Crafting a poem: an insight

by Susi Liarte

In this post I’m going to cover how I usually approach writing poems. It’ll be reflective of the type of poetry I like to read and write, which is short, rhythmic poems that try to capture some imagery or poignancy. There is no ‘knowledge’ required of types of poetry and it is not my aim to cover that in this post, so I’ll be using very little terminology. I’ll work on doing that in another post. With that out of the way, let’s start!

My poems usually start with a fleeting observation, typically about nature or life, that ends up either in a notebook or on my phone’s notes app. Now, some of these snippets might end up in an ongoing prose work but I’ll usually know if it’s a stand alone image floating in the ether. For example, “birdsong sweetly rising”. It was because I got that phrase in my head that I parked the post I was going to do in favour of this one, so that I could explain the process as I went. I have coffee, time to write, and instrumental music – I can usually write to lyrics when writing prose, but I find poetry needs a little less interference. (However, songs can be a great inspiration – and lyrics written down are just poems). So given the context of the moment I’m trying to capture, I soon end up with this:

I wake up to a melody

birdsong sweetly rising

Once I have my first line or pair of lines, that sets both the internal tone and rhythm of the poem. It doesn’t matter if it follows a formal structure or not, but I like to make more lines match whatever format I’ve created, because that’s what’s pleasing to me. So all it needs is a quick appreciation of where the stress falls to give us the ‘shape’ of the rhythm. Say it out loud or voice it internally a few times.

1. I wake up to a melody* (pause)
2. birdsong sweetly rising

*I don’t feel that the stress is as strong on the last syllable of melody, so it feels almost optional.

My aim is to create a line that matches where the stress falls. I can also choose to make it rhyme with the above, or (assuming the above line is the start of the poem) make the second and fourth lines rhyme instead. Or no rhyme at all! I’ll go with the first option and attempt it. The word that comes to mind is “blinding”. Given that I’ve woken up, we can assume this will be in relation to morning sunlight. One thing to point out about stress in words is that you don’t have to match the number of syllables. For example, adding “the” before “birdsong” doesn’t change the fact that the stress is still on bird. (Try reading the above again with it.)

So working backwards from the last word of of the next part, I can test out phrases such as:

4. today will start with blinding [I don’t like it; too clunky]
4. the streaming sunlight blinding [better – if I’m not sure I can always keep it as a holding phrase and revise later.]

You’ll have noticed that as I start slotting in words into the desired rhythm (for now) I don’t necessarily write them in order. Your notebook or text file might look like this

I wake up to a melody

birdsong sweetly rising

?

today will start with blinding the(?) streaming sunlight blinding

You might also have a few more ideas as individual words scribbled in the margins that you could potentially to incorporate (like “shimmering”).

It is a crafting process after all, and sometimes, thesaurus in hand (optional), it will feel a little artificial. That’s okay! I feel it is best not to get too caught up on the rhyming part just yet, but rather how the rhythm flows. And it’s okay not to be strict about it, as it’s a creative process. You might decide to add more words/beats or combine lines later on. With that in mind, let’s take a step back and see what is forming. The first part (melody/birdsong) is all about sound. The second part seems like it’s going to be about visuals, and light. Maybe we can think ahead and decide that we are going to try to create a phrase for each of the senses. I’m thinking that perhaps the window is open and there’s a breeze coming through (touch). We can try to write a simple next line that might follow the format of 1.

5. The breeze caresses softly

Okay, what is it caressing?

6. A lover’s disappointment [oh! We’re getting dramatic! And also abstract. It also changes the tone from a nice, pretty waking up and shifts the focus from nature to a relationship and melancholy. I like it, but I don’t think it fits what I’m going for this time. However, it’s a reminder that you don’t have to be literal. Also, we started with “I”, so this seems like a more distant point of view.]

Perhaps we can keep the concept of a lover but make it nature itself.

