How to write a poem


13 June 2024
Have you ever wanted to write a poem, and not known how to start, or where to begin? Read our comprehensive, step-by-step beginner’s guide to understanding what poetry is and how you can write a poem of your own, and get started with writing a poem that you can be proud of.

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What is a poem?

A poem is language art – imaginative writing that shares ideas, thoughts and emotions. Poems can be used to tell stories, express ideas, make people laugh, talk about issues and much more.

They can be rhymed or unrhymed.

There are many different kinds of poem, but poetry is as much about how something is said as what it is saying. What poems all have in common is the way they use figurative language in a particular form. In any kind of poem, what matters most is how the poet has used language to express their ideas.

The sound of a poem is a key element: poetry uses rhyme and rhythm to create effects, and a lot of poems have their greatest impact when they’re read aloud. The patterns of sound in a poem make it easier to remember than everyday speech.

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Why do you want to write poetry?

Writing poetry means you will deepen your understanding of language and how to use it to express yourself and your ideas, and create an effect for a reader. Poetry is a medium where you can write about emotions and express your feelings.

It makes us better writers because we have to think very carefully about the best and most vivid language to use to effectively express an idea within a limited amount of words.

Poetry allows us to play with words and ideas, break grammatical rules, and go beyond our comfort zones.

Poetry forces us to focus on details, notice things, and learn to see things in a different way, so writing it is a way of expanding our creative horizons.

What do you love about poetry?

Everyone will have a different answer to this.

For some people it will be memorable lines, images and verses. For others it will be the emotional response. For some, it will be the sound of the words, or the pattern of particular rhymes, or the impact created by particular poetic voice.

Some writers love the sense of creative expression they get from writing free verse, and others love the challenge of writing within poetic forms that demand they master certain techniques. Some love the dazzling wordplay, and the precision of language.

Further reading: Read poet Sardeep Parmar's thoughts on how to read a poem

Different kinds of poem

Poetic structures are used to shape poems and the way they sound when they’re read aloud. Using different poetic forms makes writers challenge the way they use language to express their ideas.

Free verse is the poetic form most commonly used by contemporary poets. It’s loved because it’s fluid, conversational and direct. It has no set meter, rhyme scheme or structure, but poets writing in free verse can use any poetic device such as assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme etc.

The most popular rhymed forms today are song lyrics and slam poetry. Both of these are directly connected to live performances where the rhymes create an impact on audiences.

Formal poetic forms are still loved by many poets. These include:

  • Haiku: A traditional Japanese form with 17 syllables over three lines
  • Limerick: A poem in five lines with an AABBA rhyme scheme, often used to tell a funny or cautionary tale.
  • Cinquain: A five-line poem with 22 syllables.
  • Sonnet: A lyric poem with 14 lines and a set rhyme scheme . Shakespearean sonnets use iambic pentameters.
  • Blank verse: Poetry written with a precise meter (ie iambic pentameters) but no rhymes at the line ends.
  • Ode: A poem to celebrate or honour a person or thing.
  • Elegy: A poem to commemorate someone who has died.
  • Ekphrastic poem: A poem written about a work of art (most usually a painting).
  • Pastoral: Poems on the beauty of nature.
  • Epic: A grand story written in verse.
  • Ballad: A storytelling poem made up for four-line stanzas.
  • Concrete: A poem written in a particular shape, ie a poem about a tree that looks tree-shaped on the page.
  • Prose poem: A hybrid of prose and poetry that uses poetic techniques such as simile, metaphor, meter, internal rhyme, imagery, alliteration so that the prose has a poetic quality.

Devices to use in your poetry

Not all poets will use all poetic devices in all poems, but knowing what they are and how to use them will help a poet to craft the rhythm and syntax of each line, and create a poem where the sounds, rhythms and word choices work to deepen the effect and enhance the chosen topic or theme.

Poets may use these devices instinctively, without knowing what they are, or they may study them and consciously choose to apply their effects.

Here are some of the most common:

  • Alliteration: Using words that repeat a particular sound, ie, Tony’s terrible trousers.
  • Allusion: Where a poet refers indirectly to something that the reader will understand.
  • Assonance: Where vowel sounds are repeated (Go slow, oh no!) to create a rhythm.
  • Consonance: Where repetition of consonant sounds creates a rhythm.
  • Enjambment: Where the thought expressed in one line of a poem runs over into the next.
  • Imagery: Using images to create word pictures that make your poem come alive for a reader
  • Juxtaposition: Placing contrasting elements (ie, light/dark, hot/cold) side by side for dramatic effect.
  • Metaphor: Using a non-literal meaning (ie, depicting something as another thing) to create a poetic effect: ie lion-hearted hero.
  • Meter: How rhyme in a poem is measured; ie, the number of syllables in a line and the way the syllables are stressed or unstressed.
  • Metonym/Synecdoche: Metonym uses an idea to stand in for another (ie hot potato) and synecdoche uses a part of something to stand in for something else (ie. all hands on deck).
  • Motif: A symbol or idea that occurs repeatedly throughout a piece of work and reinforces its message.
  • Onomatopoeia: Words that imitate sounds (ie, rushing water, buzzing bee).
  • Personification: Giving a human personality or attributing human thoughts and feelings to something non-human.
  • Repetition: Using the same word or phrase repeatedly to create a rhythm or sense of familiarity.
  • Rhyme: Poems may include end rhymes, internal rhymes (rhymes in the middle of lines), slant rhymes (words where some of the consonants match) and eye rhymes (words that look as if they match but don’t when spoken aloud, ie laughter/daughter).
  • Rhythm: The sound shape and pattern of a poem.
  • Simile: A comparison between two things, ie hair like silk.
  • Symbolism: The use of something with ingrained associations, ie a dove for peace.

