How do you write poetry?
Back in the day, the answer to that question was “easy.” Because poetry was structured. Very, very structured.
And it rhymed. Somehow, someway, it usually rhymed.
That’s just the way it was, as with the case in John Donne’s time in the late 16th and early 17th century. He wrote one of my favorite poems of all time, “Batter My Heart, Three Person God,” which goes like this:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. I, like an usurp’d town to another due, Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy; Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Or consider Robert Frost, who wrote in the early and mid-20th century. You’ll probably recognize this famous opening of his:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Fast-forward to today though, and most poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore.
Which makes it both easier and, oddly enough, more difficult at the same time. Sometimes much more difficult, in fact.
Here’s how writing poetry is easier today: Anything goes.
Literally anything. Including the following. Which I just made up on the spot.
I look out the window. The sky is grey. So very grey. And I know you’re not here.
Now, that’s probably not the worst poetry ever. I’ve definitely, definitely seen “stuff” that’s 100% times worse.
But it’s not the best either. It doesn’t really evoke any strong emotions or images, as poetry should. Or – if I can rephrase for a moment – as good poetry does.
When constructing good poetry, every word counts. That’s why writing it (good poetry, that is) can be harder these days without the guidelines of structure and rhymes.
Boundaries really can be helpful, believe it or not. Even when it comes to creative endeavors. Without them, the “anything goes” mentality can mess with our heads… allowing too many options that become overwhelming and therefore lead to subpar results.
Here’s the thing about poetry: It’s supposed to build off or on analogies. It’s supposed to tie things together in the world.
Like the roaring ocean and the roaring of one’s mind. Or the feel of a new diamond necklace around your throat embracing you a little too closely, stealing your breath and trapping you in place.
It’s supposed to offer a new view of what we think we already understand.
And again, it can be easier to do that when you have at least a few constraints to work within. Not that having greater freedom (i.e., no need to rhyme) has to cripple you in those efforts.
Now that woman has a way with words!
But she has a way with words because she understands their power on a very personal level. In her case, I think she was just born with that gift. If that isn’t the case with you though, don’t fret.
You can still make it happen by:
Studying what words mean – as in their actual definitions
Studying how words feel – as in what emotions they evoke
Studying how words sound – as in whether they’re short or stylish or sweet or strong
Studying how words connect – as in which words work with which words.
By studying, I mean playing around with them, rhymes or no rhymes. Notice how they flow or don’t flow together, and how you can manipulate their meanings, collectively or individually, with punctuation, capitalization, or lack thereof.
Truth be told, you're probably capable of writing very good poetry. It’s merely a matter of how much you want to.