How to write a poem

First of all–and most importantly–you can’t go looking for it. (Except, of course, when you do, as I am here.) You will go looking, most likely, because you want it and you’ll get tired of waiting for it to come tapping on your shoulder one day when you’re in line at the grocery store or strolling the library shelves or walking the dog, as if your writing life were a romcom and you are a young Meg Ryan (if she were weightier, somehow, and far more deep, like you) and the poem is Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal (but smarter and more handsome). Honestly, you can go about it either way–looking or not, purposefully or not–but the best ones happen upon you, usually when you’re engrossed in some other pursuit, in being alive.

While you’re doing that–being alive, living a life–the true ones will come at you sideways, catch your attention for a moment through a fragment of memory, a snippet of language, a scent that takes you home. It’s such a balancing act, you know? There you are, immersed in some experience or another, and then, this other fascination comes along and you have to decide if you will follow it.

Let’s say you do. (You’ll have to, if you’re going to write a poem.) You turn to follow what beckons, to see where it might take you.

From there, well, things can go so many different ways. (Isn’t that part of the thrill of it, that you can’t know how it will all go?) It’s the beginning of the dance, and it’s different for all of us, really. It’s different every time, even though it might feel like you take the same steps over and over again. The more you write, the more you’ll come to know and hone your moves, develop your way of being with words. Some of us rush in, stripping ourselves bare before we’ve hardly gotten through the door, while others peel layers slowly, savoring each new revelation before reaching for the next. Either way, surprises abound, things we couldn’t anticipate when we started.

So many think it’s all about that first draft and getting it on the page. They think the passionate melding of your senses with your language with your hands with your memories is the heart of the matter, the most important thing; they think that’s what writing a poem is. Sometimes, rarely, maybe. But write long enough and you know: That’s only the beginning, that initial tumble into the sexy potential of it all. The next day (or week or month), when you open your eyes to light and see not a grand passion but crumpled sheets and stale metaphors and the mess of your feelings strewn across the page: That’s when you decide if where you’ve gone is worth a longer stay.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes that heady frenzy is the point, and it’s enough just as it is. Maybe you’ll walk away from it, grateful for some thing it helped you see or know or remember. Maybe it was just an itch you needed to scratch. Maybe it was nothing, and you can see that and it’s fine, just fine. It was what it is. You go back to walking the dog and buying groceries and picking up library books, perhaps more primed to notice the world’s glances that come your way, that spark that could turn into a real poem.

Sometimes, though, you know it’s the beginning of something more than words scrawled through some feeling’s heat. It’s something you could sustain, that could sustain you. So you turn toward it and hold on.

This is where the work begins. (All poems are work, just as everyone says.)

At first you tackle the easy things, a word here or there, a phrase, a clause. You begin tentatively, seeing where things hold and give. The more you come to know the poem, the deeper you’re able to go. You add, delete, and combine with confidence. You trim the redundancies and the modifiers that are about nothing but nervousness or bravado or fear. You might write or cut whole stanzas as you realize what the poem is going to be, to mean. The more you polish, the more clearly you see, and you keep only the parts that work with the whole. The poem begins to gleam. You do, too.

Sometimes, it’s as easy (and difficult) as that. Other times, you get snagged or stuck. You do and undo, do and undo in futile loops. You might come to doubt yourself. You might tell yourself that you’re a shit writer who’s never written anything worthwhile and that you’re probably not capable of writing at all. Get over that. It’s just early life trauma coming around to have its way with you. Don’t let it.

However, if you try and try and try and can’t get anywhere, it’s time to take a step back and consider radical revision. It’s time to look hard at the frame you built in that first coming together, to see if the way you began allows for a structure that holds. Do you need to let someone else be the speaker, change the tense, impose (or tear down) a form? Oh, how hard it can be hard to realize that what you’ve written doesn’t work, that to save any of the poem you will have to rebuild from the ground up. You might hate doing this because you’ll feel as if it won’t even be the same poem any more.

Maybe it won’t. It might not be worth saving, the thing you’ve turned your beloved poem into. You might have to let it go.

If you’re not ready to do that, you could try just putting it away for awhile. Go about your business and get some distance. When all you can see is weakness, when you can’t remember what you ever saw in the poem anyway, when you’re sick of the sound of its voice, when the poem on the page just can’t become the one in your head, maybe give it a rest. Just put it aside. Let it be. (You might even try writing some new poems for awhile.)

One day, when there’s a chance the words might sound fresh again, pull it out and see what it is to you now.

