How to Write Poetry

Webster's defines poetry as "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm." Derek Lowe, former all-state wrestler and classmate of mine at Oakwood Area High School, defined it as "really gay." Though both are true, neither description gets through to the heart of this most misunderstood of art forms, what poetry means to the people who write it, what its purpose is in modern society - namely, to coerce bohemian women into having sex with you. Before we begin the lesson, here is a brief history of poetry:

Poetry was invented a long time ago in England by a man named William Shakespeare, who was also Francis Bacon. Shakespeare was bald and wore puffy shirts with garish, ruffled collars. His greatest works were his "sonnets," a series of poems about hitchhiking from New York to San Francisco in the 1950's. Then, Shakespeare died. Other Englishmen rallied to the cause. Alfred "Lord" Byron, Ezra Elliot, and TS Pound showed how poetry could be technically perfect while retaining the warmth of a VCR manual. In France, Arthur "Rambo" (pronounced Rim-bawd) taught us that life was meaningless. Soon, America got in on the act. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau formed the "Transcendentalists," an artist's collective dedicated to dodging taxes. Walt Whitman wrote a poem about grass. This all lasted until the mid-20th century, when beatniks were invented. Beatniks were a group of "cool cats" who smoked "tea" and listened to jukebox records of "bebop" musicians, like Elvis Presley. That brings us up to today, the "post-modern era," where all poetry is owned and regulated by The New Yorker.

By now I'm sure you're ready to jump right in. First remember that there are three main themes a poem can be about:
1. Love
2. Autumn
3. Vampires

Right, you've chosen your subject. Now here are three easy lessons that will help you write the perfect poem.

1. The Title

The title of your poem is a banner, an advertisement for what lies further down the page, more important than any other part of the text. It should relate directly to the poem's subject matter, while retaining an aura of mystery necessary to draw potential readers in. Therefore, I recommend calling each poem "Untitled," followed by the corresponding number of the poem (ex: the thirteenth poem you write will be called "Untitled #13").

2. Description

What sets poetry apart from other forms of writing is its descriptiveness. The point of poetry is not simply to convey information, but to make the reader feel exactly what the writer felt when penning the words. Generous use of adjectives and adverbs can turn an otherwise staid poem into a bounty of sensory delights. Even famous poets' work can benefit from the addition of descriptive words. Consider these lines from "Magnolia Flowers" by renowned Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:

I went lookin' for magnolia flowers in the dusk

And there was only this corner

Full of ugliness.

Good enough. But observe what happens with the addition of a few key words:

I went carefully lookin' for delicate magnolia flowers in the gloomy, dark dusk

And there was only this sharp, angular corner

Full of grotesque ugliness.

Whoa! Notice how the images jump off the page. What began as a vague allusion to one man's search for flowers has been turned into a detailed portrait of shattered expectations. By leaving nothing to the reader's imagination, we reduce the chances that he or she will get it wrong.

3. Rhyme

Despite what Hughes and many other "serious" poets would tell you, a poem is only great if it rhymes. Suppose you've chosen love as your subject. Start off by writing a simple sentence describing your love:

My love is tender-skinned and fair

Then, think of a word that rhymes with "fair." Use this to construct your second line:

My love is tender-skinned and fair

Her pale blue eyes and flaxen hair

See how easy that is? Note also the extensive use of adjectives (more can be added later during the revision process). All we have to do is repeat the process with the third line. You've described your love. Now what is she doing?

My love is tender-skinned and fair

Her pale blue eyes and flaxen hair

And laying her upon the chair

Good. You've established a picture of your love and placed her (as well as yourself) in a setting. Now close the stanza with a bang; use a non-rhyming line to create contrast and jar the reader's sensibilities:

My love is tender-skinned and fair

Her pale blue eyes and flaxen hair

And laying her upon the chair

I insert my manhood.

Never has the union of two souls been captured so adroitly on a single sheet of paper. Naturally it will take some time and practice before your own work mirrors the quality of that shown above. But by applying the lessons I've given you and working hard, I'm confident anyone can write poems on par with the all-time greats. If you find yourself still struggling to improve, here are a few last-second tips to help put you on the right path:

o Type "Gothic poetry" into a web browser. Study the examples and take notes.
o Invest all of your energy and emotions in a meaningless high school relationship. Then get dumped. Put your
simpering on paper.
o Make a half-hearted attempt at suicide. I recommend eating between ten to fifteen Vicodins, with a chaser of
red wine. Unless you suffer from some pre-existing health defect it won't be enough kill you, and assuming
you've lived a relatively sheltered life, you can pretend you've hit "rock bottom." Try your hand at some blues
o Try starting a line with "My darkness." Now imagine your darkness. What does it do? Infect your soul? Blind
you to reality? Expand on these themes.
o Drink lots of coffee. Frequent establishments that sell coffee.

William Carlos Williams wrote, "It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably something, something blah, blah, blah." I believe those words mean even more today than when they were written. Think not of poetry as a useless distraction for foppish dandies and limp-wristed gadabouts. Think of it as something you're not very good at writing. Then strive to improve. After all, it's the American way.

About the author:

Randall DeVallance is a 2002 graduate of Edinboro University. His stories have appeared in over thirty publications, including Vestal Review, Eyeshot, McSweeney's Online and Word Riot. He is also the author of a novel, Dive, and the short story collection Sketches of Invalids. Having recently returned from serving in the Peace Corps (Bulgaria) he now resides in Pittsburgh, PA.