Crossing-Over: On Writing Poetry for the First Time

by Magda Makonnen

Don't let it bring you down...

Don't let it bring you down...

So you decide to start writing poetry. You’ve been writing fiction or non-fiction for some time, but this will be your first time committing to writing verse. Where do you begin?

I know crossing-over is no easy task, except for those special few who seem to do it all. How many times have I heard a fiction writer saying something like: “For the life of me, I can’t write a line of poetry!” And I know personally how alien, for instance, fiction writing feels to those of us who are used to thinking and writing in that particularly intuitive way that poets do. Many of us have no head for plot, and we think and view the world in its immediacy and depth. Fiction writing for us is a skill we learn to develop once we’ve decided to have a go at it.

So once you’ve decided to write poetry, there are several ways to approach the process.

I would advise, at least to an extent, pursue poetry writing in the same way you would or did fiction or creative nonfiction. Attend creative writing programs offered at colleges or Universities, or private workshops taught by practicing poets.

Have you Donne your homework?

Have you Donne your homework?

Read widely in poetry, and acquire a sensibility. Read from the Canon as well as obscure poets you come across while browsing in a used bookstore. In other words, expand your horizon. And don’t forget to read new poetry available online and in print literary journals. This gives you perspective on the variety of work that’s out there.

Start drafts with themes or ideas that are meaningful to you. I’ve always been deeply interested in relatedness, i.e. friendships, relationships, etc., so that ends up being much of what I write about. I’m also fascinated by nature, locality, family history, philosophy; and I write about those too. Begin with what you feel deeply and strongly about, then venture out into the unknown world of the poem itself, following its lead with open and vigilant imagination. Then edit, re-write, edit, and if you feel that the draft is not going anywhere, start a new poem with a different feeling or angle.

Pay attention to conversations you have with friends, a partner, with parents, or with strangers you meet at a coffee shop, or at the Laundromat. Bits and pieces of conversation can make for great lines in a poem. If you read John Ashbery‘s work, you’ll see how he creates masterpieces with language culled from everyday interactions.

If it was good enough for Rilke...

If it was good enough for Rilke...

Be open to exploring or appreciating other art forms. We don’t live or write in a vacuum. There is even Ekphrasis, if you desire to reflect on a piece of art that strikes you.

Appreciate critical thinking (which an old English professor used to say is really, “critical feeling”); and this goes for writers in any genre. Be aware of what is going on around you in the real world. And most importantly, develop compassion: for loved ones as well as for strangers, for the world at large. Empathy brings strength and truth to a piece more than craft could ever do.

And consider why you write poetry. Do you write for the sake of writing, or because you have something to say. Do you have an agenda, or are you open to the truth you will discover in a piece during the process of writing it.

Develop craft. But this is just saying, keep writing. Give it time.

Finally, make this an adventure. Remember how fun it was when you began writing fiction or non-fiction.

Happy writing!

Poetry resources:

Academy of American Poets

Electronic Literature Directory

Internet Public Library


Poetry Foundation

Poets & Writers

Women Writers

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