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Tips on writing poetry

Ward Barry (2)
Ward Barry - one of PNG's most prolific and well read poets


SONOMA - Upon the request of a dear friend, I have come up with some tips on writing poetry.

Notice I said “tips on writing poetry”, not “tips on writing good poetry”. Whether a poem is good or not depends on the individual.

We write and rewrite, then write and rewrite again, and repeat the whole process until we feel good about it. But that doesn’t make the poem any better.

So here are my tips on writing poetry. Take what works for you and pass on the rest.

  1. Read

There are no shortcuts to writing poetry. If you want to write poetry, you must first read poetry.

There are many poets and many incredible works. Read and learn from William Shakespeare, Katherine Philips and Robert Frost who continue to awe audiences around the world.

Also read Papua New Guinean poets and see how they utilise the local context in their content.

The poets I would recommend are Russell Soaba, Steven Winduo, Nora Vagi Brash, Jordan Dean, Michael Dom and Caroline Evari.

In my opinion, these poets are the best in the business. I would not hesitate to defer to their expert opinion any time.

You can also check out Keith Jackson's PNG Attitude blog or the Poetry PNG group on Facebook for quality local literature. Good reading precedes good writing.

  1. Let the idea come to you

Many times I have been guilty of forcing an idea onto paper. This doesn’t work, at least for me, and I end up messing up both the poem and my mind.

Let inspiration hit you hard and mull over an idea for a while. Let it run through you veins and become a part of you. This allows you to translate it more effortlessly to paper.

  1. Decide on form

Once you have immersed yourself in an idea, decide on the form of poetry with which you will shape it.

There are sonnets, haikus, rondeaus, terza rimas and many others. A lot of work is free verse. There’s nothing wrong with that.

However, you might want to experiment with different forms to add variety to your work. Variety makes your work interesting.

  1. Stick to the theme and be clear

Every line should add something to develop the theme. It’s advisable not to squeeze too many themes into one poem.

If you’re writing on the tragedy of love, stick to that theme alone and make it stand out. Sometimes, you will think of a theme but, as you write, another theme emerges. It’s normal. It happens all the time.

There is nothing wrong with having overlapping themes in the same poem. However, be sure to show how they connect. At the end of the poem, the reader should be able to see how the first line connects to the last thematically.

  1. Use imagery simply and carefully

I hate clichés. Their use tends to dull and kill the poetry. Surprise the reader with imagery drawn from an ordinary thing. The toothbrush left on an exercise book... how does it relate to your theme?

Right now, I am looking at blue pants hanging on the clothes line. This tells me the sky has turned upside down. Maybe the gods have decided to come at last!

(Most of my poems have religious overtones so naturally I connect upside down jeans with the Second Coming.) Ridiculous, ay? That’s the point!

  1. Be particular and choosy with words

Know when, how and where to use a word. When I began writing, I thought writing in archaic English and using big words was poetic. How wrong I was!

Poetry is not about big words and “KJV English”. It’s about the right words being used rightly. (I think I got that from Michael Dom.)

In this regard, apply the Three S Rule: be Simple, be Surprising and Stop.

Use simple words in surprising ways and stop to let the reader complete the poem in the space you created. I believe suspense is essential to good writing.

As the saying goes, “less is more and more is less”. Saying little allows the reader to engage with your poem. Choosing your words carefully helps you share your thoughts and feelings confidently and clearly.

  1. Revise

Even when published, no poem is finished. I still update the poems in my collection ‘ABC Dreams’ published in 2016. After you have written that last line, close the book and go for a walk.

Come back and look at it the next day. You will be surprised at the amount of garbage clogging the flow of the poem. It might be a word, a line or some imagery that makes the poem difficult to follow.

Change and cut without mercy. Be your own toughest critic. Never be content. Every poem, published or otherwise, is still a work in progress.

That said, enjoy the process. Writing poetry should be fun. Play around with words and experiment with new ideas and forms. Takes risks in your writing. You become better by learning.

Most importantly, develop your own style and stick to it. We’re not all the same and so logically we write differently. It will take time but once you discover your own style, writing becomes easier and more comfortable.

