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THINKING LIKE A POET Thinking Like A Poet: Notes from Modern Poetry and Poetry Workshops with poet, Susan Mitchell

You want to break into your wild, irrational, unanticipated places

Poetry is human emotion translated to words on a page. It picks up where logic leaves off and logic can only get you so far. You have to keep going even when logic is telling you to stop.

When a poet writes he is making words communicate what words cannot communicate.

What would you leave out of a poem and why? What are you afraid to put in a poem? Have you been conditioned to not speak about certain things? Write a poem about what you aren’t ‘allowed’ to say.

Read "Death of a Naturalist" by Seamus Heaney

When writing about painful issues let it not be resolved too easily.

Lose your balance in order to maintain your balance

Don’t know where the poem is going, have an element of trust that the poem will carry you. Venture into the unknown and trust the process. Allow your unconscious to come in.

Allow your thinking to get messy

Often what we write in the beginning is just the scaffolding, what is needed to get started. The scaffolding should then be discarded.

‘Speak’ in your natural language

Naturalness of speech allows the reader to believe what you are saying, allows him to enter your world and your emotions.

Be led by sound

We want the poem to be euphonious, pleasant to the ear. Poetry makes its own kind of music. The use of harsh lines may help dramatize the meaning. example Deliberately written rough lines can give a sense of physical effort. Example The simplest way to make a sound ring out loud is to repeat it; by the use of alliteration example, end rhymes example, internal rhymes example , and even aposiopesis example.

Emily Dickinson frequently employed the use of short sentences, or sentences made up of short elements. These short sentences are used to express a nervous discharge of energy, among other emotions.

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the Winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
In Thee!

Vowel sounds soften the tone of a poem. Some consonants create different sounds: ‘r’ belongs in words of motion, ‘l’ gives a feeling of looseness or fluidity, and ‘gl’ indicates a slowing or sticky feeling.

In a poem, sound matters more than sense. The poet must create a sound that is equivalent to appearance, smell, taste, touch and movement.

Rhyme can often serve as the scaffolding for a poem not built. When two words rhyme, their meanings also interact; each can take on something of the meaning of the other, leading the poem in a totally new direction.

Tone of voice is very important in creating the ‘not verbal’. Can you understand what a person is saying when he speaks a different language by just listening to his tone?

Meter can change the way a word is spoken. You preserve the sentence sound. Tone creates a mood that lingers from a memory.

Interrupting syntactical unit creates different meaning. The syntax tries to speed up the line and the line tries to slow down the syntax.

"I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things…"

instead of:

"I lived on air that crossed me from sweet things

The line break makes you go slower, take in more meanings, not rush to the end - the syntactical unit tries to give you all meaning at once.

Short lines and broken syntactical units force the reader to pay attention to details and focus on fragments.

Separating stanza’s emphasizes distinct emotions. Couplets emphasize ‘twoness’. One long stanza creates a sense of fluidity and oneness.

Carry on the poem as a meditation

Choose an image or scene that fascinates or intrigues you; one that has emotional significance. This is a meditative process, you are going to describe the image or scene. Ask questions of the image. Push the description as far as you can. You have to get off the triggering subject within 6-8 lines or you are just treading water.

Walt Whitman - Blades of Grass

Explore the subject matter from every direction

The faster we experience life the more it is experienced in fragments. For example, visiting New York City you rush around cramming in all the sights a tourist is supposed to see. You experience New York in fragmented pieces.

Consider different tenses. The present tense, for example, does not allow for distance; it can deprive the poem of complexity.

Write a poem in which you explore a difficult issue by using 2nd person.

Read Robert Frosts "Desert Places".

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it - it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less -
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

How many tenses are used?

Approach the subject in a concrete, sensuous way. Look at all the things that bring you pleasure in life and really look at all aspects of the experience. Note distasteful aspects as well as the pleasurable aspects of the experience.

Think about what you mean as you write

Different structures allow for the display of different emotions. A cumulative structure, one in which a line or phrase repeats, can indicate natural forces such as anger, sex, storms. A dialectical structure, one in which the poem is set up with opposing forces such as love/hate, light/dark, indicate insight into two opposing natures. Because we understand things one way emotionally and another way intellectually, we allow the sounds of the poem to move us through complex emotions without having to think.

Consider writing a poem from opposing forces, a dialectical structure. Options include: Attachment vs. Detachment, Always felt vs. Never felt, This world vs. Another world, Constancy vs. Change, Miracle vs. Mundane.

The dialectical structure deals with the dynamics of two dissimilar events that are effecting you at the same time. The two incidents pressure and jostle one another until they are become balanced in the end. Read "Tar" by C.K. Williams

The NO-NO list: some words just never should be used in poetry. ‘Perfect’ is a state of mind. You cannot express perfection in a poem because everyone’s perception of perfection is different. Other words to put on the list include: ‘rather’, ‘quite’, and ‘truly’.


Keats created a powerful word - ‘darkling’ to mean ‘in the dark’.

Don’t be afraid to fictionalize the poem if the poem calls for it; the past is fiction anyway because everyone has a different version of a particular memory. Samuel Beckett believed that all memories are but illusions.

Make up new words

Imitate and compete with other poets and great thinkers

Add to your knowledge. Experiment with concrete and sensuous imagery, study other languages, delve into philosophies, politics, and science, watch for opposing forces in nature and society, try on different personalities like actors do.

Play with sounds, rhymes, and haunting images

Robert Frost says, "We play the words as we find them. We make them do."

Keep a notebook of sentences and phrases that you overhear day to day.

Bring all of the senses into your poetry - kinetic, visual, auditory, olfactory.

Analysis is an important part of the process; intuitiveness can only carry you so far

Think about who the poem is addressing. Locate the speaker within the poem. Locate time in space.

let the headlights of the poem illuminate only what you need

Start writing and just let an image appear - describe the image.

Think about these things even when you are not writing

Pay attention to all of the different variations of language and dialects around you and in the writings that you read.

Save all your drafts

Sometimes the very line you need in a poem will come from one of the discarded drafts of an earlier poem.

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006

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