rules of rhyme and meter. Some people are put off when they stumble across a word that is not at all how it would normally be spoken or written, but being confused is what often makes poems stand out. Steer clear of the more common contranyms, usually just one or two syllables long like “for” and “four,” and instead break your poems up with words that convey multiple meanings. For example, “set” can mean on the furniture, or “canvas”, but in a painting, or a grouping of numbers and letters in multiplication, addition or an alphabet. Another common type of word changing sound that you are likely to hear in poems is the trope where a strange combination of sounds becomes a new word, for example “links” – as in golf links – or “Jell-O.”
Break rules well
Breaking the rules can leave a reader confused or irritated. As you’re learning how to write a poem, remember that for your audience, there’s always a thrill in figuring out what’s going on — even if the puzzle is meant to have a satisfying conclusion. In a particularly difficult or long poem, you may choose to break rules that you think will give you a truly unique experience for your reader, such as using free verse within a sonnet. Applying too many types of formatting, however, or breaking too many rules can interfere more than excite your reader. Even established poets can confuse the audience, simply because they’re playing with messages or genres seen or read before. If you want to learn how to write a good poem, it pays to study the rules first. After all, you’re the poet — you can rewrite them to suit.
That doesn’t mean, however, that once you start writing, you shouldn’t learn new things. As you’re learning how to write a poem, you want to be curious, and know where the structure came from…and then change it up anyway! Part of the strange magic of poetry is the intimate knowledge of form that’s developed by reading, writing, and listening to a wide array of poetry. When you decide to break falling-meter sonnets, for example, you’ll have more than enough literature on your side to make an informed argument for why what you’re doing works.
Get support when you need it
One of the potential downsides of an introvert writer — which, historically, has included most poets — is the tendency to keep criticism to oneself. The desire to defend poetry as a genre, or lament the mischaracterization of it as ‘simply’ line breaks or rhyme schemes, is all relatable, and can have a devastating impact on one’s early development. It’s a good idea, then, to seek out literary communities for support. Conventional wisdom has it that it’s important to build an editing team — these can be in-person or online — but the important thing is to have an outlet for your concerns, and a clique of writers to offer you constructive criticism, rather than simply providing proof that you’re not alone.
The end goal here is to expand your network of poems and poets, and build a collection of strong opinions, whether your work is in regular or unconventional meter, free-verse, or additive. If you happen to be going through a dry spell where it feels as though you’re not making any progress, look to your consulting editors for inspiration. Do you want to expand your subject pool? Breadth your poetic influences? Do you like the way your work makes emotions feel immediate and concrete? You might find an answer by looking at your trusted editors’ styles.
Consciously studying the forms and history of poetry will help you understand the fourth step on the journey to authoring your own poem.
Exchange self-censorship for mystery
Mystery is crucial for a successful poem. Poems that avoid mystery are little more than overly-deliberate pieces of instructional literature. A great poem tells a story, delves into an interesting idea, or invokes powerful emotions. Like all writing, poems require research, but if you explain what you’re exploring in your poem, you’re already falling into the trap of removing the mystery. Rather than explaining and understanding, readers want to wander the dark forest of your mind along with your own curiosity. Mystery is a crucial aspect of a good poem, and its something your writing should strive for as well.
Too often, self-censorship, or engaging with an internal editor takes over and says “That’s too weird” or “no one wants to know that.” It’s a deadly sin of writing, and it can kill your poems right in their tracks. What separates a good poem from a bad one is engaging in intense introspection and asking yourself each of those hard questions. Who are you as a poet ? Did anyone outside of your parents care when you won a poetry contest in second grade? Because chances are, the same kind of people who asked you about that vote for bad poetry. Just as Silence in the Snowy Fields asks us to consider what can and should be lost and found, bare all of these rough ideas and jagged experiences and leave them out on the page. Because if you can reveal a fearless, vulnerable side of yourself through the poem, that’s more meaningful than any sleek way you could ornament the edges.
Poems have always been valued on the seriousness of their themes and a challenge to the poet’s skill. That’s one of the most delightful aspects of them. The economy of language and the precision of thinking can be thrilling. The fact that good poems can say such important things with so few words can be incredibly potent. Maybe the greatest benefit of getting to know the rules for writing a good poem is all the freedom you’ll get to break those rules.
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