Legolas and I have recently taken the position of Poetry Moderators for Poet’s Treehouse over at the HSB Backyard. The rules will soon be posted up at the Backyard and you can learn the details about submitting your poetry to us there. In honor of this event, I have decided to post a little "tutorial" on how to write poetry. Hopefully this will be helpful to some of you!
Poetry, like every other kind of art, has a form. It has rules and reasons and a particular routine. Today, many people are forgetting this. They think poetry is just some genius quality that a few people have and the rest of us must live without. It is true that some people are naturally gifted at writing poetry but all of us can be good at it if we really want to.
I am reading a book this year called “The Grammar Of Poetry” written by Matt Whitling. It speaks of the different forms of poetry and covers the basic rules that apply to all poetry. Knowing these rules has really helped me to write better poetry and even to enjoy other people’s poetry better. The book actually goes into quite a bit of detail but the points that have been the most helpful to me are these:
For different types of poetry, different orders of stresses are used. In poetry scanning (going over a poetical work to determine what meter and rhyme scheme was used) each accented syllable is marked with a stress symbol, a little slash above the accented syllable. An unaccented syllable is marked with a breve, a mark shaped like an upside-down half moon and placed above the unaccented syllable. The three forms of poetry that I have read about so far are iambic, trochaic and anapestic.
In iambic poetry, the second syllable is accented but not the first. An example of a piece of iambic poetry is Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” which begins like this: (I have put the accented syllables in bold type so that you can see where the stresses are)
“He clasps the crag with crooked hands
Close to the sun in lonely lands…”
Trochaic meter is the exact opposite of iambic meter- in trochaic meter the stress is on the first syllable, and the second syllable is unaccented. An example of trochaic poetry is this line from Chesterton’s dedication in the Ballad Of The White Horse.
“…Carrying the firelight on your face,
Beyond the loneliest star.”
Anapestic meter is formed with two unaccented syllables and then one accented one. An example of anapestic poetry is Lord Byron’s “The Destruction Of Sennacharib” which begins like this:
“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold…”
Dactylic meter is the exact opposite of Anapestic meter. It is a combination of of three syllables- the first is accented and the second and third are not. An example of dactylic poetry is this
“Hail to the chief who in triumph advances,
Honored and blest be the evergreen pine!
The best way to write good poetry, though, is not to memorize a bunch a grammar rules but to READ poetry. Although learning about poetical grammar and forms is helpful, the most important thing is to read the works of other poets. This is crucial for providing the vision and inspiration necessary for writing good poetry. (Some of my personal favorites are Alfred Lord Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, and Gilbert Keith Chesterton.) When you read a poet, concentrate on their style and what subjects they generally focus on. Try to get a feel for what the poet is like- their worldview and life. A good way to write poetry is to first read a poem written by another poet and then, with the meter still in your mind, to try and write your own poem about a different subject but using the same meter. Maybe you could try to identify the meter too.
However you decide to study poetry, remember that it is meant to be enjoyed!