You want to write poetry, but you don’t know where to start.
There are two components to the art of poetry, the writing part and the reading part. The writing part is the part where you actually DO it. The reading part is how you get better. We’ll cover both here.
For the record, I have been through a lot of formal education in the art of both reading and writing poetry, so I know a thing or two about how it is taught. I don’t agree with absolutely everything that was part of my training, but also there were some good takeaways, which I will impart to you here for free!
I. WRITING POETRY
A. Some Notes on Permission
My first point here is that you do NOT need anyone’s permission to start writing poetry. You do not need to get a degree or even take a class. You do not need to Google it. You do not even need MY permission.
Secondly, your poetry does not have to be for anyone else. It doesn’t have to be “good,” it doesn’t have to be “publishable.” What matters is that you had fun and expressed yourself. (Yes, there can definitely be a type of satisfaction in getting really good at a craft and sharing your art, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.)
Really, you don’t need me at all.
However, I CAN help you get started. You will probably have an easier time and put less pressure on yourself if you don’t expect your poems to spring fully-formed from your brain. Instead, there is a trick for first drafts called Freewriting.
Freewriting is a little bit like dreaming. You set pen to paper (yes, usually analog writing is recommended) and you write literally anything that comes to mind. Yup, anything. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be good or profound or true or anything else in particular. Don’t edit or cross anything out. Being fully uninhibited during the freewriting process takes practice, and it’s something I’m still working on myself, but I recommend giving it a try anyway and seeing what happens.
After you’ve filled a page or two, take a break and let your work breathe for a few minutes. Get up and do something else. When you come back to it, reread what you’ve written and highlight or underline what’s interesting. Maybe you made up a weird turn of phrase that you like, or you really nailed how you feel in a certain situation.
After you’ve selected the most interesting parts of your freewriting session, you can use the lines and phrases like fridge magnets to construct a poem. Don’t be shy: throw out or fill in absolutely anything you want.
Revise as much or as little as you want. Sometimes it feels great to get the accuracy that comes with editing, while other times it can feel stifling. Read it out loud to yourself if you want. Do exactly what you want to do at all times in your poetry journey. It’s YOURS.
II. READING POETRY
If you want to get better at poetry and expand your capabilities, I highly recommend reading poetry. Luckily, this is not as intimidating as it might sound.
In my personal opinion, it can be important to read more modern poets, from the last 70 years or so. For one thing, their work is often more accessible. For another thing, there is more diversity in the demographics of the writers and their subject matter. Thirdly, if you’re super serious about writing to publish, it will show you current trends in the poetry world.
A. How To Read Poetry
What is the best WAY to read poetry? There isn’t one. Focus on getting as many words into your brain as possible at first— you can analyze later as your instincts get honed into skills. Soon you will notice meter and slant rhymes and all that other stuff, but for now you can just read for enjoyment.
You may want to try reading your favorites out loud to hear how things sound. This may add another layer to what you already liked about the poem!
You may also want to buy your poetry books so you can write notes or highlight in them.
B. Reading Suggestions: Where To Start
(I had fun with these suggestions, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t good places to start!)
If you’re queer and you’re not shy about the sexual, read Allen Ginsburg.
If you like nature and Abraham Lincoln, read Walt Whitman.
If you care about Black Power, read Nikki Giovanni.
If you’d like something accessible and easily digested, read Rupi Kaur.
If you love nature and enjoy feeling at peace, read Mary Oliver.
If you’re sad and feeling kind of feral, read Sylvia Plath.
If you like rhymes, read Robert Frost.
(Everyone should read Joy Harjo.)