I am by no means an expert on this matter nor have I truly mastered the art of poetry. These are some things I learned after years of writing. Others writers will have their own ideas on how to write a poem. You should seek their opinions as well.

There is no right way to write a poem. Poetry, like all art, is always evolving so we try to adapt to the changes to remain relevant.

Those who have followed me over the years will realise I have moved on from the long fixed forms to much shorter forms and free verse.

This is because contemporary poetry encourages the use of free verse. Whether free verse should be used to define contemporary poetry is an argument we shall leave to the experts.

For us amateurs and wannabes, we write to free the soul and make sense of the tragedy that life is.

Happy writing!


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Ward Barry

Hi everyone. Thank you for your positive comments.

Lovely poems there, Gary and Chips!

I, like many others, taught myself how to write poetry. Google has been very helpful. To that I would refer you, Baka Bina.

Chips Mackellar

Phil, it is the process by which the rhythm of the lines is balanced. As far as possible, rhyming lines should have the same number of syllables.

So if you scan the first two lines of the poem, you will notice that the second line is one syllable short. This can be fixed by adding to it the one syllable word "and" like this:

A po/em should have a sto/ry to tell (10 syllables)
And its lines should scan and they should rhyme well (10 syllables)

Thank you for asking. I have now balanced the lines.

Garry Roche

Wardley, I tried to encapsulate some of your tips in the short poem. We need more like you to keep writing and to keep on encouraging others to also write. Thank you again.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Hi Chips.

What do you mean by "Its lines should scan ..."?

I'm no poet and a bit puzzled.

Paul Oates

Iambic pentameter was always my favourite Chips. It used to be likened to a galloping horse's footfalls and I understand the cadence apparently well suits the English language.

Chips Mackellar

Try this, Baka.

A poem should have a story to tell,
Its lines should scan and they should rhyme well,
With a rhythm keen with an easy beat,
Like pounding hooves or marching feet,
With words that are plain and easy to say,
And meanings as clear as the light of day,
With intentions sharp, and opinions strong,
And not too short and not too long.

See. It is easy. You should try it. With best wishes for your future poetry.

Caroline Evari

Great tips, Wardley. Poetry for me is like writing song lyrics and I write better with free verse and mostly from being able to feel as I write (putting my emotion and thoughts onto paper).

Garry Roche

There was a young poet, Wardley Barry,
Who decided he should not delay or tarry,
In giving tips and advice,
To poets who were nice,
On the tools of the trade they should carry.

He said always read and always reflect
Decide the form and then the subject.
Avoid all pretence,
But include some suspense.
Then, revise - and perfect - and be happy.

Jimmy Awagl

Great tips plainly expressed from a famous poet. It is worth reading as a guide to poetry construction. I enjoyed reading it.

Baka Bina

Thanks Barry - I tried a few times with poetry but have theme issues. I have these issues even in my own story writing.

The few times I have tried writing poetry, I put too many themes in that are sometimes polar opposite to each other. I also don't have any clue of form though I do know the word haiku but have no idea what it entails. I have the same zero savvy of sonnets, rondeaus, terza rimas and free verse.

Could I ask if you and the pig farmer Michael Dom to look at each of the poems posted and give a name to them whether they are sonnets, haikus, rondeaus, terza rimas and the many others that you know of. It will surely greatly assist the many of us longlong in the art of poetry.

Ward Barry

Thanks Simon, Philip and Jordan.

Poetry is an art of the heart and as such I believe it should not be bound by rules. I hope these tips can help others express themselves freely and artfully.

Nevertheless, like all writing, there are "rules" that define poetry. When I started off, I didn't have anyone to help fine-tune my art.

Like many other poets, I had to teach myself. It's not easy. Mi pudaun kirap na wokim go yet. So when a friend ask for some tips, I felt I just had to share what I've learned from my own experience. We're here to help each other grow the passion for literature in PNG.

We learn and share what we learn to make room for more learning.

Jordan Dean

Thanks Wardley for the tips.

I express myself better with free verse than structured forms of poetry. Either way, poetry is characterized by an imaginative and attractive expression of one's thoughts.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Lots of good advice there.

Thanks Ward.

Simon Davidson

Wardley!This is an insighful piece on a art of writing. I hope many readers of the blog will benefit from the tips.

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