Have you ever wondered what is a poem, and where do they come from? In some ways, poems sum up the human experience. They can be short, like haiku, or long and epic, like Beowulf. They can deal with the simple, everyday life, or they can deal with the most complex ideas. There’s something so pure about the art of poetry, so beautiful in its simplicity. A poem can be a perfect little snapshot of a feeling or a moment in time. Sometimes a poem can be a moment itself. At its heart, a poem is a powerful expression of the human condition, an emotional resonance that goes beyond words. No matter what, poems are a part of every culture, and they’ve been around for as long as humans have been able to communicate. In this article, we’ll explore what is a poem, and what makes a poem great. You don’t want to go into a writing project without a full understanding of what you’re doing.
They make things real
To connect with an audience, poetry needs to be an honest, vulnerable expression of the human condition. More than any other type of writing, it needs to make the deepest connections with readers on both an emotional and a philosophical level. So, if you want to write a good poem, how can you walk this thin line? Let your experience be your guide. More than any other type of creative writing, a poem needs to express very specific moments in time, ones that both show what life feels like and give a glimpse of its essence. Let your experience — both happy and sad — be your muse. Conceptualize your life. When you’re putting together a poem, theme is the most important aspect. Themes are like arching ideas within the scope of certain works. If you focus your work around specific themes, your poem will be more focused and powerful. A poem, just like everything else, evolves — but if you put in the time to think about its central theme, it will evolve better.
Building on a theme makes your work more than just random thoughts, and it gives people a specific way to connect and respond to your work. The most successful poems can become part of your reader’s life — have them repeat it to their friends, go back to it many years later, and more. If you’re doing your job right, you’ll never have to make another poem the same way, so quit while you’re ahead and focus on the big picture.
Different people, different times, different contexts — what is a poem? The different styles and forms that poetry has taken over thousands of years make it difficult to agree on what we mean when we ask, “what is a poem?” and “how do you write poetry?” But despite all the variety, at their core, poems are all about communicating shared meaning. And while there are many reasons to keep writing poetry throughout your life, from feeling empowered to make the most of your capacity for expression through to the satisfying tightness of a well-constructed rhyme scheme, ultimately, you’ll want to know how to write poetry for other people. Once you can make these poems work for your audience, anything else with writing poetry is just gravy.
Are there things that every poem needs? Well, it’s not a doorstop. Modernist poetry is very critical of traditional forms, some even replace poems with prose about a poem and consider it all as extracurricular. But what you will find is that all poems have a title, two at the very least. The number of stanzas or lines, which can be anywhere from one, to thousands. Some will have a rhyme scheme, or rely more on meter. Prose poems may or may not have spacing between lines. The answer is, of course, yes. Some poems will have impressive effects if they are long, while others will often be better in a shorter space. A slow, sonorous voice is what you want to carry a larger poem, while a normal sounding speed will fit a smaller one.
They ask questions
Understanding what questions to ask about a poem is important to understanding what makes a poem great. The design question asks, what are the intended form, pattern, or design? The historical question asks, where does it come from? This one gauges how similar or different the poem is to others of its time. The rhetorical question tries to figure out both the intended and actual effect of the poem. The logical question is related to this one, asking about how the poem is structured or intended to be understood. Last is the theme question, as this tries to understand what the theme is of the poem. Poems often have multiple layers of meaning to them, and asking yourself these questions can help shed light on what the poem is really saying. Understanding these questions can help you choose the right poem for a project.
A poem you could go with is Allusions by James Joyce. James Joyce loved understanding what is a poem, and what makes a poem work. In particular, he focused on ways you could combine or move between different traditions. This is clear in Allusions, which beautifully draws together so many different cultural hooks to create an amazing final piece. The structure is deceptively simple, it opens with a question about will in the original sense of the Romantic era. In the first stanza, the questioning persists as it is applied to another idea, nature, and how it relates to art. This suggests that nature is illogical, which disrupts the Romantic conception of the world as something rational, underpinned by human logic. Instead, we get a world, where the subject can drift away in the unknown, like “tossed clouds”.
They can be slapstick or full of delicate details
Fundamentally, a poem is a type of writing marked by rhyme and/or meter. This confers on poems formal qualities that differentiate them from prose. However, just a form isn’t enough to fully define a text as a poem, its content is also essential. This universality is especially noticeable when it comes to types of poems. Stanzaic poetry utilizes ottava rima, terza rima, blank verse, and free verse. Romantic poetry is sparse or preoccupied with nature. Sonnets have well-known rhyme schemes and consist of 14 lines. Haiku collects three lines that contain two sentences in such a way that the first line contains five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line has five syllables. Pantoums, on the other hand, read like elaborate symmetrical couplets. Shape Poems use the sentence to represent a 3-D object. Autotradrachms use one line with an embedded statement. Compare poems and replace capital letters with periods to represent changes in syntax. The specific form of a poem is left up to the poems’ authors, meaning there is no single correct answer in how to write a poem.
