The rules and restrictions of formal poetry can feel overwhelming to beginning (and experienced) writers – check out the villanelle or the sestina if you’re up for some code cracking!
If you’re new to writing poems, I recommend not worrying about formal structure to begin with, as this can be overwhelming and take the fun out of creativity. Similarly, whilst rhyme is a defining feature of poetry for many people – especially in children’s poetry – forcing it to the exclusion of all else can lead to an empty poem. Sure, it rhymes, but that’s it.
So if it isn’t the rhyming that brings a poem to life, what does?
Vivid images. Capturing a moment, and conveying something meaningful, can be simply achieved by giving your reader imagery and sensory detail (evoking the five senses), along with employing an array of other poetic devices. The Poetry Foundation site has an extensive glossary of terms, explaining many formal styles, and also lists those ‘poetic devices’ – such as imagery, similes, metaphors, personification – which are also found in fiction and creative non-fiction (CNF), not limited to poetry as the name might suggest.
Poems without rules are usually terms ‘free verse‘, and this is perfect for liberating the imagination from formal structures. ‘Prose poems‘ appear as one or two paragraphs on the page, maintain whole sentences, but incorporate poetic language. ‘Narrative poems‘, on the other hand, contain story elements – such as character, plot and conflict – and can be short or long, with predictable end-rhymes, or no rhymes at all.
Whichever form you explore, images and sensory detail are the nuts and bolts of effective contemporary poetry, ensuring your reader experiences the content of your writing for themselves, rather than simply hearing about it secondhand. Consider: ‘the red-faced baby squeaked again – had he swallowed the dog’s chew toy?” (image + sensory detail) Vs. “the baby had hiccups” (plain statement). The former brings the latter to life.
Then, along with images and sensory detail, you can add a persona into the mix. This can be done with fictional or non-fictional subject matter:
To create a fictional character poem:
- Choose a person connected to babies in lockdown such as a midwife, new parent or sibling.
- Next, create a mind-map of as many details as you can associated with that person. This could include vocabulary, colours, sounds, clothing, routine, equipment. For a midwife some details might be: measurements, scans, weigh, scales, blue uniform, stethoscope, heartbeat…
- Then decide on some attributes for your character, along with their personal situation. For example, do they like they job? Are they happy in their relationships? What are they doing with their time in lockdown? Where are they spending it?
- Once you have sketched out as many details as possible, start to form images, lines and stanzas (paragraphs for poems). One easy rule is to make sure you have at least one image per stanza. Don’t forget your poetic devices!
For a non-fictional poem the process of mind-mapping is the same as above, except rather than making up a character, you are exploring a moment from your own life.
To get your introspection hat on, try these reflections:
- Describe a specific place in the house or garden where you feel relaxed
- ‘The things I left behind’ – what are you missing due to lockdown?
- Memories resurfacing – advice to my younger self
- Dearest Baby – write a letter to your little one about life in lockdown
- ‘One day…’ what are you excited to show your baby when lockdown is lifted?