Friday 30 January 2015

Writing Poems

by Jeanette O'Hagan

'Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.' Rita Dove
A Poem is a 'literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.' (OxfordDictionary)

Why read or write Poetry?

Poetry is a great way of expressing deep emotion or crystallizing an idea. Wordsworth said poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” As such it can give release of deep emotion or evoke like feelings in the reader. It often gives words to the inexpressible.

In the past, many stories and ideas were told through poetry because the rhyme, rhythm and repetition aided memory (e.g. Homer’s Iliad, Proverbs). 

Poems in fact are all around us – in the psalms, lyrics of worship songs or popular music (rock ballads, love songs), children’s picture books, proverbs, greeting cards, limericks – even advertising jingles. Poetry doesn't have to be so erudite and literary that we have no idea what it is about. Nor does have to be doggerel.

Most modern poems are relatively short and may only take a few hours to write and minutes to read. 

Writing poetry also hones skills that can help other creative writing forms – whether fiction or non-fiction. It emphasizes word choice and imagery, helps one be succinct and enhances a feel for the rhythm of language. The discipline of fitting words to a particular pattern often pushes one to look beyond the common or even cliched choices.

The one thing it probably won’t do is make you rich. Poetry books are harder to sell to publishers than novels. Even so, there are plenty of opportunities to submit work (including paid submissions and competitions).

Now you may think that writing or reading poetry is not for you. Fair enough. After all, often our encounter with poetry as school kids in the classroom was enough to inoculate us against it for life. 

But if you do have an inclination that you would like to indulge, then I say give it a go.

Month of Poetry

I've been doing just that with Month of Poetry (MOP). MOP is a challenge to write a poem a day during the month of January. This is the second time I've signed up and I’m enjoying it as much as I did last year.

I’d written a handful of poems before MOP, usually when profoundly moved (about my brother, for instance, or a pressing social issue) but with only a vague idea of what I was doing. After two MOPs, I feel like I've taken my trainer wheels off but I’m still very much a learner with, perhaps, the occasional flash of brilliance.

As with most writing, the more you do, the more you learn how to do it and the more your creativity expands. The added advantage of MOP is that we read and comment on our fellow poets' poems in a safe environment. I've read so many fantastic poems during MOP – funny, moving, deep, inspirational, personal. They are poems I relate to – about the everyday, about things that impact our world, and about faith. I've also continued to learn about new forms – the pantoum, tritina, abcdarian, sevenling etc – and to revisit forms from last year such as the trimeric, found and erasure poems.  (You can check different forms here or here or you can google them.)

Having a Go

Think you can’t do it? These days poetry is extremely flexible.

There are the more traditional forms that place stress on rhyme, rhythm, patterns and/or verse structure – ballads, sonnets or epics.

Then there are poetic forms that borrow from other cultures – Hebrew poetry which uses repetition of concepts and chiasmic structures; syllabic Japanese poetry such as the Haiku, Senryu or Tanka; Spanish poetry, etc.

However, modern poetry often dispenses with rigid rules on rhyming (blank verse) and even a set rhythm (free verse). It also experiments with new forms such as found poetry, erasures, shaped poetry.

Each Saturday, as part of MOP, we've been given specific challenges. These might relate to:

  • Trying out or experimenting with different forms – e.g. haiku, erasure or an abcdarian.
  • Playing with a concept – writing a colour poem, using personification or erasure.
  • Or perhaps focusing on a particular image or topic – for instance, fairy tale adaptations or a particular place, season or holiday.

Then there is performance or open mic poetry, where poets get up in front of an audience and ‘preform’ their poems. But that’s another story.

Free verse is perhaps the easiest to write. Here’s an example of one of mine.

Last year Nola and I had fun adapting a new form – the trimeric invented by Charles Stone – to scripture to form scriptural trimerics. The trimeric has four verses with 4 lines in the first and 3 in the rest (4, 3, 3, 3). Lines 2-4 of the first verse take turns as the first line of the last 3 verses. A Scriptural Trimeric uses a paraphrase of a bible verse in the first verse, and then expands on lines 2, 3 & 4 in the following verses. You can find an example here.

A simpler poetic form to try is a Cinquain – a 5 line poem with a pattern of 1/2/3/4/1 – for instance it can be words, parts of speech or syllables.

Here’s an example:

sinuous, green
winding, writhing, gliding
graceful backyard dancer hiding

Jeanette O'Hagan 19 January 2015

Maybe you could give it a go – and even share your results in the comments below J.