6. A whispered invitation [this brings us back to sound, and also makes it alluring.]

Again, we are crafting and creating. We don’t have to now find a phrase to fit with smell or taste. We could always leave it for later, or omit it. I like that the poem is sensory, but there are no rigid rules. Capturing the moment and feeling, and making it flow, is more important than a checklist. Let’s see what comes to us now. I would say that the desired outcome from the last part is movement/accepting the invitation. I’d like to go back to our missing line 3 and try to put something about being reluctant to leave the bed, without negating the pleasure of the first two lines. As I do so, I also want to finalise line 4.

3. The warmth of dreams is fading [too many -ings]
3. Warmth across my eyes [warmth is touch as well, I’ll keep it for now]
4. a shaft of sunrise blinding

I want to link the two. I could use “brings” but I just discarded a line with an -ing sound. I think of “sears”.

Let’s review how it’s looking now:

I wake up to a melody

birdsong sweetly rising

warmth across my eyes sears

a shaft of sunrise blinding

the breeze caresses softly

a whispered invitation

 

We could add dialogue. What is the whisper?

7. “The light is not your enemy*” [*like melody – first lines can echo each other too! but first ideas are not always the best. it’s not quite the alluring feeling I had in mind. maybe dialogue here would spoil the ethereal mystery]

Just like with 3 and 4, it might be helpful to work out the end of the phrase first before deciding on 7. We have “invitation” to work with. Let’s ruminate with a few words. Creation, attention, direction. Also, do we know if we will write any more? This might be a very short poem, in which case we want to write a fitting ending. How does it conclude? It could be that what’s calling my poem self is “the garden of my creation”. However, knowing my own style of poetry, I often like my last lines to break the form I have set up. So assuming it continues, let’s throw in some more ideas. The concept of a garden does bring back to mind the idea of scent, so maybe we won’t abandon it after all. The breeze could bring in the smell of flowers.

7. The scent of every petal

I get the idea that I want the last word of line 8 to be “celebration”. As it’s a long word, given our current rhythm, we only have a few syllables to work with before it. This part can be fun, like a puzzle. I also want it to flow from the previous line. After a few tries – “is mine in”, “a riot of” – I realise that invitation/celebration echoes the wording used for a party of some kind.

8. Begins the celebration [I’m still feeling it’s not quite right.]

I keep going back to “a riot of celebration” but it seems a bit too vigorous for the gentle morning. But there’s something about it that echoes “a riot of colour”. I haven’t even mentioned colour, and yet I can picture it. So given it’s the best I have, I’ll keep it.

Now we have the first eight lines! I feel that I’d like to write two more lines to end the poem, and that they don’t have to match the format, but they do have to follow up on the theme and wrap up the poem and imagery. If I can’t find anything that works, I can always leave it there, because with the rhythm and rhyming, it feels somewhat complete. Remember, you can be flexible as you’re creating the poem.

There will be a space between 8 and the next part, so depends how you are numbering the lines (by those with content or just actual line numbers) it will be 9 or 10. Just to reiterate, I don’t usually write numbers in my notebooks, although they can be helpful for longer works or if you have big gaps in the structure. I’ll keep it as 9 for reference because if I’m pairing lines, odd numbers are first and even numbers are the second (which I typically try to rhyme). Having said that, it’s not relevant for these last two. I might make them rhyme with each other, or not at all. Or I could have them echo or reuse a word from earlier in the poem. Sometimes poems can be circular, and return to a theme at the very beginning. Given the invitation, I’m still holding out for a movement or response in conclusion.

Looking at my notes, there is still the word “shimmering” we thought of earlier. We can either incorporate it here or discard it. As I review the poem, I feel that “sears” in line 3 is far too unpleasant, so I change it back to “brings”, then remove the extra word altogether unless I can think of something better in the final edit.

We have the chance to write anything at all now. We can change the rhythm completely, or make either of the lines a question. Instead of the even beats, we can make it so there are fewer stresses and more syllables between them. I also stop to think – is this a character I want to define (or one I know) or still a vague poem self? Is this a standalone piece, or does it fit into an existing story or collection? This might affect how we finish crafting a piece. For now, it’s just a one off piece, and I want it to be generally positive with no dark twist.

