In case you didn’t know, April is National Poetry Month. I don’t know if it has anything to do with Shakespeare’s birthday being on the 23rd of April or not, but I’m still happy about it.
I have spent most of my career teaching composition, but I do get to indulge once in a while and teach some creative writing, and my first advice to students about writing poetry is this:
Nothing matters more than the sound of the language. English is a beautiful language that, like a roller coaster, can swoop and dive, twist and turn, spiral like crazy, and then coast to a lazy stop. Or it can do all that in the reverse order. The point is that what makes poetry poetry is that it makes use of the music of language.
One exercise I have my students do every week is to submit a list of five cool words. These are just words the students like the sounds of, for whatever reason. The five words I shared with them in our first week were
The students don’t know it, but I collect the words all year, and in April, I give each of them a gigantic sheet of paper with their words and their classmates’ words (and my words) listed for all to see. Then I tell them to write a poem, paying absolutely no attention to the MEANING of the language and only to the SOUND of it.
I threw together these lines of meaningless verse:
Avocado guacamole transient frost
Lipstick pedicure angioplasty Swede
Have I written poetry here? No, I wouldn’t call it that. Randomly spraying different colors of paint does not make a painting, but it can give you new ideas, and it can be lots of fun. If you’re interested in writing poetry but don’t know where to start, I say start HERE, because by playing with the language you can often develop a great sense of what you want your poetry to sound like. What I love most about this is that my cool words are going to be different from yours; you might not think lipstick is a very nice-sounding word at all, so your own meaningless cool-words poetry will sound different. That’s okay!
The next step might be to write a poem ABOUT something, but focusing on the sounds of the words. Give it a try; I think you’ll be pleased with the results, even if it’s just for fun or for practice.