Welcome to the second installment of my article on poetry. (If you haven’t read the first set of tips, access it here.) Let’s continue!
1. Repeat Lines Sparingly
If you read “Excelsior” like I recommended, then you’ve seen how repetition can enhance a poem. Another great example is the last line in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which gives the poem a deep emotional aura. Many poets recognize the power of repetition, but sometimes they overuse it. Think of repeated lines as similar to a punchline. If you hit readers hard over and over again, they’ll feel battered instead of impressed. If you must repeat a line every stanza, keep it short like in “Excelsior” or change the wording slightly.
2. Use Short Lines in Moderation
Short lines strung in a row can have a dynamic effect, conveying the idea of gushing emotions. For instance:
This format works, but only as an addition to a good poem. It won’t produce a poem in and of itself because it’s not symbolic or musical. Basically, it’s the rap of poetry. Employ this technique if you believe it truly fits, but limit it within the context. This style doesn’t appear much, if at all, in the poetry of historical masters, and I think there’s a reason for that.
3. Consider the Visual Appearance of Your Poem
How your poem sounds is always preeminent, but how it looks is important too. You can even write a poem that forms an image (check out this article and this example), although that’s a bit extreme. For a more moderate sample, see “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” The author arranged the lines of his poem so that your eyes swing back and forth as you read, which complements the imagery of his poem. Little tweaks like this are easy, so play around.
4. Don’t Mistake Prose for Poetry
This is basically the litmus test to prove whether your poem is worth publishing. I’ve encountered poetry that seems more like prose with a forced rhyming pattern. Or, if it’s free verse, it reads exactly like prose broken into a new line every half sentence. But true poetry can’t be fully expressed in prose. If you’re wondering whether your poetry is professional, try rewriting it in prose. Do you notice a stark contrast? Present both pieces to an unbiased critique partner (hint: not your mom). Ask them to rate how much they enjoyed each piece on a scale of one to ten. If the difference isn’t significant, you probably need to hone your poetry skills more.
5. Make Your Worship Golden
Many poets write as worship. I highly support this. A spirit of worship, however, does not mean you can automatically compose spectacular poetry. Don’t feel guilty about this, because we can never worship God in a way that is magnificent enough to be worthy of him. But do you want to display your worship of God on a platter of wood or gold? Worship is worship regardless, and it is always beautiful, but I’d prefer the gold platter over the wooden one. A while ago, Christi Eaton introduced me to a few music videos that are wonderful examples of how devotional song lyrics can be breathtakingly poetic. You might find these worth studying: “Ghost of a King” and “The Train Station” by The Gray Havens.
6. View Your Poem from a New Angle
If you write a poem that you feel has potential, but others tell you it’s subpar, contemplate how you could be more artistic with the symbolism. How could you approach the subject of your poem differently? Maybe you are comparing hope to a ship sailing off to explore new lands. What if you named that ship, described its appearance, and characterized the crew? If your poem features a park you frequently visited during your childhood, you could write from the perspective of your current age or younger/older. You could depict it abstractly. You could imagine that you live in the future when the park no longer exists. The options are numerous.
7. Build Complexity in Your Poem
This is definitely the hardest tip to follow, but it’s one you should strive for nonetheless. Unfortunately, I cannot offer much advice in this area since I am still learning. I do know that the surest way to succeed is to contrive imagery so clever that two or more reads are required to comprehend the message. A stellar example is “Mythopoeia” by J. R. R. Tolkien. After two to three reads, I finally understood each stanza, but I still sense that I missed some parts. It’s a treasure of a poem. Another method for deepening symbolism is to give the poem a twist in meaning. Essentially, it will appear to mean one thing in the beginning and then something else by the end. See my poem, “Down and Up Again.” I’m not familiar with all the techniques to make poetry complex, but if you keep exploring, you’ll discover them.
8. Write with an Ache in Your Heart
Although I believe you need to know your craft to produce fine art, you’ll never write your best piece unless you feel it deep inside you. Venture where you experience boundless joy and tears come to your eyes. Find something you can feel and let it pour out of you. Do it skillfully and humbly, but emotionally too.
I hope this article has been helpful as you seek to nurture your gifts. Remember, practice and study are crucial. Also, don’t get discouraged if your poetry doesn’t improve overnight. All writing takes work to perfect, but the reward is worth it. Press on, and I am sure you can become an excellent poet.