As a side note, the music I was listening to finished ages ago because I was so absorbed in what I’m doing. So far I have spent two hours crafting and documenting the process – it might be a low word count but it’s still as delightful and frustrating as any other kind of writing and editing! It’s also helpful to me to reflect on what I’m doing, as usually I write things in bits and eventually refine something over time (it doesn’t have to be in one session), so this is a great exercise about what was kept, discarded, and what made it back into a piece. It’s also perfectly reasonable to assume it can take some time for ideas to percolate, or even for stalling and procrastination when we don’t really know what to do next. This is why the constraints of an internal structure can be a helpful guide, but there is also value in freeform writing. So let’s get back to it!

9. my garden waits; it has been too long [back to the garden idea. and it could be waits or awaits – they have subtle differences in meaning here]

I think I might end it with “song”, which as mentioned earlier will link it to the beginning.

10. I rise [action] in greeting and meet its song [not sure it’s what I want, but it works. I’m also getting the image of a fairytale princess, which I didn’t before!]

I don’t really want to say “it’ll do”. I want it to be satisfying to me, and hopefully the reader. However, functionally, we now have a complete poem that is more or less what I set out to craft. I wait, and give myself a chance to be more creative. In doing so, I resolve what was bugging me about line 3. I wanted an unstressed syllable at the end, but instead of adding a word, I change “eyes” to “eyelids” and it works perfectly. Maybe we can bring back the idea of taste, and drinking water as if it was nectar.

9. I walk out to the fountain [brings the action earlier – but wait, isn’t this the exact same rhythm as the first part? if I was going to write a longer piece this line would be ideal.]

9. wandering is in my blood [oooh, I don’t know where this came from but I can work with this] and in my dreams [bringing back the abandoned line from earlier]

10. but I am home [I like this a lot. in doesn’t mention the garden but implies it]

I’m also less interested in the stress pattern now, so I didn’t mark it. The only thing I note is that “in my blood / and in my dreams” echo and match up nicely.

Let’s review what we have – our complete poem!

 

I wake up to a melody

birdsong sweetly rising

warmth across my eyelids

a shaft of sunrise blinding

the breeze caresses softly

a whispered invitation

the scent of every petal

a riot of celebration

 

wandering is in my blood

and in my dreams

but I am home

 

You’ll notice I split 9. Be flexible! It fits the shape of the poem better when written down. So despite everything, we’ve brought in a brand new element and direction. It’s almost melancholy, but not sad. And the invitation we wanted to act on is something that we know will be accepted. Hopefully the reader will feel the love and affection the person has for their home and garden, while adding a bit of mystery to the point of view character. Also, strangely it has the feeling of a line that is familiar to me, so perhaps I’ve written something similar before. I could double check, and keep working at it, but for the purposes of this post I feel it’s finished.

And that’s it! All that’s left is to give it a title if required – most of the time I choose a word or a few words directly from the poem, in this case, it would be “Rising” – one, it’s from my very first idea of the poem, and two, it implies the person getting up (it doesn’t sound very romantic when said like that, but in poetry where words are scarce, it’s great if they can do double duty). This whole process, including the title, is exactly what I did with the poem I submitted to our upcoming “Forest” anthology.

Hopefully you have had some ideas in this post, and you will try your hand at this method. You might feel that some of the choices I made are ones where you’d have done something different. So try doing that – take songs you like and rewrite lyrics, or add a new verse in the same rhythm. That can be a great way to practice. See if you have any snippets you can use to build a poem around. Nature is a fantastic place to start with poetry, but see if you are inspired by any other subjects or feelings.

Above all, enjoy the process, play with words, and hopefully you’ll create something you’re happy with.

Thank you for reading!

2 thoughts on “Crafting a poem: an insight

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