On Writing Poems – part 1

Do you want to write poems? Do you already write poems? Sometimes writing poems is easier than other times. Important to writing poetry is incorporating the mindset of having a practice. Make poetry a routine part of your day. I like to compare it to weeding in the garden, which is a practice. In the later mornings I go to the garden, just to view it, and I’ll see weeds, so I pull them. Sometimes that leads to discovering something else that needs to be done. If you do a little of that everyday, engaging with your garden, you’ll learn from it, enjoy it, and have a beautiful garden. 

For me, the best time for poetry is the morning. I’m an early bird by nature. I wake early, and I enjoy the wee hours when my mind is just awake, and clear. Free of the accumulated information which sleep seems to sweep away every night. Quiet and dark. I find this is the time when I easily make connections between things, and am open to sparks of curiosity and wonder.

My routine involves making coffee or tea and sitting down to my laptop, opening the most recent few things I’ve been working on, and a blank page. This morning it’s just one poem, a long poem, one of four I’ve placed in a folder just for them. They are of a common theme, and I think they could form a suite of poems, a small chapbook, maybe a chapter of a larger book. I use organizing methods like this as a way to inspire larger projects.

I will make a series of passes over any poem, like daily weeding. Or I imagine I’m a sculptor, faced with a large block of marble. I’ll need to chip away at the marble to uncover the final image in my mind with each passing over the poem. I start with the text. Every poem is first a blank page. In later entries in this On Writing Poems series, I’ll address how to face a blank page when you don’t know what to write, using forms and other methods, but for now, let’s focus on the page already filled with text. Mine is free verse, it started as a journal entry of sorts. I’ve been working on it for a few days now.

The very first step was to read the text and look for phrases and lines that sound musical and rhythmic, and to separate them out with line breaks where I would be taking a breath. I use my own natural rhythm of breathing and speaking as a basis for the poem’s meter, and I imagine sounding like a horn player. I note how my breathing changes as the poem changes, and am conscious of this feedback loop as I create the lines of poetry. 

I keep rereading. I go back to the beginning, and I read the poem aloud, typically in a whisper, but heavy enough so I can hear and feel my breath. My breath is the heartbeat of the poem; I keep a part of my focus always on my breath as I read the lines. I let my body sway and rock as I read, and I pay attention to when that feeling loses its way, when the rhythm changes, when the rhythm doesn’t support the words and the images and feelings they bring forth. I might need to change words, rearrange words, end lines in different places to keep the desired rhythm and flow.

Like a piece of music needs a rhythm that supports the song, providing a context for which meaning and feeling can thrive; a poem also needs a fitting rhythm, but there is no band, there is only my body. My diaphragm and my lungs and the muscles connecting them all, providing the pressure to force air in and out of my throat. So as I read these lines I pay attention to my body, and how it affects the sounds being produced, and the easy flow of all of the parts of my body as it works together. And as I edit my text, and reread, I notice how my body reacts and how the rhythm feels and sounds.

Sometimes I have something I want to say in particular, or a certain feeling I’m going after as I write a poem. I try not to hold on to those things very tightly. Once I have words down on a page, they are now their own thing, a being, a would-be poem, with a life of its own. Separate from me and whatever I intended, mostly. I think it’s easy to hold on to words so tightly you strangle them, afraid to let them say the things words say when you slam them all together because you are so focused on that original intent you had. They want to speak to you, they want to provide images and feelings to you that you hadn’t yet considered. As you read these words, accept that you are in a relationship with them. They aren’t you, and they aren’t yours. They are a thing you brought life to, and will need to nourish, daily, in order to make a poem. The words will bring forth images and feelings, and you’ll miss them if you are looking for what you meant when you started. Be open to everything you feel and everything that comes to your mind as you read your lines to yourself. That original intent you were going after? Don’t throw it away, you can still use it on another poem. You can generate a whole suite of poems by loosely holding on to that intent while nourishing what you write to become something more than you could have intended. 

Also be open to the fact that the exact opposite of all of this is also true. Just be open. Be open and repeat this every day.

As you read and edit, you obviously change words, add lines, delete stanzas. Just like weeding in the garden, if you discover a small project that needs doing, like transplanting a plant to another, better suited spot, focus on it, and do it. Follow through. I’ll find it helpful usually to copy that part of my poem to a new document, and perform my work on it in a sterile environment. Where I can compare the new to the old. I make sure to label files as I produce them, even if I don’t intend to keep them, just to keep my orientation as I copy/paste back and forth between versions.

This practice of passing over a poem everyday may go on for years. Or it may only happen once, all at once in one of those poems that just comes whole and complete like a lightning strike. But those are rare. If you have a practice everyday of reading and rereading your poems, tweaking them, bettering them, you will find yourself with a body of work in no time. And since you spend a bit of time everyday in your poetry practice, you will be prepared and ready for the moment when real inspiration hits you. If inspiration hits you while you are out running errands, it can be hard to take advantage of. But if it hits you while you are working on a poem, you are in a perfect place to benefit. And since you have a daily practice, the chances of this happening are now much higher. You’ll find inspiration hits you more often, and more often when it does you are already in front of your poems.

Start your daily practice right now!

Published by pedalpoet

Poet, writer, and songwriter living in Seattle, WA

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