How to write a poem in free verse

hand holding pen

Learning how to write a poem as part of a special occasion speech is the gift that often makes the most vivid memories.

What do you need to begin?
Very little. Some paper, a pen, time and willingness to explore possibilities.

You also need to put aside the inner critic - the voice murmuring in the background, commenting unhelpfully on what you can and can not do.


That's the voice muttering things like:

  • 'You never were much good with words'
  • Did you know poetry pre-dates writing?

    Before there were written languages people all over the world remembered and passed on their important stories through oral poetry.
    They used predictable rhymes and rhythms based on the natural flow of breath and beat of the heart because it made them easier to recall.
    These ancient poem or story tellers were revered as they were the memory keepers of cultural and community history. Without them there was no continuity.

  • 'Poems have to rhyme to be real'
  • 'They've got to have big words'
  • 'Only pointy-headed nerds write poems'
  • 'That bit is no good'
  • My goodness! Is that the time? I've got to clean the car, pick up the children, and cook dinner. I can do this later.

Lock the critic in the backroom and throw away the key.

We're going to focus on how to write a poem in free verse, that is verse without strict rhyme schemes or meter. You will still use elements of poetic or figurative language for that is what makes your poem, a poem.

If you don't understand, don't worry. You'll find out more about poetic or figurative language later. For now we're going to concentrate on two important fundamentals:

  1. What makes a poem, a poem, if it's in free verse without a definite form?
  2. How do I begin to write one?

The answer to the first question has exercised the finest of minds. You'll find many texts on the subject if you search for them.

My understanding is that free verse uses most of the the attributes of structured poetry but in a non-structured way.

For example you will not find a regular beat or meter running through its lines. There will be no recurring rhyme scheme.

What will be present is the language we recognize as poetry. It will be precise, concise and condensed. The pictures it conveys will be concentrated.

As we read and experience the poem it will resonate on many levels, each new finding arising from yet another discovery of another level or layer of meaning.

At our first reading the poem is about 'X'. On the second and subsequent readings we find that the poem is about 'X' as well as 'Y' and 'Z'.

The story of the poem or its central idea has been compressed. It's only when we pause to unpack it that we find the rest. An image I like to describe the process or essence of poetry are these Russian dolls.

Russian dollRussian doll Russian dolls

In the first picture the doll appears as a single entity. It seems to be what it portrays. And then the unpacking begins and we see more and more dolls arising out of the first. This to me is the poetic experience, multi-layered and springing from one source.

Let's begin your voyage of discovery, the journey toward your own free verse poem.

How to write a poem in free verse

The starting point is finding what or who you want to write about.

On a fresh sheet of paper begin a brainstorm. Put the trigger for the poem in the middle. This is the name of the person or event you want to write about.

Now without editing yourself quickly jot down as much as you can. You do not have to write full sentences. You do not have to spell correctly. Your job at this stage is to note down everything that springs to your mind.

It might be a color. It could be a sound, a piece of music, a way of smiling, a habitual phrase they used to say, a piece of clothing, the way they walked or talked...It is whatever comes to you.

Think of your senses, sight, sound, smell, feeling and taste. What you want is vivid representations for each. The more direct and specific the more evocative they will be.

Give every new or fresh idea its own space on the paper. You'll end up with a sun-burst pattern, your trigger (subject) in the center surrounded by raying chunks of words.

Here's an example. (Use your imagination and see the words 'my father' in the middle of the page with the other words scattered around them.)

piano - black and white keys

My father

tweed jackets, teacher, lopsided smile, ginger nut biscuits, sad brown eyes, jazz piano, empty whiskey bottles in the garden shed, glasses, books, pipe tobacco, pipes with chewed stems, cord trousers, returned soldier, bedtime stories, impeccable table manners, clear speech, 'stone the crows', Mood Indigo ...


Once you've done as much as you can, stop and review what you've got.

What stands out demanding more attention?
Is there a theme or a core idea?
Whatever stands out is asking to be explored some more.

Allow yourself to free-wheel through your notes, adding whatever comes to mind. Again, DO NOT EDIT! You can do that later. For now you are playing, giving permission to your imagination to rumble through your memory treasure trove and bring back its findings.

From my example above

  • 'tweed jackets' becomes 'rough, rasping, unshaven' for their texture against my face as a child
    'heavy spiced' for the smell of his pipe tobacco woven into the fabric and their buttons were hard bobbles (like nuts) of brown leather

  • his 'jazz piano' evokes 'minor keys, black and white, repeated phrases, bars, notes slurring'

  • 'Mood Indigo' was a Duke Ellington piece he used to play - moods becoming darker until indigo was black

  • 'returned soldier' - 'tanks, Italy, desert Egypt, parades, medals, old black beret, black and white photographs'

You'll find that you ignore some of the threads you started with in favor of others. That's fine. That's part of the 'how to write a poem' process. You do not have to use everything you thought of. Go with the idea that pulls up the strongest images.

Here's the result of my playing with the 'jazz piano' thread from the brainstorm about my father above.