If you do want to give poetry a go or to improve your existent skills, there's plenty of resources available – websites, workshops etc. Nola Passmore's The Write Flourish has a series on poetry at the moment. Reading poetry also helps - maybe try Andrew Lansdowne or Cameron Semmens.

I think the biggest thing is just to have a go.

So tell me – do you read and/or write poetry. What do you like about it? Who's your favourite poet? Are you willing to have a go?

For a bit of fun, I've included my MOP Abcdarian challenge – 

An acrostic plumbs down the line
Bold ballads boast of love and epic deeds
Canticles waft praises to Deity
Doggerel descends sublime to ridiculous
Erasure applies rubbers artistically
Found verse catches the everyday with finesse
Grammar essential if sometimes bent
Haiku nature's simple syllabic cadence
Iambic feet stamp the beat
Jingles send verse out to beg and entreat
Kumbaya my Lord, come by here
Letters, limericks, ladders, laments and lyrics
Metaphors and metonymy our wordcrafters' tools
Narrative verse tells us stories
Odes uplift just about anything
Performance poets brave open mic
Quatrains queue in four neat lines
Rhyme and rhythm gild the lily
Senryu, Haiku's anthropomorphic cousin
Trimerics expound three of four lines
Upside down and downside up
Villanelles interlacing recurring refrain
Weaving wondrous word tapestries
X a greek chiasma linking structure
Yesterday's forms and today’s new ruptures
Zestful, zany, sorrowful or funny
26 letters twirl and weave
an ABCs of poem for you and me.

Jeanette O'Hagan c 10 January 2015

Jeanette has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology.  She is currently caring for her children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad's fantasy fiction series.  You can read some of her short fiction here. She has recently had a short story published as part of the general market Tied in Pink Anthology  (profits from the anthology go towards Breast Cancer research) . 

She is actively involved in a caring Christian community. 

You can find her at her Facebook Page or webistes or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. Thanks for the shout out Jenny. It's been fun doing MOPs again this year. Such a wonderful, supportive group of people and I've learned a few new forms. I love what you said about poetry helping hone skills that can be used in other types of writing. That is so true. I went to Cameron Semmens' workshop on metaphor at last year's conference and although he was looking at poetry, the lessons learned would have been just as relevant for novelists. It's Day 30 of MOPs and I've just posted my 30th poem for January. Some of them aren't anything to write home about, but some are well worth revising and submitting. It's also helped me get a few more poems together for a poetry collection I'm working on. I'd echo Jenny's thoughts to "have a go" even if poetry isn't your main thing. You might be surprised what you get out of it :)

    1. Thanks Nola, I'm with you - 30 days, 30 poems - some are just a bit of fun, some ordinary but I think I have at least one or two I can submit, One that I wrote last MOP has been accepted for an anthology (though that hasn't been announced publicly yet). I like your last thought 'even if poetry isn't your main thing. You might be surprised what you get out of it.' Spot on.

    2. And congrats on having one of your poems accepted for publication. Well done!

  2. Poetry is so diverse! Love its different forms. For me it's like art - I admire it from afar and marvel at the skills on display. Great post Jeanette :)

    1. Thanks Andrea - it certainly is diverse which is a lot of the fun in writing it :)

    2. Afraid I'm with you, Andrea.

  3. Thanks Jeanette for your insights. The thought of doing a poem a day is rather daunting I fear. However good on you for succeeding. Congrats also on having one published.

    1. The poems can be quite short Ray. A lot of the time they were only between 3 and 6 lines, but it was good to keep the ideas ticking over every day. Will have to let you know when MOPs is on again next year :)

    2. Hi Ray - I found the idea of writing a poem a day extremely daunting the first time round, I think a lot of us did - but then we surprised ourselves. I think that's been one of the advantages of MOP. In the past I wrote poetry in the moment - but now I realise that I don't have to wait for those rare moments.

    3. I wrote a poem after my father died when I was 16 years old. I've never attempted to write another and back then never dreamt either that one day I'd become a writer of fiction. I admire so much the way thoughts "brew" in Ray's heart and of course his heart expressed in poems always reaches my heart.

    4. That's lovely Mary. You never know, one of these days you might find yourself writing another poem :) I find deep emotion is a great motivator.

  4. Wonderful poem of yours, Jeanette. A real brain-teaser! I was just going to say I don't write poems until I thought of my songs. Strangely the words and music for most of them came together. Three more came first followed by the music. Maybe because I like rhythm. Words moving to a beat.

    1. Thanks Rita :) Yes, lyrics are a form of poetry matched with music and rhythm is usually a important part of a poem. I've had a go at writing a couple of songs but while I love music, I don't have a good ear for it. So I think it's wonderful that you can combine the two together.


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