On writing poetry

“To write poetry a person must be interested in something in the world and allow that to resonate with something within.”

I wrote these instructions for my students. It’s advice I apply to my own writing. I thought you might enjoy it too.

Poetry is a dialogue with “other” and “outside” as well as with “self” and “inside”.

Poetry often seems difficult because we have a lot of cultural baggage around the term. We’ve been taught in school that poetry should have a particular form or rhythm otherwise it can’t be called poetry. Or that is should have cryptic meanings that we intentionally imbed in the work.

Furthermore, many of us have had to sit still while a high school teacher told us what we were supposed to think of a particular piece of literature. We were being taught to “use our heads” about words and stories and not to experience poetry. Only later when someone we loved left us or died or ‘hurt’ us, did we find solace in poetry. Usually it was only then that poetry started speaking to our hearts.

So let’s begin there… in the realm of human emotion and experience.

Recall a time that was particularly emotional — think of a loss or ecstatic moment that was more than ordinarily painful or joyful.

Make a list of the things that were in the room at the time… (e.g. Grandma’s chair, my Dad’s pipe, the smell of pipe smoke, the buzzing of my cousin’s voice as he played with his plane… the news that…)

Name the emotion in a non-literal away, for instance, you might do this by saying:

I was as joyful as….a bright stream from the snow melt in March on a longer day

I was as miserable as a day on the Clyde River in Glasgow with no boat to get me past the shore…

I was as sullen as a teenager on prom night with no dress and no date…

I was as ecstatic as a baby lifted in the air by daddy…

Play with these lines. Don’t try to put it all together yet.

Don’t even tell yourself it’s a poem you’re trying to write. Write a list. Say that you’re scribbling down some stuff. That it’s of no consequence – yet.

Did you know that some poets compose poetry in their minds while they’re out walking? Einstein did this with his equations; I know a composer who caught the tunes he wrote while on the back of his childhood tractor.

Some writers back home to their desks with whole poems created and memorized.

But don’t be intimidated by this: these days we have smart phones to help us writing poetry while we’re on our walks; catching the words that come is a good idea. Each line usually leads to a new line.

Write something today. Tomorrow you can decide if it’s poetry or not.

For those who are still feeling intimidated by this genre, I have the following 3 suggestions to help get you started:

  1. Spend some time outside today. Don’t look for ‘pretty things’ but just go out. Eventually something will catch one or more of your senses. Notice that.
  2. When you return home (or back to the office) write down what you noticed.
  3. Then start a list using one of the following sentence stems: (repeat the line as often as needed)
  1. I remember how…
  2. I never notice how…
  3. I went outside and…


Tell us a little story of what happened or what might have happened…



Sample poem:

I went outside
and nothing happened
so what about the leaves in autumn
I’ve seen them a million times
haven’t you?

I went outside and was not
supposed to look for pretty things
so I didn’t
I’d seen it all before anyway
until I stepped on a gob of gum
and had to scrape it off my sole
on the edge of a sidewalk
and then I saw a leaf full of lady bugs
like a whole handful
seven in total
and it was the seventh
and the seventh was the day
I got married and the day
that George asked me
and it has been seven years…

I went outside today
and shed tears
like leaves shed leaves
and I met George
he stuck to me
like the gum.

And that made me laugh.