How to Write a Poem—An Unlikely Beginning

Green Apple How to Write a Poem

Squeezed finances. No fun, right?

But I can’t help thinking what would not have happened if I’d thrown caution to the wind and spent too much money a couple of years ago.

In the summer of 2013, my husband and I found ourselves canceling our family’s annual road trip because, well, we ran out of funds. After grieving the loss of mountains and rivers and relatives, I decided to do something I hadn’t planned: sit on my couch in the flatlands and write weekly articles about Billy Collins’s poem, Introduction to Poetry.

Realizing that each stanza in that poem offers instruction about how to get the most out of reading poetry, I wrote an article on each section, every week, throughout the summer. Eventually, those articles turned into the core of a book that also includes an anthology of poems—How to Read a Poem.

When L.L. Barkat, editor at T.S. Poetry Press, asked me to write a companion volume, How to Write a Poem, I told her I needed time to think about it. A few hours later, I decided yes.

There are a lot of poetry-writing books on the market—many truly wonderful ones that helped me in my undergraduate years and still guide me today. While most books take the approach of offering a number of exercises that generate a number of poems, I wanted to go deep with the process of writing one poem. How do you go from the seed of an idea to a fully realized, well-crafted, revised and polished piece, while still keeping your soul alight?

I remember spending hours at my college’s student commons, notebook and Twizzlers in hand, struggling through one line at a time. Ultimately, spending time isn’t the problem. (I would argue the more time spent—if directed—the better.) However, support and guidance can help that writing time feel less like a struggle and more like an adventure, a personal and artistic transformation.

In How to Write a Poem, I start you with freewrite prompts to generate ideas. From there, I show you how to turn that sprawl of stream-of-consciousness words into a framework on which to hang a poem. Then we gradually shape the poem, one step at a time, to help it come alive:

from Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

         how do I “color in” my poem with imagery?

or press an ear against its hive.

         how do I make my poem buzz unforgettably with sound?

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

         how do I suggest emotion and meaning with my lines?

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

         how do I create those “a-ha!” moments?

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

         how do I step away from the poem enough to allow for mystery and interpretation?

After helping you delve into each of these aspects of craft, the book guides you through Peter Murphy’s Revision Style Sheet as you perfect your poem. Finally, you discover exciting ways to share your work, both through traditional publication and other community venues.

Throughout How to Write a Poem, you gradually find the balance of respecting literary craft while maintaining your authentic voice. Both of these tasks are a lot of work—and immensely rewarding.

The accomplished musician practices her scales for hours on end. She also practices interpreting music with her own artistic touches and emotions. Why not the poet, too? Why not write your best before inviting the reader to listen and make meaning?

I may not have vacation pictures to show off from a couple of summers ago, but I’m collecting words from the writers who have been taking their own poetic journeys. The albums are filling with unique sights and memories. I look forward to hearing about your travels, too.

Photo by Photo4jenifer, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

How to Write a Poem

Check out How to Write a Poem!

How to Like D.H. Lawrence’s Piano

Piano DH Lawrence

A poem can sing to you, even if you don’t totally “get” it or enjoy every line.

“Piano,” by D.H. Lawrence, is not one of my overall favorite poems. It’s not a bad poem, of course, and I can’t pretend to even approach Lawrence’s levels of literary influence in my lifetime. However, references to “weeping” and “floods of remembrance” don’t grip me in the same way as precise, sensory details that invite me weep and remember. Which is precisely why this poem sticks with me.

In the first stanza, a woman’s voice seeps through the dusk like the soft, remaining glow of light. The speaker, drawn into this beauty, experiences an out-of-body memory and imagines himself as a child many years ago.

The next two lines are what grab me:

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

What I love about this memory is the full sensory appeal of it, especially the sense of touch. I feel the vibration of the strings under the piano–both the “boom” of the bass notes and the strains of the “tingling strings,” words whose similar sounds cause the music to tremble under my own skin. The tender detail of the child “pressing the small, poised feet” of his mother is just unusual enough to make the scene real to me. Specific is universal. I can imagine a child touching his mother’s feet because of my own children, who affectionately tug my sweater sashes, knee me in the butt, or whack my head with coloring books.

