Top Ten Ways to Write Effective Poetry

1. Write the truth. Dig deep to find it. Peel away the layers of your formal, crowd-pleasing exterior like the skin of an onion. Find the curl in the very center that is your truest, purest, most essential self. Write from there.

“We forge gradually our greatest instrument for understanding the world–introspection. We discover that humanity may resemble us very considerably–that the best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbors is to know ourselves.”
–Walter Lippmann

“Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”
–Joseph Roux

2. Show, don’t tell. Show the reader with sensory images, specific nouns, powerful verbs and concrete details exactly what you have in mind. Imaginatively recreate your experiences and thoughts. Allow the reader to see what you see, to share your experience, to draw conclusions based on what you show them. Instead of telling the reader: “The grapefruits are glorious,” show the reader what “glorious” really means:

“Yellow-minded at midnight, gold stippled skin pinpricked with pores.”
–Kathryn Van Spanckeren

The purpose of writing vividly is to allow the reader entrance to experiences or ideas that give birth to a poem. Select details that speak to the senses and to the mind. Telling the reader what to think, or expressing yourself in abstractions, distances the reader from what you are trying to convey.

“No ideas but in things.”
–William Carlos Williams

3. Begin with an invitation. As with short story writing which requires a “hook,” and journalistic writing which entices the reader with a lead, poetry must also commence with an image or idea that provokes further reading. With all forms of writing, beginning in medias res, in the middle of things, is a compelling opening.

“A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…
It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”
–Robert Frost

4. Remember that people think metaphorically. To learn new ways, to see things differently, people compare and relate new to old. In poetry, as in all writing, showing things in terms of other things helps the reader make mental connections. While writing, think to yourself: What is it really like? As hard as a what? As blue as what? Thin like what? “Metaphor” means to carry across–find metaphors that carry meanings on their backs.

“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.”
–Carl Sandburg

“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”
–Robert Frost

5. Address the universal. What do people care about, believe in, yearn for, strive for? What rallies them? What defeats them? Much poor poetry is written trivially about the trivial. Make your poem worth the read. As a reader, I want to know more, be more, understand more, think more as a result of reading your poem. I want the truth and the light. Make sure there’s something in your poem that can respond to this question: So what? What can you, as a unique observer and participant, tell me about life? Don’t tell me, though. Tie the universal to the personal. Show me big ideas in small moments.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Poetry is life distilled.”
–Gwendolyn Brooks

6. Avoid “waste words.” Keep to a minimum all words that do not convey ideas. Count all words with fewer than three letters. Allow no “down time” in your poem with words like am, is, the, but, were, there. Make each line so tight, so precise, so specific that the reader has no chance to escape untouched from your poem.

“The best words in the best order.”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

7. Give lines a reason for being. Peter Meinke recommends that poems contain something interesting per line–a provocative image, an intriguing sound, an allusion–some literary trope or technique of artistic and intellectual significance. Each line has a beginning, a middle, and an end, all in need of careful crafting and consideration by the poet.

“If a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.”
–A. E. Housman

8. End with an uppercut. Peter Meinke also observes that the poems we love best are the ones where the ending clicks home the beginning. Set the reader up for a blow to the chin at the end of your poem. Create an ending that is hinted at from the first, but is only made possible, and with such force, because of the carefully crafted lines leading up to it. Resist all temptations to summarize your poem, to explain to readers what it’s all about just in case they didn’t get it. End on an image.

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’
–Emily Dickinson

9. Avoid: Excess adverbs (pick powerful verbs that don’t need help), adjective pile-up (three in a row is too many), “-ing” verb forms, and listing disparate images just for the sake of including metaphors. In addition, avoid: clichés, trite words or phrases, titles that “tell,” passive voice, sound effects, any lines or titles that have already been used in a song on the radio or in a commercial, comparing life to sports, writing about your dog, a dream, summer vacation, shards, crystals, prey, or bloody murder.

“The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious,
and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.”
–T. S. Eliot

10. Read. Explore work by a variety of poets. Inform your own work with the possibility of what has been done and what can be done.

“To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful,
ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.”
–Gaston Bachelard

Thank you, Andrew Romaner, for asking me to publish this handout that I wrote for him and all my students long ago. I am so touched that it’s remembered.