When you’re waiting for the curtain to rise at a theatrical production, you wonder what the stage will look like. Will the first few moments show dazzling scenery or characters prancing about? Will silence or song fill the air? What are you in for, and where will it take you? The catchphrase “lights, camera, action” captures the exhilarating transition from darkness to light and stillness to dancing. When you stand on the threshold of a poem, you’ll have similar questions and emotions swirling through your mind.
Whenever I’ve asked my students to write a poem, I invariably hear the question, “Where do I start?” My immediate reaction is consternation, plus a certain level of frustration (in case you don’t know, writing teachers can be an exasperated bunch). Poetry is all about your surroundings, right? So, formulating a topic should be as easy as attending school, going to work, or otherwise carrying out your daily routine. Why, oh student writer, are you overthinking this task? It’s supposed to be fun!
When you think of poetry, what comes to mind? Language strung together that you don’t understand but somehow exemplifies the standard of literary beauty? Sentences that drop off in the middle and flow onto the line below?
If you’ve ever toured an art museum, you can’t walk far without confronting the power of images. The paintings tell stories of animals, families, wars, and kings, each holding a special significance for onlookers.
Every fiction writer has fallen in love with stories and dreams of engaging readers the same way. Few, however, are interested in poetry. In our modern age, this art form fights a losing battle against flashier entertainment.
Poems come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short like blips on a radar screen, provoking a burst of thought in the reader (haiku, for example). Others are long, sweeping songs full of passion, emotion, suffering, and death (Homer’s epics). And many in between tell stories of people, objects, and animals (from Tennyson to e. e. cummings). But few types of poetry leave you as simultaneously stuck and fascinated as the villanelle.
A glance at the pages of history reveals that poetry is not a young art. Poets from the Greek and Roman epochs were often renowned rhetoricians—their speeches captured the minds, imaginations, and sensibilities of the people in that era. Thus, poetry and rhetoric (the art of persuasion) are not far removed from one another.
When you take the leap and attempt writing poetry, you’ll find a multitude of tools at your disposal. Some are self-explanatory, some are surprising, and some are downright strange. All you need is practice. You can arrange rhyme, metaphor, and simile in a variety of combinations to wreak havoc with language.
I have a couple confessions to make. First, I am biased toward poetry, not because I believe it is inherently better than other art forms (like novel writing), but because poetry is largely misunderstood. People interrogate poetry to gauge its worth, asking questions such as, what is the point, why are we reading this, and why do people even write this?