In Everything That Makes You Mom, author Laura Lynn Brown asks readers to recall memories of their mothers in specific situations, such as concocting treats in the kitchen, driving, playing, or tending plants. By imagining and recording these scenes in writing (remember, imagining is image-ing), readers not only reward themselves with rich pictures from the past but can give their mothers the invaluable gift of showing how they noticed things all those years.

My mom is not a musician. She’s creative, yes, but as a master quilter, builder of Victorian dollhouses, and any other task requiring an eye for detailed design. The images of my mother embroidering calico brown wedding rings and laying tiny shingles one by one on gabled roofs will never leave me. But these wonders were wrought in her own private moments as I stood in the background. We did share some important times together, however. And they did not take place alongside a musical instrument, easel, or Great American Novel.

Every Saturday night, during my childhood in the late 70s and early 80s, my mom and I watched The Love Boat while sharing a one-pound bag of M&Ms. We weren’t the snuggliest family in the world, but once a week we put our feet up, threw comforters over our legs, and huddled with a bag of candy between us. Of course The Love Boat was not a masterpiece. Plot lines were predictable and corny. Charo was a frequent guest star. But it was “our thing.” In fact, one year my mom gave me a sterling silver heart necklace to commemorate our sweet ritual, and even when I returned from college on the weekends, years after The Love Boat went off the air, I would find a large bag of M&Ms awaiting me on my bed.

As a mother, I wonder what close moments my children will remember. Hugging my son as I walk into his first-grade classroom as a volunteer? Squeezing through clothing racks with my oldest daughter at the mall? Lying next to my middle daughter as she paints watercolor flowers while on her bed? (Yep. I’ve decided to let her paint in bed.)

A whole poem can capture you, each word catching more and more of your breath until you’re dizzy with wonder. Sometimes just part of a poem does it: a stanza, line, or word. This is what “Piano” has done for me, releasing my own, okay, I’ll say it—flood of memories.

Give every poem a chance to explore you. You’ll never know what will sing.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

—D.H. Lawrence

Photo by Michael Schrempp, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

The Enduring Allure of Byron’s She Walks in Beauty

She Walks in Beauty Lord Bryon How to Read a Poem aloud
The poems that endure, endure for a reason, but I usually can’t say why. For every beautiful, cutting, or mysteriously gripping poem you read to me, I can read you a dozen more. But some of them have, I don’t know. . .a nameless grace? One image the more, one line the less, and the poem becomes impaired, impure, a little less lit by stars.

Dissection can surely uncover the technical workings of a poem’s anatomy. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with dismembering a poem in the name of literary investigation–it can be disturbingly fun, in fact– you won’t find its soul that way. You can memorize your lover’s every hair, freckle, and laugh line with a series of photographs, but until you spend time with him, you will never really know him or her.

On my quest to experience some classic poems afresh, I decided to first take up “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. Of course I’ve heard it countless times. In a way, that’s the biggest challenge with the classics. We hear them so much, we stop listening.

So my goal was to listen. Really, really, listen. First I read the poem aloud about ten times. Then, for an entire morning and afternoon, I read it aloud on the hour, sometimes every half hour, and just let it work its way in. Different words and images hit me at different times. Sometimes I lingered over “cloudless climes and starry skies,” placing myself in the night. Sometimes I got tangled in the “raven tresses.” I read it quickly, I read it slowly. I read it loudly and quietly. I read it while making coffee, stir-frying zucchini, walking upstairs with laundry, and, well, going to that other room where people tend to read.

What did I discover?

This is where I need to be careful. As tempting as it was to consult the “outside,” I refrained from reading commentaries or talking to professor friends while spending the day with this poem. Likewise, I wouldn’t want this post to color your date with “She Walks in Beauty” too much. But here are a few questions I began to ask myself while reading:

● What is the best of dark and light in this poem? With “she?” With a person I know?

● How do the rhyme and rhythm of the poem help me “walk” with her? How does it feel to walk with her?

● “One shade the more, one ray the less.” What or whom do I have these kinds of feelings for? Why?

● What kind of beauty do I see in this poem? What does beauty mean here? With someone important to me?

Of course I’m not finished. That is why the poem endures.

What about you? Go ahead. Read it aloud. Once, twice, on the hour. Try to name what is nameless, which, I believe, is the greatest reward of reading poetry.

She walks in beauty, like the night
      Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
      Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
      Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
      Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
      Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
      How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
      So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
      But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
      A heart whose love is innocent!

—Lord Byron

Photo by Ashton, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.