By: Emily Torres
How To Write A Poem
I used to believe that poetry only lived in old books and dusty libraries. I’d pace the tenth floor of my college campus library—what we called the stacks—and run my finger delicately along the linen spines of old hardbacks. That environment, I believed, was where poetry lived and nowhere else. A place of reverence, of silence, and of a tiny bit of fear that my travel mug might spill coffee on the hundred-year-old books.
As I wrote more poetry, though, it started to reveal its true colors: poems would show up in the margins of my lecture notes, as saved drafts in my email, on the back of any junk mail I could find. One day, I even wrote short lines on dried autumn leaves that I tossed into a stream to watch float away. Hey—I was eighteen, and very dramatic.
“I discovered that poetry didn’t require anything more than the words you have on hand.”
I discovered that poetry didn’t require anything more than the words you have on hand. I started to see how it could help me connect to the world, to be present, and to finally get to know myself in a way I hadn’t quite excavated yet. Poetry, like those leaves I sent down the stream, allowed me to release the painful things that burdened my heart.
As the gravity of 2020 increases with each passing month, I’ve returned to writing poetry. But this time, it’s not for a professor to grade or for a classroom of peers to critique; instead, it’s a form of self-care that helps me process my thoughts and motivate me to action. While I’m still maintaining a journaling habit, I appreciate that poetry offers freedom from narrative and a space to feel what I feel without explanation. For me, a journal asks, “what have you done today?” while a poem asks, “how do you feel about it?”
“It’s a form of self-care that helps me process my thoughts and motivate me to action.”
Poetry has become one of the ways I check in on myself. Whenever my mind is racing, I find it clarifying and cathartic to hammer out a few lines on my typewriter or scrawl out a verse on whatever paper is handy. It’s simultaneously easier than you think, and more confronting than you’d expect. If you also find solace in writing through your emotions, here’s a guide to writing poetry for self-care.
1. SET UP YOUR WRITING AREA
If you’d prefer to write on the fly, go for it. For me to feel energized and supported by my writing, I need a clear workspace, a blank page, and a good pen. (Tell me why my current favorite pen is a promotional freebie from a whiskey brand that I’ve never drank?) I intentionally choose pen and paper, because computers get too distracting and suddenly I’m two pages deep on a Google image search for pictures of young Paul Simon.
The process of creating a workspace can also offer up a soothing moment before you dive into potentially emotional topics. Light a candle, make some tea, play some music—set the mood like you would for other self-care rituals.
If a poem isn’t leaping out from your pen onto the page (it rarely does), start by freewriting. I find it helpful to name the emotions I’m holding on to, but I always balance it with tangible details. For example, if I’m feeling nostalgic for summer breaks, I’ll note my fondness for them and my feeling of grief for the ending of those youthful days. Then, I jot down details I can remember: working as a skating carhop at the local Sonic Drive-In, getting brain freeze from marshmallow sundaes at the ice cream shop, running through shaded trails with my cross country team.
“Take a look at the patterns that are coming up for you and ask yourself if there’s a theme to explore.”
Take a look at the patterns that are coming up for you and ask yourself if there’s a theme to explore. In the example above, I can see that I’m missing the sensory moments of summer and the people I experienced them with.
You can also look at the words themselves to see what your subconscious might be wanting to discuss. Maybe a word like “bivouacking” catches your fancy—write about it. I find that patterns in my negative word usage can be helpful. “Can’t” means I feel inadequate; “shouldn’t” means I am self-limiting; “won’t” means I’m pushing too hard on something and may need to let it go. It’s okay to face these feelings; the page is a safe space for you to experience them in all their depth.
3. FOCUS ON PHYSICAL THINGS
Another misconception I held about poetry was that it was abstract. In my younger years, I consistently sought new and exciting rhymes for conceptual words like “love,” “hope,” and “peace.” But as I’ve cultivated poetry into a grounding practice, I’m discovering that it can be grounded, too.
