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Writing Well

Music to the Eyes

Writing a poem is among the most gratifying kinds of writing you can do, for poetry lets you express your ideas and emotions as your language soars. Poetry can also help improve your prose writing, since it teaches you to handle language with skill and precision. So even if you're not a poet, writing some poetry can help you create better letters, memos, reports, and essays.

  • A poem should be palpable and mute
    As a globed fruit …
  • A poem should be wordless
    As the flight of birds …
  • A poem should not mean
    But be.
  • —Archibald MacLeish

What Is a Poem?

Poem:Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

—Dylan Thomas
Not a poem:Turn off the light and put out the cat before you come to bed, Dylan.

—Mother Thomas
Word Watch

Poetry is a type of literature in which words are selected for their beauty, sound, and power to express feelings.

The word poem comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to make, to compose.” The implication is important; poetry is made and the poet is the maker. The word made suggests materials; the word maker suggests effort. There's nothing mysterious about poetry. Like any other kind of writing, it requires a knowledge of the genre, time, effort, and practice.

To make sure we're all starting on the same page, poetry is a type of literature in which words are selected for their beauty, sound, and power to express feelings. The poet uses vivid and expressive language to provide a fresh, unexpected way of looking at things.

Author! Author!

Edgar Allan Poe believed that poetry was “the rhythmical creation of beauty”; to Robert Frost, poetry was “a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment.” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best minds, the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”

In “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” A.E. Housman (1859-1936) uses a commonplace tree to provide a breathtaking insight into the swift passage of time. What emotions does this poem evoke in you?

  • Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
    Is hung with bloom along the bough,
    And stands about the woodland ride
    Wearing white for Eastertide.
  • Now, my threescore years and ten,
    Twenty will not come again,
    And take from seventy springs a score,
    It only leaves me fifty more.
  • And since to look at things in bloom
    Fifty springs are little room,
    About the woodlands I will go
    To see the cherry hung with snow.

Did you feel the beauty of the cherry tree, the clear red against the stark white snow? Did this poem leave you with the urge to seize the day and appreciate the beauty around you? Emotion + Language = Poetry.

Something for Everyone

Poetry takes all life as its subject matter. To embrace life's diversity, poetry has many different forms. This variety gives you free reign to select the type of poem that best suits your purpose, audience, topic, and personality.

Following are some of the traditional poetic forms and an explanation of each one. If you can't make up your mind which variety to try, try expressing the same idea in different forms to see which one(s) work best for you. (This is the same concept as ordering a triple-decker ice-cream cone to see which flavor you like best. Ain't life grand?)

  • Ballad. A story told in song form, with a strong rhythm, repetition, and simple words.
  • Epic. A long story poem written in an elevated style, presenting high-born characters in a series of adventures that portray key events in the history of a nation.
  • Haiku. A three-line poem with a total of 17 syllables. The first and third lines have five syllables each; the second line has seven syllables. Haiku creates a distinct emotion and suggests a spiritual insight, often through images from nature.
  • Limerick. A humorous five-line poem. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme, and the third and fourth rhyme. Most limericks are ribald.
  • Lyric poems. A brief, musical poem that presents a speaker's feelings.
  • Narrative poems. A poem that tells a story, either through a story or through a dramatic situation.
  • Sonnet. A lyric poem of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. In “Italian” sonnets, the first eight lines rhyme abba, abba, and present the problem; the concluding six lines rhyme cde, cde, and resolve the problem. In “English” sonnets, the poet describes the problem in the first 12 lines, which rhyme abab, cdcd, efef, and resolves it in the final two lines, which rhyme gg.
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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