They into analogy meaning
Readers may feel feelings as they read your poetry, but they’re not likely to recognize a pattern to their feelings. One tool that poets use to connect experiences across poems is the analogy — basically, a comparison between two things. For example, if you’re writing a poem about a friend who abandoned you, and another about the journey home, your reader will have less reason to experience the same feelings if you ascribe these experiences some identity, and say, for example, “The gap between these two friends leads me to the yawning void in my own heart” than if you simply say that “home is more than just a building.” Your reader can’t fully understand your words unless you explain the link with something concrete.
So when you’re working on your poetry, always remember that poetry isn’t just a word-by-word relocation of feelings — it’s a journey that your reader will follow along with you, and if you want them to reach your meanings, you need to change your scenery periodically. The easiest way to accomplish this is to add in comparisons between what your reader is seeing and something they’ve experienced before — this will help them complete the word chain, and stick your poem in their memory. Go on a walk outside, and use analogies to concrete words all over the landscape. Point them out periodically throughout your poem, but don’t overdo it — remember that your intended response is recognition, not surprise.
They create a visual metaphor
Shakespeare understood the importance of creating metaphor within his poetry, and this is just one of the reasons why he is still so beloved after hundreds of years. Finding the right metaphor enabled him to take standardized terms like death, night and loss, and make each individual poem seem unique, prompting different sensations in each reader. Like Shakespeare, it is your job to continually find new images and archetypes that can be used to invoke unexpected responses in your readers.
The best way to do this is to first think of the main subjects of your poems. What do you want your readers to understand about the topic? Some of your love and loss poems are going to be more hopeful, while others will be filled with sadness. Start creating a detailed, visual image for the poem in your mind, to help you get a visual perspective on how each poem should be written. Let’s say you wanted to create a poem about a break-up. You think of the wallowing, emptiness, and self-hatred that would show face for years after a divorce. Anything too delicate or clean won’t quite fit the picture you have in mind. You want something larger that your readers will also feel. This can be easy — it’s an emotional response you’re looking for, but make sure that your reader connects the emotion to the break-up feeling, rather than simply feeling your anger.
They have a tip-of-the-tongue experience
Most people have had the experience when they’re finally saying what they wanted to say for so long, but just couldn’t find the right words for it. Maybe it was a name. Maybe it was an emotion. Heck, it could even be the title of a book. When you can finally articulate the words, it feels great. Take this experience and apply it to poetry. The tip-of-the-tongue feeling is handy to get when you’re writing poetry, because you’ll know you’re writing when you’re feeling that way.
Not all poetry works that way, obviously, but go all out metaphorical on those words — what else could they be besides the word you’re hoping for? Your “fire” is obviously a long, long kiss, “home” is the feeling a holiday always inspires. The more impossible the connections seem, the better you are getting at using your words to tap into the feelings of the reader. If you want to make those connections even more complex and inventive, check out the Poetry Toolbox blog for loads of excellent advice to get you started. And if you ever have trouble getting the words out of your head, try talking them into a phone app that transcribes your speech. That way, you can still use your poetic mode of thinking, but you don’t have to skip a beat of typing.
A successful poem is all about balancing. It uses all five senses in equal proportion, employing short and long sentences, short verses and long lines, and strong rhythmic cadence. A lot of poetry relies on internal balance, with the emotional current circling back on itself to resolve in a way that feels satisfying to the reader. Successful writing depends on a lot of factors, but balance is one of the most important. In a world that moves too rapidly and where people are used to receiving instant gratification, everything is either too hot or too cold. In such an environment, a successful work is one that strikes an emotional chord and perfectly balances opposing forces. You best start looking for that kind of success right away — otherwise, that poem about good and evil will be a little too melodramatic.
When you walk away from a poem, you should recognize elements of meaning and voice. Poetry has a way of putting what you want to say in ways that a balanced, logical approach does not always accomplish. While you may love prose, there is really no substitute for a really good poem. If you struggle to find true meaning in other written works, make sure to check out what the poets have to say. In any case, you should feel the sense of rapture and bliss a poem generates upon its completion. Poetry is not easy, and this last step in the periodic table of writing elements has equally deep meaning. There is far more to the substance of great poetry than a pretty rhyme. You should never stop striving for that perfect sentence or thought. And you should never stop trying to get in touch with your inner poet.
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