Creating Poetry from First Ideas to Finished Work – a summary

Creating poetry from first ideas to finished work; how to judge, criticise and revise your poetry – a summary.

(This came from when I was an editor of “Proof”, a magazine of  new writing  for Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts and from workshop sessions I have run)

(a)       First ideas

3 golden rules

(a)          You only learn to write by writing.

(b)          Read all the time – especially contemporary writers – this is vitally important. You are a twenty-first century  writer and you need to speak with a twenty-first century voice – otherwise what you are creating, no matter how good, is a pastiche of a style which is no longer appropriate.

(c)           Keep  a notebook – jot down anything that interests you; anything you see, hear, read, remember; make drawings. This might become more elaborate and turn into a journal, but don’t let it become an end in itself.

Some starting points:-

1.            A sound, a phrase running through your head…almost a composer’s approach.

2.            A picture in your mind – a sort of snapshot of an event, real or imaginary, waiting to be filled out. Memories offer a rich source of ideas – those bright pictures which remain with you for no apparent reason are very important.  Find out why.

3.            Any profound emotional experience, happy or sad, will offer a starting point, though you’ll often find you need to be well-distanced from the event before it can be transformed into poetry.

4.            A snatch of conversation, a newspaper headline, graffiti on a wall….write it down! Writers are vampires!

5.            You have a story to tell – a personality to adopt. Look at myth, fairy tale, legend – these usually deal with archetypal situation full of conflict. Take a character from history. Be an animal. Make someone up!

6.            You have a vague feeling/emotion to write about it. Name it – jealousy, fear – once you have a  word you have images, associations, the germ of the poem you will write.

7.            Go hunting. Go for a walk, go out for the day, or just go on with your daily routine, but tell yourself you are image-hunting and that you have to come back with at least 5 images.

8.            Try making a free association list just before you go to sleep  each night – write down as many words as you can each evening for about ten consecutive nights. Don’t read what you have written until the end of the ten nights. You should find that the clusters of associations which emerge from your lists will give you themes that interest you.

(b)       How to turn ideas into poetry

3 golden rules

(a)          Poetry is for showing not explaining – it is a subtle art which demands a positive response from the reader, so leave an area for interpretation. Prose is the language of analysis, poetry of suggestion.

(b)          Poetry results from close and meticulous observation – someone reading your words should be able to share your experience.

(c)           Get something down. Once you have your subject abandon logic, and write down anything that comes into you head. You’ll find that two groups of images will emerge: those directly connected with your topic and those which have no obvious link. The second, indirect, group do have a logic (the kind of logic that structures your dreams), and these give you your symbols. They might be exclusive to you, but if you use them consistently your work will be accessible to readers.

(c)       How to structure poems

1.            Keep the structure simple initially. Once you have words on a page, you need a form, a structure – a container, if you like, to put them in. But unless you are really seduced by the challenge of strict form, don’t worry about rhyme and metre until later.

2.            Try syllabics (e.g. 2 lines of 5 syllables, one of 3,  3 lines of 8 syllables, one of 5 etc.) Or “sentence lengths” – 2 long lines, 1 short etc.

3.            Just arranging your images gives you a list poem. Elaborate by e.g. arranging your list working through all the senses. (I see, I hear, I smell, I taste, I touch – though you don’t have to use them all). Use other progressions – from youth to age, light to dark etc.

4.            You can often see things more clearly by presenting repetitions and contrasts:- e.g. Yesterday, I was/today, I am; I love/I hate; any other pair.

Or repetitions i.e. Seven lines of equal length, start first 3 and the seventh with subject (e.g. “water”).

5.            Question/answer – this is an old chestnut…the staple of the ballad form.

6.            Or  ask yourself a series of questions – What am I? Where am I? Why do I? etc. Or who/where/why/what/when.

(d)       Judgement and criticism

Commonest faults in work submitted to “Proof”:-

1.            Abstract, woolly phrases that sound enticing, but don’t communicate any information: this sort of line:- ‘the endless inevitable circling search for timeless truth’. Michael  Baldwin  talks about the sudden descent of fog: “nine-tenths of the people who set out to write poetry experience a kind of mauve fog in the brain…they use such foggy words.”

2.            Lack of subtlety; compulsive over-explanation. Always assume your reader is at least as clever as you are, otherwise you’ll talk down to him/her.

3.            Outmoded poetic forms – e.g. Sub-Wordsworthian pastiche. If you are using strict form, use it correctly, but write as a twenty-first century poet – don’t write as though you have suddenly been catapulted back into the past.

4.            Archaic diction – this tends to go hand in hand with 3. You really can’t use “o’er”, “where’er” etc.

5.            Clichéd description – e.g. using the most obvious adjective so that winds are always howling and clouds sailing. If a word comes too easily, you should probably reject it.

6.            Over-adjectival writing – the English language is full of precise nouns and verbs, so find the right one and ration your adjectives. There is seldom any good reason to use two adjectives in a row!

7.            Over-alliterative writing.

(e)            Revision

1.            Listen to your work; record it if you can. It should sound good;  you should be able to read it aloud.

2.            Look for accidental repetitions.

3.            Check grammar and spelling – and tenses.

3.            Look for woolliness, and be prepared to cut the poem ruthlessly to ensure that you say exactly what you meant to say.

4.            Get someone else to read and criticise your work for you. (Someone whose opinion you respect and someone who isn’t too kind!). This is successful whether or not you agree with what

Is said because if you agree with the criticisms made then you can make improvements . If you disagree then it does you good to have to decide why the poem shouldn’t be changed.

5.            Put your poetry away and look at it again after a break – you can often see glaring faults which were previously invisible to you.

6.            Revise it again!


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