How to write a poem

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Top tips for National Poetry Day from South Bank Poetry's Katherine Lockton

1. Writing poetry takes guts

Poetry is more akin to the dream world than the waking one. When we write poetry, we channel into our subconsciousness. Even when writing about every-day occurrences we are exposing ourselves. Allowing yourself to be this vulnerable takes guts.

Writing poetry is like going into a very familiar room, one you know, but the lights have been turned off and the furniture has been rearranged while you were away. If you go into a poem with no sense of exploration, already having planned what you will say, then what you write won’t surprise you or your reader. You have to go into the darkened room without fearing the darkness or the blank page.

2. Write like you, not like anyone else

Don’t be scared to write the way you speak. If you would not use a particular word or phrase in your day to day speech then don’t use it in your poetry. It is ok to imitate while you are learning how to write, but see what you produce as a warming up exercise. You ultimately want to write like you, not imitate another poet because you think they are popular.

3. Find your subject

One of the exercises I give my students is to get them to list who they are in relation to others, what makes them insanely angry, ecstatic, passionate and miserable. I then help them find connections between what they have listed.

Finding the things that really matter to you, helps you and your writing stand out. There is only one you in the world. No one else has lived your life or sees what you see in a crowd. Use your uniqueness to your advantage.


4. Show me, don’t tell me

Show me the woman in the blue hat. Imagine you are watching her across a park. What do you see that reveals who she really is? When she is rowing with her daughter on the local lake, perhaps she goes out of her way to pick up plastic litter from the water to stop a duck eating it when she thinks no one is looking.

5. Learn how to lie like a pro

In order to be a great poet, you have to learn how to lie. A poem is not a documentary or diary entry. What really happened the day you and your lover split up doesn’t really matter. If the poem is set in Edinburgh and he wore sweat pants on a snowy day, ask yourself if the reader really needs to know this information. Does it add to the poem in any way? There is the truth and the poem’s truth. Find what the poem is really trying to say.

6. Clichés

You have two options; to use clichés, or to stay away from them completely. If you decide to use clichés in your writing use them like a deadly poison – too many and you will kill the poem completely. If you have to use one in a piece changing it just a little bit will make what you are saying have a greater impact.

7. Interrogate each word on the page

Every word you place on the page should earn its keep. Interrogate each word you lay down and ask yourself three questions; what purpose is it serving if any, is the word doing the same job as anything else on the page, and what happens if you were to delete it.

8. Study the sound patterns in your poem

Once you are editing have a look at the sound patterns in your poem. Say your poem out loud to see how it sounds. Is there any way you can make the poem tighter by changing some of the letters and sounds you are using? If you have set up a particular sound pattern in the beginning, is that pattern interrupted anywhere? And if so why?


Katherine Lockton is a poet, editor, lecturer and public speaker for South Bank Poetry. Her debut pamphlet Paper Doll is out now from flipped eye publishing.