How to Write a Poem

You want to write a poem?

Then you will fail.


If you try to write a poem, you will be unconsciously imitating a concept of poetry.  You will be contriving an approximation of your idea of what a “poem” is. To create your empty imitation, you will probably use language that is “poetic” according to more preconceptions, and its insignificance will be made more unsightly by wearing gaudy words, drab cliches, and knock-off banalities.


Sorry, I know that sounds harsh but it’s the plain truth and you might as well understand it clearly and right away.  I’m telling you this because I care.


Also, if your goal is to write a poem, you might want to question your motivation.  I’ll bet there’s a hungry ego behind it. I’m not judging you; we all have hungry egos.  But a hungry ego will never be satisfied by any of your achievements or the attention they get you.  Dealing with that ego requires a better strategy than trying to feed it.


So just forget about writing a poem.


But keep on reading this if you would like to:

*explore the mystery of your Self;

*access and feel suppressed emotions and ideas;

*fully experience the meanings of your life;

*make a social justice issue more understandable and poignant to an audience;

*release pains you’ve been carrying;

*just cry a bunch;

*learn better ways to live;

*and have a written record of these powerful, inner experiences so you can revisit them and provide signs that others might follow towards a similar experience.


True creativity starts with a profound, subjective event.  It could be an insight, an intense feeling, or a compelling vision, anything that makes you say, “WOW.”  If it didn’t make you say, “WOW,” or, “Ah!” or, “Ha!” when it occurred to you, then it will never become art.  It should be a meaningful surprise to your own consciousness. Then you have to actually create something with it: paint, sing, dance, act, sculpt, or write.


I think of it this way.  I’m constantly processing my life and thinking about the things that matter to me.  It’s like I have a big, complex, tight knot that I urgently want to untie. I keep looking at it from different angles and tugging on this or that part of it but nothing moves.


AndThenAllOfASuddenSomethingSlipsLoose!  You know that feeling!  And pulling that one bit apart opens up a few more little bits of the knot if you keep working on it.  And finally you get stumped again. That’s the end of a poem.


My point is that your starting place must be your own, natural, inner workings.  When a powerful idea happens, you can write it down. When you start to write it down, more details and powerful feelings and mysterious insights are revealed in your imagination.  Keep writing and watching your imagination until there’s nothing more. Wasn’t that amazing, watching something profound unfold inside of you?! Wow!  You didn’t mean for this to happen but, since you used writing to get deeper into yourself, you’ve now got a poem!


I always edit my work for accuracy of expression and various aspects of style and affect.  I recommend doing this. Those decisions are totally personal and depend on what you want but I will share a few thoughts about this topic:

*Reworking your writing will probably help you find words that more clearly capture and express that inner experience you had.  Bring the experience back from your memory and see if you can convey it more exactly, with more precise language as well as pacing and tone that more exactly match your experience.

*Nobody is impressed with needlessly fancy words.  For example, “azure” should probably never, ever be used in a poem ever again.  Ever.

*Metaphors and similes are the common stock of poetry.  But don’t just grab one. It’s going to be trite. Good poems only use metaphor and simile because some person had an inner event so profound and unprecedented that literal language was incapable of expressing it.  That person had to get really creative with words--out of necessity--and improvise with language to capture that experience.  Understand this and you will understand the true source and form of poetry.  (I actually think cliches are important to use sometimes but they require special considerations and that’s a topic for another essay).


The most important topic of this essay is unpacking and writing an intense inner event.  How do those events happen? Are they random? Can we do anything to have them more often?


Inspiration is like getting struck by lightning but you can become a lightning rod.  Rather than trying to stimulate these events into being, I recommend removing obstacles in their path.  Here are some things to remove or partially restrict in your life:

* Watch less TV, listen to less music, read less, and put the phone away (you’ll be OK . . . really).  You can’t observe the unfolding patterns and emergent phenomena in your mind if you are constantly imprinting your mind with patterns from the outside world.  Remove inputs and distractions.

* Once your precious distractions are gone, you run the risk of actually experiencing yourself!  Oh no! Anxious and obsessive thinking will rush in. Now you will have to deal with these painful obstacles but you will get lots of powerful moments, maybe the best ones, from this process of healing. You can begin a disciplined habit of mindfulness meditation, seek therapy, and/or get deep into self-help.  Whatever you do, be on an all-out quest for clarity, the truth, the meaning of your existence, uninhibited feeling, lucidity.

* Drink less and do less drugs.  It’s true that being intoxicated can bring out strong thoughts and feelings.  I have had plenty of drunken walks home when I shouted things skyward like, “Bleak universe! Deaf to our prayers for total annihilation!!” or, “Earth! Inhospitable womb!!!” But these things won’t turn into insightful, revelatory experiences worth capturing in a poem.  You’re drunk. You aren’t functioning. It’s that simple. What are you doing? Go to bed. And hangovers? You’re not going to see anything profound all day. Get sober.


As you remove these obstacles, you will become more in touch with your inner self.  That’s really the point of all this, remember? If you’re really doing the work of developing a healthier inner state you will begin having profoundly meaningful moments.


If you’re having a day where not much is erupting inside, you can go seek a stimulus.  First get really grounded and lucid and then just walk around, ride the city bus, etc. Note: This only works if you’re not mesmerized by your phone, listening to music, reading, or drunk.


If you have gone all day without anything stirring inside you, I recommend doing some writing about absolutely anything.  No, it won’t be inspired but it’s the disciplined work of developing your craft. Craft is the midwife of your ideas. Work, whether you are inspired or not, and develop skills so that when something is trying to be born you don’t kill it.  Just as a visual artist will go sketch things when they’re uninspired, go sketch with words. You probably won’t make anything you really care about but it’s the process, not the product, that really matters. The end result of your life, the grand finale, the final product, is a corpse.  Focus on experiencing each moment just as it is. Be there for it.


These practices have radically changed my life.  I hope my ideas here will help you live more deeply, truthfully, and meaningfully.  If you end up with some poems, that’s cool too.