, June 15, 2024

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The 6 Elements that Make Up a Good Poem

  •   4 min reads
The 6 Elements that Make Up a Good Poem
Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash
by Kevin Watt, Allpoetry founder

1. Source - poems usually start with a fit of inspiration, but they shouldn't end there. Actually some of the strongest poems are something simple, like a red wheelbarrow, that's explained with a focus that makes it clear it's not really just about the red wheelbarrow. Experienced poets know how to sculpt their inspiring idea into a story that "shows" emotions through metaphors. It's a process that is never perfected and everyone can improve on.

2. Imagery. When people read your specific concrete words, it creates a scene in their mind that anchors them to the experience. The more specifics you include, the more anchored they are, and the more power your poem has. Uncertainty breaks this anchor, like if you write "They went east or west" - pick one. Abstractions like "leads my mind astray" don't anchor to anything. "Show don't tell" is a rule in poetry that you should use a visible scene to show something instead of abstractly telling someone.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

3. Story. It's hard to see all the details and pick out the ones that are most iconic and concrete, as well as figure out a clever twist or "ah ha" moment. A lot of times I'll take apart a poem and write down the series of things that happens - it's often not very many - then play with adding or removing some, or changing the order, or which parts are most iconic to focus on a bit more. Sometimes the result is an edit of the original poem, sometimes it is a new poem entirely. Read your work out loud to make sure it makes sense.

4. Flow and pacing. Lines in poetry shouldn't usually wrap by themselves, you should include a newline to give a natural pause. Know when to use commas, but if it could go either way, usually you don't want one. It's best to use stanzas of 3-10 lines to give the eye a break from the "wall of text." Many new poets write in microsoft word which automatically capitalizes each line, even if it's a sentence continued from the prior line - don't do that. Condense - if a word doesn't add to your poem, remove it.

5. Proper grammar, spelling, etc. English grammar gets surprisingly complicated. Read your poems out loud to see where they sound awkward. Never leave out articles like "a" or "the." Keep the past vs. present tense consistent. Don't use future tense since you can't anchor to something uncertain. Capitalize I's. Avoid the word "its", since 99% of people get the apostrophe wrong. Learn their vs. they're, site vs sight. Pretty often as a poet you'll find yourself unsure which of two ways is right - and the answer is to rephrase to avoid the question entirely - because if you don't know, your reader will probably get confused by it as well. Don't repeat things unless they're important, repetition is very strong. Don't include blank lines in your poem, repeat the title on the first line, or use all-capital words - which are read like screaming, and most readers find unpleasant. Avoid cliche, which is hard when you're new to reading poems, but includes anything like "soul" or "tears" or phrases that look familiar or overly-dramatic.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

6. Imagination. Be unexpected. If a reader can tell where a poem is going all the time, it not going to hold their interest. I like thinking of unusual adjectives to use, or to take a metaphor from earlier in a poem and try to repeat it in a strange way later in the poem.

Of course, one of the most important parts of writing poetry is having fun - so don't worry too much about the rules. It's good to know them, it's sometimes good to break them, but in general, focusing on the 6 things above is a great way to improve your poetry in your future writing. And of course some people don't care to improve or how "strong" their poems are for readers - that's you, feel free to keep doing whatever you're doing.

Rhyming is a common question - we feel that mastering rhyming at the same time as learning how to write a good poem is a pretty tall order.

The best way to avoid the many pitfalls of "forced" rhyme is to focus first on how to write a good poem, then try limiting the words you can choose to fit a rhyming scheme and see if you can still do it. It's really hard to do well. If rhyming was on the above list, it'd be a distant #6. Recognize if insisting on rhyming before doing the above things is holding you back in your poetic growth.

About the Author
Kevin Watt is a Renaissance Man who loves poetry, painting, photography and web-programming. In 1999, he founded Allpoetry, the largest poetry community on the internet.

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