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1. Explore Your Surroundings
Find inspiration in your environment and everyday activities.
- Take a walk. Go on a walk and bring your notebook. Look around and write down observations on what you see: a tree, a person, a neighborhood. Try starting a poem by using some of these descriptions. Make a decision about its structure: what will the stanzas look like? Will you use enjambment or will you use punctuation? Do you want to use long sentences or short?
- Find an interesting object. Whether you’re in an office or a kitchen, a park or a library, choose an object you can see and describe it. Does it evoke personal memories? Does it have cultural implications, or elicit a certain emotion? Try starting a poem with this object and its associations to guide you.
2. Brainstorm Ideas
Try these exercises as a jumping off point for a new poem.
- Use flash cards. Think of a topic. Take ten blank flash cards and on one side of each flash card, write a line about this topic. Use a mixture of emotional detail, concrete detail, and images when writing these lines. Put all the cards face down in front of you. Turn five of these cards over, face-up. What kind of poem is this? What questions remain? Experiment with which five cards should be turned up in order to create a poem that is both mysterious and clear enough for the emotions to be anchored.
- Eavesdrop. Carry your notebook with you as you go about your daily tasks and write down interesting things you overhear. At the end of the day, go over the snippets of conversation you wrote down and, rather than thinking about the content of the conversation, analyze how it was said. What have you learned about the way people speak? Incorporate this speech rhythm into a new poem.
- Analyze your every move. In the evening, write a list of twenty things you did that day. Use this form: “I washed the dishes, I ate an avocado, I read the newspaper,” and so on. The only rule is: don’t list the things in chronological order. Review your list of twenty activities and see if any of them spark a line of poetry. Try to make use of one of these seemingly mundane activities to write a longer poem.
- Free write. Take your notebook and give yourself ten minutes to simply write whatever comes to mind, not letting your pen or pencil leave the page, and not revising. After ten minutes have passed, review what you wrote. How do the subject and tone change from the beginning to the end? Is there anything you might want to lift for a new poem?
3. Play With Structure
Play around with the formation of a poem, and experiment with language to create new meanings.
- Think about the stanzas as various “rooms” in the house of the poem. Imagine that the poet is taking readers through various rooms in a tour of a house. Now, read one of your own poems and look at the stanzas: in the margins of your poem, write down what each stanza or “room” is revealing.
- Play with elliptical language. Look at one of your poems, and play with elliptical language. Are there are any words you might want to omit to heighten the sense of mystery? How does the omission of different words change the lines’ potential meanings?
- Play with your own ambiguous meanings. Create a sentence that could be interpreted at least two ways. Think of the word “blue”—is it indicating color or mood? Or consider using qualifiers like “perhaps” or “should.” Let this sentence constitute the first few lines of a new poem, and keep playing with this concept of double interpretation throughout.
- Make a mess. Write your next poem in long-hand in your notebook and feel free to make a mess with strike-throughs, asides in the margin, and the like before you type it up on a screen. How does the typed up version look on the page? Is it thin, sprawling, even or jagged? Are you moved to make adjustments in the poem, such as shortening or lengthening lines, for the sake of giving your poem a definite shape? Consider editing for diction, pacing, and clarity. Even consider cutting the nonessential lines and phrases.
4. Play With Form
Try writing different types of poems that have different rhyme schemes or lengths.
- Write a haiku. Let the subject take on any topic you want but limit yourself strictly to the haiku form: three lines with the first line having five syllables, the second containing seven syllables, and the last containing five. How did this exercise make you revise your language?
- Write a poem of any length. It can be on whatever subject or subjects you choose (and it doesn’t need to rhyme), but try to make each line in iambic pentameter. Remember, this means five iambic feet (da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM).
- Write a traditional Shakespearian sonnet. Do this using iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Make sure your poem has exactly 14 lines, and use the last two lines to make a “turn.” Remember that the turn often has the poet looking back at the previous 12 lines and making a two-line comment on them.
5. Play With Setting
Transport your poetry to different time periods and locales.