Once you have a general idea, allow it to simmer into something more tangible. Hone in on one small experience or object—what can writing about it tell you about how you’re feeling? If you’re writing about those days of ice cream sundaes, focus on how the sun felt on your skin, the visual of ants congregating around the leftover sprinkles on the ground, the sound of your coins as you counted them to hand to the cashier. I think of it as a written form of the 54321 exercise that folks recommend for anxiety, and it helps me immerse myself in a memory (and get me out of my head).
There doesn’t have to be a metaphor, and you don’t have to force one. Maybe, later on, the poem will take on a new meaning for you. But for now, let the details speak for themselves. The poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” always evokes such strong emotion for me, and is a perfect example of how physical details can make a huge impact. When in doubt: show, don’t tell.
“There doesn’t have to be a metaphor, and you don’t have to force one.”
4. FUNCTION OVER FORM—BUT FORM WORKS, TOO
One lesson that I wildly misconstrued from my creative writing classes was that “you have to know the rules before you break them.” I figured this meant I had to learn everything before I could write anything. False. Don’t let rules stop you from giving life to the words that reside in your heart.
So as you begin to write your poem, invite rhyme and alliteration without forcing your words into them. Let your lines break where they want to break, like waves crashing towards the shore. Does a single word hold so much weight that you want it to have its own
Remember: this is writing poetry for self-care, so let the self lead. You can look back later to examine why you chose what you did, but for now, focus on where your instinct is telling you to put each word. If you’re feeling stuck, remind yourself that the process of writing a poem can be something slow and indulgent—like eating an expensive chocolate bar.
5. SELF-EDITING (OR NOT!)
Once you have a completed first draft, maybe you’re ready to tear the yellow sheet from your legal pad, crumple it up, toss it over your shoulder, and never speak of the poem again. Expressing your feelings, and actively working to release the ones that do not serve you is self-care in its own right. When you feel that the poem has served its purpose for you, you can let it go.
But I find that in poetry and in life, a little self-editing goes a long way. After you’ve written your first draft, try stepping away for a few days before revisiting your writing (and the coordinating emotions). This allows you to take some space from the experience, especially if you’re writing as a way to navigate grief or heartache. You’ll come back with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, and your writing will serve as a reminder of your progress.
“[Stepping away] allows you to take some space from the experience…you’ll come back with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, and your writing will serve as a reminder of your progress.”
When it’s time to edit, grab a pen in a different color and start marking up the page as if you were reading the poem for the first time. Ask yourself for further clarification on points that are unclear and offer suggestions for new words. Is there a word that better describes what you are trying to say? Add or remove line breaks or punctuation if it suits the piece. And my favorite part—strike a line through anything extraneous.
I do this because I want the poem to be more precise, and in turn, to clarify my emotions. I might find connections between the lines and, perhaps, strengthen them. Maybe I find an undercurrent of sadness in a happy poem, and my words invite me to dig a little deeper. Or, maybe I’ve cooked up yet another unintentional metaphor about bread by using words like “needing,” and “rising” and “golden.” Usually that just means I should bake another loaf.
6. MAKE IT REAL
This part is my favorite—cement your progress by transferring the poem to a blank page. Give your words a home on your nicest paper, using your inkiest pen. I don’t have a printer (does anyone?), but the experience of printing a simple poem on a crisp sheet of paper is equally divine. The paper comes out warm and covered in words that you wrote.
“No poem is ever done. Don’t be afraid to add to your work, to change it, to file it away forever and start completely fresh.”
Make it official, even if it’s only to tuck into your journal. Because—and I can’t overstate this—your words and your experiences are vital. Processing is progress, and writing poetry offers us an opportunity to go a little deeper into our own psyche. Pull this intention into your writing, and view each poem as a step towards healing or self-knowledge.
And, finally, know this: every poem births a hundred more, and no poem is ever done. Don’t be afraid to add to your work, to change it, to file it away forever and start completely fresh. Happy writing, friends.