Art is often viewed as a fun and leisurely activity. This is partly due to the fact that creating and consuming art is, in fact, fun. The best stories and poems flow so naturally, so smoothly, that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone laboring over their creation. Laypersons tend to assume that people just wave a pen around and a beautiful poem comes flowing out. And there’s also a myth about artists creating everything from sheer talent rather than learning the skills necessary to their craft.
But few writers can sit down and casually produce an excellent poem. While untrained poets might occasionally create publishable works, most good poems are a combination of natural talent and learned skills. Even the act of reading poetry can benefit from a little training.
When I started writing poetry, music was my model. I studied lyrics and followed melodies and rhythms from my favorite songs. But over time, I wanted to learn poetry more deeply and strengthen my skills so I could create even better poems. I decided to learn poetry.
There are some who view poetry (and art) as something that should come from the heart or the gut, and that’s fine. But if you want to create work that will resonate with readers, learning poetry tools and techniques will increase your chances of success.
Activities to Help You Learn Poetry
Here are a few activities that will help you learn poetry:
Build a Collection:
I have found it difficult to find poetry that really resonates with me, so I often save the poems that I like. You can print them out if they’re available online, or you can take a photo of them if they’re in a book and then print the photo. You can even transcribe them yourself. I like to save paper, so instead of printing, I keep a file full of favorite poems on my computer. The idea is to peruse lots of poetry and find a way to keep the poems you like best in a personal collection that you can revisit.
Study and Analyze Poetry:
Once you have a collection of poems that you find compelling, choose a poem to study. Read it several times, and read it aloud. Write it out in longhand (or type it), so you can study it up close. Then, in writing, answer the following questions:
- How many lines and stanzas does the poem have?
- How many syllables are in each line?
- Is it written in form or free verse?
- How did the poet make word choices?
- What is the poem about?
- What do you like about it?
- Is there anything that could be improved?
Examining poetry at this level will show you the techniques that poets use to create the kind of poems that interest you.
Create a Learning Tool:
The questions above provide a good start to learning poetry, but there are a lot more questions that you can explore. Keep a running list of questions that will help you learn poetry, questions that you can use both as a reader and writer of poems. You don’t have to study and analyze every poem that you read — sometimes you should just relax and enjoy poetry. But when you’re ready to get serious about learning, your list of questions will come in handy.
Choose a poetry form, such as sonnet, haiku, or pantoum. Print out (or write down) the guidelines of the form, and then find three poems in that form. Read each one at least three times, checking it against the guidelines. Finally, write your own poem in that form.
Look at the Poet:
When we evaluate art, we should evaluate the art, not the artist. As writers, when someone issues a harsh criticism of our work, we should try not to take it personally — they are judging our work, not us. But examining the life of a poet can sometimes lend greater insight to their work. A poet brings to the page their personal experiences and perspectives of the world. A young woman writing poetry in her parents’ attic during the nineteenth century will have a different take on the world than a middle-aged man composing poetry at the height of World War I.
Think about the poetry that you like best. Does any poet stand out? Find a biography of that poet (you don’t need to read a full biography or memoir; an article on Wikipedia will suffice) and consider how that poet’s upbringing, circumstances, and the time in which they were writing influenced their work.
Find at least three poems written in free verse. Print them out. Highlight any rhymes, alliteration, or other devices that give the poem musicality. Study the poems by reading them several times. Read them aloud. Write them out in longhand. Then write a brief 250-word essay describing free verse-poetry. Finally, write a free-verse poem.
What Did You Learn About Poetry?
You can do one of these activities or you can do them all. You can repeat many of them — explore five different form poems or read bios of three poets. Each activity should teach you something new about poetry, both as a reader and writer.
How do you feel about learning poetry? Do you believe that poetic skills can be acquired, or do you think natural talent is more important? What cannot be learned? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing poetry!