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Lesson 9: Forming Poetry

How to write your own poetry and become skilled at wordplay


  • To take a more in-depth look at the structure of poetry
  • To identify how we can best write good poetry of our own
  • To study examples of good wordplay and adapt them in our own practices
  • To enumerate the different problems that we might encounter when writing poetry and how we can resolve them

Quick Navigation through the Lesson 9:

In the previous lesson, we discussed the basic elements of poetry and certain techniques which would help the budding poet satisfy those elements. In this section, we’re going tackle the specifics of poetic structure. We’re also going to be reviewing more examples of well-written poems as a means to mastering wordplay in our own work. Furthermore, we’re going to discuss more problems that may arise when forming poetry and how we can work around them.

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Poetry Structure

Stanza. A stanza is to a poem as a paragraph is to prose work  (stories, essays). In the previous lesson we discussed that the line is the basic unit of a poem. A stanza is a group of lines. Below are different permutations of the stanza that you can employ in your poetry.

 Quatrain. This refers to a stanza that is composed of four lines.

Couplet. This is a stanza which consists of two lines.

Free-verse. This occurs when there is no recurring number of lines per stanza in the poem. It is the poet’s prerogative to either write the entire poem using quatrains/couplets or to change the number of lines per stanza.

 Caesura. Unlike the sentence, a line does not have to have a complete thought to make sense or to be deemed effective. A caesura is when the punctuation marks fall somewhere other than the end of a line.

This is done several times in the poem “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.


Enjabment. This is when a line cuts the sentence it belongs to and carries the meaning over to the next line. In poetry, we use this to create emphasis and context.

This can be illustrated in this poem by Jeffrey Mc Daniels called “The Quiet World”:

In an effort to get people to look

into each other’s eyes more,

and also to appease the mutes,

the government has decided

to allot each person exactly one hundred   

and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear

without saying hello. In the restaurant   

I point at chicken noodle soup.

I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,

proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.   

I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,

I know she’s used up all her words,

so I slowly whisper I love you

thirty-two and a third times.

After that, we just sit on the line   

and listen to each other breathe.


The cutting of the bold-faced lines helps frame the thought in a certain way—for example, in the line to get people to look aside from the meaning of the sentence (to get people to look into each others’ eyes more) we also understand that this line is making the assumption that people don’t notice things in our present world; they don’t look.

In addition to this, cutting lines also helps make an emphasis with regard to the feel of the poem. For instance, in the line without saying hello. In the restaurant we’re able to focus on the absence of speech and the setting (restaurants often conjure an image of liveliness, of people talking) which further fleshes out the quiet world which the poet is writing about.

 [WpProQuiz 41]

Wordplay in Poetry

Poetry is all about wordplay. Poetic logic relies very heavily on associations and images attached to the words that you use.

Renowned poet Joel Toledo had this to say about it in his poem fittingly entitled “Attachment”:

 I love how things attach themselves
to other things – the rocks sitting stubbornly
beneath a river, the beards of moss.

I choose a color and it connotes sadness.
But how long must the symbols remain true? Blue 
is blue, not lonely.
After a time, one gives up

reading the sky for shadows, even rain.
There is no promise, only a possibility.

A moment moves to another, and still it feels

the same. Like old letters in boxes.
Or how the rain, at times, falls invisibly.
Finally, the things we love demand more love,

as if we have always been capable of it. Yet
I can only offer belief, mirages that mean water,
long travels leading somewhere. I am reading

old letters, trying to make something
of what’s been said. It might be raining;
some pages are unreadable.


Listed below are a couple of ways in which we can master the skill of putting words together.

 Semantics. Our brains are wired to make associations—certain objects propel us to think of certain things and in turn, those thoughts generate more ideas. To be able to develop a better understanding of what our words can mean, it would be helpful to list down words we want to use and subsequently, the things we associate them with.

For example, given the word coffee we can list down the associations morning, sleepy, awake, alert, sober.

Denotations, Connotations. It is important for us to know the difference between denotations and connotations: the former is the dictionary meaning of a word and the latter is its meaning when immersed in a societal context.

For example, the word cute literally means cross-eyed and bough-legged (denotation). However, in a societal context, cute would mean attractive or amicable.

  [WpProQuiz 42]

Poetic Problems and How to Resolve Them

There are a lot of things that could go wrong in the process of writing poetry. Despite our knowledge thus far about poetry, there are still a couple of obstacles that we might encounter when we are trying to write our poems. Listed below are the usual suspects and how to get over them.

Using intangible examples or situations. When poets are starting out a lot of them think that the subjects of poetry are supposed to be grand things—love, life, death. However, effective poetry always gets to the grand ideas by being specific. A poem about love will come out generic or trite but a poem about a boy looking at a school mate who he finds beautiful but won’t ever see again because he’s going to transfer schools will succeed in breaking the reader’s heart. To be able to avoid this, always ask yourself the question what about? If you want to write about love, ask yourself what about love? If your answer to this first question is that love is painful ask yourself what about love is painful? And so on, and so forth. The more specific a poem is, the more it is able to say something true about the nature of life.

For example, in the poem “Private Parts” by Sarah Kay, she is able to depict first love by talking about very specific things like elbows, hands, an eyelash. Part of the poem goes:

The first love of my life never saw me naked—there was always

a parent coming home in half an hour, always a little brother in the next room:

Always too much body and not enough time for me to show it.

Instead, I gave him my shoulder, my elbow, the bend of my knee—I lent him my corners, my edges, the parts of me

I could afford to offer: the parts I had long since given up trying to hide.
He never asked for more.

He gave me back his eyelashes, the back of his neck, his palms.

We held each piece we were given like it was a nectarine that could bruise

if we weren’t careful.

Forced rhyming. While some good poetry does employ rhyme, a poem written based upon rhyme alone with no regard to word choice or language will come off forced and awkward. Instead of forcing a rhyme, read your work aloud and see how different words sound when read together.

Using clichés. While a lot of clichés might hold some truth about life, when employed in poetry they render the poem boring and meaningless. For example, it might be best to avoid associating love with red roses.

Misused punctuation. Poetry is condensed language. Because of its form, it is important to remember that everything included in a poem must be there for a reason—including punctuation. This can be avoided by being more vigilant and double-checking your references.

[WpProQuiz 43]

As a conclusion, we can say that poetry is a form of literature that employs condensed language. To write it well, we have to be wary of our language and the images conjured by the words that we include in our poems. Using association exercises and being mindful of the different ways we can structure our poems can help us become great at wordplay. We can also use different techniques like incorporating enjambments to create the effect we want a poem to have on our readers. We also learned how to combat typical poetic problems like writing poems that are trite or vague/cryptic as well as creating poetry which is flat cliché by avoiding certain metaphors and thinking outside the box.

Now that we’ve learned about poetry, it’s time for us expand our horizons and branch out into prose. In the next lesson, we will be tackling the short story, its elements and how good short fiction is written.




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