Sometimes you’ll realize you were an idiot, that you were just too close to the whole thing to see what you had. Other times you’ll realize it was as doomed as you thought, or that even though it’s not all that bad, it just isn’t and can’t be what you hoped for. Let it go, if that’s what’s true. Do so with peace. You learned something from it, you know. You always do.

None of your words are ever wasted.


These words grew from an exercise from The Daily Poet, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Solano. It’s a book I picked up last summer, when I was strolling a bookstore and imagining what the coming fall would be. I thought I would be fully retired, with lots of time to write. As I had no ideas about what I might want to write, I thought a book of exercises might be useful for building a consistent writing practice, a good way to discover what you want to focus on.

As this week turned toward its end and I realized I hadn’t written anything (again) or (again) felt the pull to write anything and knew I didn’t want to write about any of the things that had been yammering inside my head, I pulled out this book that I’d done nothing with (so far) but put on my shelf.

The book contains a writing prompt for each day, and I chose the one for the day I’d be publishing this post, November 14:

Teach Us: Write a poem that teaches the reader about something….Have this “teaching” happen through the poem, but have it be about something else entirely….See what you can teach the reader when you write the poem about something other than what is being taught.

Feel free to let me know what you think the true subject of the writing is. 🙂 I did not write a poem, and you don’t have to, either. The beauty of a book of prompts is that the whole point is just to get you started. You can do what you want with them, and this was a week in which I needed to do more of what I want and less of what I think I should. It was nice to shut the yammering up for a bit.

13 thoughts on “How to write a poem

  1. Ally Bean says:

    The true subject of writing? To communicate clearly. Is that a too simplistic answer? I figure if you get your message across it doesn’t matter if it’s a poem or an essay or text message, you’ve been articulate and achieved your goal.

    • Rita says:

      I had something else in mind–something that’s not about writing. But now I am glad I didn’t reveal what the subject was for me. I’m always curious about and interested in how readers make sense of a text. I think readers are co-authors in important ways.

  2. Kate says:

    Love/marriage? I took a writing workshop in college and my professor basically called me basic (I mean it wasn’t that wasn’t what he said – but he said I should write Hallmark cards which may be even worse) because I almost always see everything (and write everything) about love.

    I liked hearing from you this way this week! It was fun.

  3. TD says:

    While I was slowly reading this post, it took me to my thoughts about my own intimate relationships; my two marriages, my fiancée, and three other proposals of marriage that I walked away; all of which I’m at peace now with all of each of those journeys of my life.

    So, think the true subject of this writing might be of your own current marriage. Of course I don’t really know.

    I’m suspecting that this writing might really be about your journey with your current self as a school room teacher, now.

    Only you truly know. Turning down the volume of the mysterious brain perhaps is beneficial to be able to hear what your individual being needs (not of wants, not of should, not of expectations, not acting a part as others insist the role play for their own need or financial gain).

    Perhaps I’m completely wrong?

    • Rita says:

      Oh, TD–I’m so sorry. I thought I’d written a reply to your comment. What I’d say is, of course you comprehend! This is one of those texts that are open to a lot of interpretation. What I had in mind was how to love, which encompasses all the ideas you had about it.

      • TD says:

        I appreciate your energy to reply. I came across a very helpful current date article of a research study of patients with Graves’ disease & hyperthyroidism which I was diagnosed with when I was forty only because government regulations required blood testing that year of thyroid during annual physical doctor exams. I suspect, I inherited this from my father’s side of family which I was not allowed to have relationships with because of my mother. My mother repeatedly had me checked during my young childhood for diabetes as thyroid was not something doctors checked in children. The current research article discussed that hyperthyroidism (over active thyroid) and Graves’ disease is accompanied with depression and anxiety. I suspect that my mother witnessed my behaviors with depression and anxiety, yet was unable to comprehend as the medical knowledge was not available. The article offers a reminder to those like me who struggle with depression and anxiety. I sometimes question my comprehension (brain functions) as Hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease is a physical and mental illness with no cure.

        To this day my mother is still in denial of my health condition. I’m certain that my mother means no harm within her denial which serves her protection of her own inner deep feelings about my father.

        This is another one of those love relationships that I also could see in your writing post this week. Perhaps the information may be helpful for your other readers.

        Hyperthyroidism – over active – is not to be confused with hypothyroidism – under active which is common completely different. Huge difference between an E and an O.

        • Rita says:

          I’m sorry you’re living with a chronic illness, especially one with mental health impacts. I know a little about that. I’m glad you got a diagnosis; I’ve found that there’s some real relief in that.

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