You’ve combed through Poetry Magazine and checked out at least half a dozen poetry collections. You’ve immersed yourself in the world of enjambments and alliteration. Now, are you ready to create your own “rhythmical beauty?”
You know that old expression, I’m not a Doctor, but I play one on TV? That’s kind of how I feel about myself as a poet. No, I never starred in my own television show playing a crime-solving poet or a life-saving wordsmith. But I have studied poetry, somewhat extensively, even. I rediscovered poetry—and discovered contemporary poetry—in a college Creative Writing workshop. My professor, a published poet/free spirit, encouraged us to play with language, have fun, be truthful, and always be original. We read poets like Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, John Ashberry, Phillip Levine, Rita Dove and many others. We wrote our own poems and critiqued each other’s work (not as cutthroat a process as cinema would have you believe). We tried to shape our words into different forms: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, Dadaist creations, and pantoums. (I failed miserably at the pantoum, by the way. Read Linda Pastan’s poem “Something about the Trees” for an example of an excellent pantoum). I ended up taking three Creative Writing workshops with the same professor; I was that enthralled by the excitement of being creative, of twisting and shaping language in new ways. In graduate school, my favorite course was Northern Irish Poetry. We read Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon (see Awkwardly Meeting Authors), Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon, and Medbh McGuckian, among others. From this class, I learned how important poets are in documenting life, not just as individuals, but as a society and as a world. Poets are dreamers, yes, but more than anything they are truth tellers.
It’s true that poetry is defined as poetry because of certain characteristics like meter, rhyme, figurative language, and so on. But let me clear up, once and for all, what is perhaps the biggest misconception about poetry: POEMS DO NOT HAVE TO RHYME!! Unless you are trying to write within a certain form that demands a rhyme scheme, like a sonnet for example, you should not feel encumbered by rhyme. A poem’s degree of musicality depends on your vision as an artist. Along with this, it is important to remember that poetry comes in all types of forms. Maybe you are destined to be a songwriter, putting your poetry to music, or a Dadaist a la Tristan Tzara. Recently, I was blown away by the slam poem “Shrinking Women,” performed by Lily Myers. The theatricality of it is wildly different from my own style, but I can’t help but be mesmerized and moved by the content of it. At certain points, I want to jump up like Meryl Streep at this year’s Oscars, pointing my finger and yelling Yes! I could never write or perform something like it, but maybe you can.
So, you see, poetry and I have a history. I may not be a professional poet, but as a former amateur and student of the form, I’ve picked up some knowledge. Here are a few writing exercises to get you started:
- Always carry a little notebook around with you wherever you go. Use it to describe interesting people you encounter, jot down snippets of overheard conversations, keep track of words that pop into your head that you would like to use in your writing, and write down any random thought that feels the need to be noted.
- Set an alarm or stopwatch for five minutes. In your notebook, practice stream of consciousness writing. In other words, write anything. And write fast! Don’t think about spelling or grammar. Don’t even worry if your words are real words. Make up words! The point is to appreciate language for language’s sake. Do this at least once a week. At the end of the month, look through your entries and piece together a poem. You’ll be surprised to find how many interesting similes and metaphors your unconscious unlocked.
- Pull a book off your shelf. Any book. Browse through the pages and pick out ten nouns. Try to find ten specific, interesting nouns. For instance, pass over chair and ball, and instead select Kentucky or Coca-Cola. Next, challenge yourself to write a poem that contains all ten nouns. This will force you to get creative with your comparisons. Give yourself the added challenge of a maximum line length….Say, all ten nouns in fourteen lines? Learning to be an economist of language is something that must be practiced. Eventually, all of the “fluff” will be absent, and what’s left will be exactly what you want to say.
- Come to the library and pick a shelf at random. Close your eyes, run your finger over the spines of the books, and select one. The title of this book will be the title of your poem. Now write that poem with this title as inspiration.
- Write a poem inspired by your fantasy travel destination.