Jazz Piano

At 2 am and
under the influence
my father's fingers fumbled
slurring black into white.

What had been minor was now
a major transgression.

It didn't do for the Duke or my mother.

┬ęSusan Dugdale

Hear me read Jazz Piano? Push play.

What I did was take the phrases I'd generated and arrange them on the page. I kept chipping away, changing them until I was satisfied. For example, my first draft began:

'At 2 am,
under my father's fingers black slid into white.

On reading this aloud and thinking about it I realized I hadn't got the main reason for the notes sliding into each other. So I started again. I wanted to get the whiskey in but I didn't want to say 'he was drunk' because I wanted my experience of listening to his piano playing when he he'd been drinking to come through.

Back to brainstorm again and I came up with 'under the influence' and 'slurred' in place of 'slid'.

The phrase 'under the influence' means to be intoxicated and when a person is, they slur their words. In my father's case, in the poem, it was notes but the association was obvious and strong enough to use. I liked the rewritten opening a lot better.

The next two lines tell what used to happen and contain several 'plays' on words. 'Minor' and 'major' refer to the keys a piece of music is written in as well as to the escalating annoyance my mother felt about my father's late night 'under the influence' piano playing.

I included a reference to Duke Ellington in the last line because it was his music my father tried to play. This line is also a parody on a common saying 'It wouldn't do for the Queen.' It works because of the connection between Duke and Queen. Both are royalty each in their own way. In placing my mother in conjunction with them, I've put her above my father. It clearly shows her attitude.

And I've imagined it wouldn't do for the Duke because he wouldn't like to hear his music badly played.


Does it work? Is it good poetry? Does it spring alive for you? Would I use it in a speech? Perhaps. It would depend on what the occasion was and who the audience were.

I hope you're ready to experiment for yourself. Get a blank sheet of paper and begin for that is really how to write a poem.

Below are explanations and examples of the more common figurative or poetic language devices. You'll find them in free verse as well as traditional poetry.

Some are 'sound' devices that come alive once the poem is said aloud. Others are 'image'. You see them in your imagination. Once you've got a poem underway see how many of them you've used without being conscious of it.

Sound

  • Alliteration- repetition of the initial letter of a word. From my poem - 'father's fingers fumbled', 'didn't do for the Duke'
  • Assonance- repetition of internal vowel sounds in words. For example - croon, moon, spoon.

  • Onomatopoeia- words that sound like their meaning. From my poem - 'slurring'
  • Repetition - repeated words or phrases,(as well as rhythms or rhymes) to add emphasis or build mood. For example the repeated phrase 'I have a dream' from Martin Luther King's famous speech. Although not poetry, he used poetic language to strengthen his speech.

Image

  • Simile - comparing one thing to another. For example - 'His face shone like the sun.' or 'Her words cut like a knife.' The qualities of the knife and the sun are imaginatively linked to the subject.
  • Metaphor - saying one thing IS another. For example - 'He is the sun.' or 'Her words are knives.' This is stronger than a simile. We are asking the reader or listener to believe a word is a knife and a man is the sun.
  • Personification- giving person-like qualities to things. For example - 'That car loathes me.'
  • Idiom - the use of common or colloquial sayings. From my poem -'under the influence'
  • Hyperbole - an exaggerated statement or comparison. For example - 'I've told you a thousand times.' or 'She was as big as a house.' Neither are literally true.
  • Word Play - There are many varieties of word play. From my poem - the intended double meanings of 'minor' and 'major', 'black into white'

And lastly you may like to play with these organizers.

They're fun and can help with theming or shaping a poem.

  • color - a red, green, blue, black, pink, yellow... poem.
    Use the color to kick start your imagination around your chosen subject. For example yellow was the favorite color of a very good friend. So what qualities of both can I link? 'Yellow = sun, sun = friendship - she brought warmth into my life...'Make a brainstorm around it remembering to keep it vivid by using all your senses.
  • the seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter - apply their qualities to your subject
  • day/night - allow your imagination to live into the qualities and stages of 24 hours - dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, sunset, night. How does this relate to your subject?
  • days of the week- what characteristics do they have that your subject shares? Maybe it's always Sunday for them or Monday morning blues?
  • geography- what's the country of your subject look/feel like? Are there mountains, rivers, lakes, springs, trees, forests, deserts...?
  • music - use a specific genre or instrument and explore it relating it back to your subject.
  • animals, birds or fish - take the qualities of one and apply to your subject. How are they similar?
  • weather - try storms, wind, rain, snow, ice, sun, cloud...
  • flowers or trees - if your subject was a plant what would they be and why?

There is no one right 'how to write a poem' way. There are many.

What I do know though is that once you start allowing yourself to really play with words it becomes addictive.
Go well. Try it and see. Dare to Write-out-loud.


Related pages of interest:

  1. how to read a poem aloud
  2. readings of well known funeral poems (podcasts)
  3. wedding poems and readings
  4. bereavement poems



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"Words are of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
Rudyard Kipling