- Write a few lines setting a scene that is easy to accept. Think about the example of snow on pine trees or a dog lying under a hammock. Establish a scene of your own. Then have your poem take a twist. Take your reader and yourself somewhere very different—spatially or thematically—from your original scene.
- Subvert the norms. In the Elizabethan period, the dominant subject was romantic or courtly love. In the age of the English Romantic poets, you were supposed to write about nature. Poetry advances when these rules of acceptability are violated. Think about Walt Whitman: when he should have been writing about nature, he wrote about machinery. Thom Gunn wrote a poem about Elvis Presley when pop stars were not considered appropriate for poetry. Both poets violated the literary decorum of their time. In choosing what to write about, nothing is too trivial. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t feel that you have to be serious, or even sincere. You can be playful, even sarcastic in your poems. Think of a subject that may seem outside of today’s literary decorum and write a poem about it.
6. Play With Titles
Titles can inspire a poet, but they’re also useful to readers.
- Guide the reader—but surprise them, too. Write a poem whose title lets the reader in on how the poem is going to proceed by indicating what lies ahead. Then, write this poem, making sure to both deliver on the promise of the title while complicating its meaning.
- Play with capitalization. Write a first line that could also work as a title, and write a poem under this line. Play with the capitalization of untraditional nouns: try giving weight to unexpected words by capitalizing them.
7. Play With Literary Devices
Utilize different literary devices in your poetry to produce different outcomes.
- Play with diction. What are some words that, for some reason, make you laugh when reading them? (Think, for example, about “fork,” “nose,” “potato,” or “peas.”) Write a poem that deliberately uses these words to create a tone.
- Use assonance. On a sheet of paper, brainstorm a handful of words that use a similar vowel sound. Now, using this brainstorm as a guide, write a poem that utilizes assonance in one or several places (or even throughout the poem). As you read over your draft, ask yourself how these sounds add musicality to the poem, acting as a kind of sound-glue that holds the poem together.
- Try anaphora—at least once. Write a poem of at least seven lines, using anaphora at least once. Now, write a poem of over 15 lines in which you use anaphora several times, switching the words being repeated over the length of your poem. Let the development of your anaphora tell another story or add another layer of detail and depth to your poem.
8. Look Inward
You are the greatest muse for your own poetry. The following exercises require you to mine ideas from your personal life.
- Does your personality make its way into your poems? Think of what kind of social person you are and consider the feedback you get from others about your personality—from family, friends, and others. Write a poem that is spoken in your natural speaking voice. This poem need not exhibit your best self. Try allowing the poem to be controlled by a voice other than the one that shows you off. Write a poem that lets the ruggedness of your life drive the voice.
- Start a letter to someone you know, would like to know, or once knew. The rule is: assume that they won’t see it. Start this letter by addressing this person directly (think “Dear X”). After you’ve written a few lines or sentences, begin breaking your letter into poetic lines and finish the poem.
9. Imitate Poets
Imitation is the best form of flattery. Look to poets you admire for inspiration in your own writing. The following writing exercises borrow concepts from other bards.
- Mimic voice. Think of some of the poets or poems you admire. These could be poems you’ve discovered in this course or longtime favorites. Pick one of these poems and read it over and over again, noting the methods the poet uses to achieve his or her voice? Notice how the poem develops stage by stage. How does it find its way through itself? See if you can write a poem that follows a similar style of organization or path of development. This is more than an exercise; it’s a way of opening yourself to the influences of other poets.
- Describe a disturbing occurrence with an uninvolved, distant voice. Remember that the point of poetry is to make the reader feel something, not for you, the poet, to get emotional. The best way to do this is to write “cold.” If you are doing the feeling, the reader will pull back because all the emotional work has been done by you.
- Create tension. Use space to create suspense, putting the reader on the same level of knowing and not knowing as the speaker. Write a poem that describes one large action and uses spacing as a way to force the reader to pause, creating tension and suspense as the action of your poem progresses.
Learn more poetry reading and writing tips from Billy Collins.