Poetic language

A good poem enables its readers to see things in a new way.

To make this happen, a poet needs to avoid clichés (stale ideas, hackneyed words) and overblown language and sentimentality.

Poets need to use language in a memorable way, ie by crafting fresh, striking images, referring to the senses, and using concrete words that enable the reader to visualise something (blue, cold, sea) rather than abstract ones that refer to concepts (terror, freedom) that don’t elicit a sensory response in the reader.

How to write a poem: seven steps to writing your poem


1. Read lots of poetry

Find the kind of poem that you like best. Think about why you like this kind of poem, and how it works.

What language does it use?
What are the ideas it conveys?
What is it about the poems you love that attract you to them?
How did the poet obtain a particular effect?

You can learn a lot about the kind of poetry you want to write from the poems you love to read, so put your writer’s hat on and analyse them to see what made them work.

2. Decide what your poem is going to be about

 You might have a specific idea for a poem that you want to write. Maybe an idea has suggested itself to you, or you’ve seen something that sparked an idea. Perhaps you are writing on an assigned theme, or for a particular competition or call for submission.

If you haven’t got a particular idea for a poem, try a writing prompt, or freewriting. Both of these can free your brain and let new ideas suggest themselves to you.

Having an idea of what you’re going to write about is the first step to finding the words and images that will become the lines of your verse.

Poems can express very big ideas, or very small ones. They can tell stories, and they can express points of view. Decide what you want to say in your poem, and create a clear image of it in your mind.

3. Choose what shape or form your poem is going to be

What kind of poem will be the best way for you to creatively express your idea? Are you going to write in free verse? Blank verse? Rhymed verse? Is your poem going to be in a particular form, ie a haiku, or a sonnet?

If you choose a formal poem structure, it will force you to constrain your ideas to meet the demands of the form, ie 17 syllables for a haiku, 14 lines and a consistent rhyme pattern for a sonnet. If you decide to write a rhyming poem, you’ll need to pay attention to the rhyme pattern.

4. Explore words and ideas connected to your idea for the poem

Good poetry relies on the way you use language to create precise effects. The word choices you make really matter because every single word in a poem has to earn its place. Choosing the right words is vital.

Write down as many words and phrases connected with your idea as you can think of.

Are there some that repeat?
Stand out?
Are there phrases and patterns of words that you keep coming back to?
Symbolism and imagery that sticks in your mind?
Themes that keep recurring?
Metaphors and similes that relate to your idea?
Particular imagery?

Can you think of any clever wordplay that will work with the language that relates to your poem’s subject-matter?
Any connections – however unlikely - that you can relate to your theme, and explore?

Remember that your job as a poet is to paint a picture with words so that whoever is reading it, or listening to it, sees what you’re telling them – perhaps in a way they hadn’t thought of before.

5. Think about rhymes, rhythm patterns and meter

Even if your poem is in free or blank verse, and isn’t written to a rhyming pattern or a particular poetic metre, it will need to have a sense of rhythm.

Rhyme is two or more words that repeat the same sound, and poem can have internal rhyme (in the middle of a line) as well as end rhyme (at the end of a line).

Rhythm is the beat of the stressed syllables in your poem and meter is the countable beat. Rhyme schemes in poems can create a particular mood, and affect the way readers respond to it.

6. Write your poem

With all this in your mind, set aside some quiet time and begin to write your poem.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing it on paper, your phone or on a computer, but allow yourself to focus on your poem.

Put down your ideas and don’t worry about getting the first line exactly right. You can come back to your poem and revise it, but before you can do that, get everything you want to say written down.

The most important thing at this point is that you’re expressing yourself creatively and letting the words flow.

Further reading: These expert tips on writing a poem are from South Bank Poetry's Katherine Lockton

7. Read your poem aloud, and revise it

Once you’ve written the poem, it’s a good idea to put it to one side so that when you come back to it you can look at it constructively.

Reading your poem out loud might feel weird at first, but it’s an excellent way to experience the rhymes and rhythms of your poem and notice where it’s not working.

The process of revising your work is where you can make all the creative choices that turn it from a messy first draft into a finished poem.

You can go through the poem and alter words and lines, move words around, make different word choices, tighten up the structure, and change or delete any bits that aren’t working or don’t add to the poem.

This is the stage where you will make your poem stronger. When you’ve done this, and you’re happy with your poem, you might be happy to share it – perhaps in a writing group, if you’re brave enough to accept other people’s input into what works and what you could make even better. And, with your poem written, you’ll be ready to write another!

Further reading: Multi-award winning poet Rob Miles shares his thoughts on how to get in the zone and write a poem

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