When I was around seven or eight years old I found a dusty cardboard box in the corner of our basement. It belonged to my paternal grandfather who had passed away. Inside the box was a book titled, America’s Best Loved Poems, and a collection of poetry written by my grandfather. Most of his original writings were too damaged or faded to read.

I studied the poetry I could salvage, and his notes in the margin of the book. He wrote numbers at the end of each line of poetry. This gave me a clue about meter. I studied the various poems he had underlined, and counted the syllable-beats along with my grandfather’s notes. Some of them were amazingly complicated, while others were very simple.

I memorized his favorites and read them aloud to my brothers. The Mill of the Gods by Charlie Wagg was foremost on Grandfather’s list.

Soon, I had favorites of my own: T.S. Elliot’s Dry Salvages V, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and Living by an unknown author, are just a few.

I found that poetry should always be read aloud. It is like a song. You might think of a song, but you don’t really experience it until you sing aloud.

It wasn’t long before poetry began to flow out of me. All the words I had been reading filled me up and began to spill over.

When I tried to write a poem without a pre-existing muse, it came out very dull indeed; like a body without a soul, or a bird without a song. The best poems, even if they didn’t rhyme, were the ones that almost seemed to spring out of me from sheer joy, or fascination for some part of creation I was observing.

This required something of me; it required observation. I could not write poetry without living life. I had to see, feel, and listen to everything going on around me. From that moment on, I collected words the way a carpenter collects tools. Words were my superpower, they kept me engaged in life.

Start With a Muse

This might be an observation of nature, like a snowflake or an animal. It might be a question you have and the answer you are working towards: Death, and am I afraid of it? Whatever your muse, I suggest you find a real one. Don’t just make it up. Look for it, and loose yourself in the idea.

First Phrases

The second step is to look for a phrase or two that introduces your muse. When I was writing Sound is the Architect the first phrases that came to my mind were,

A bumblebee, science says,

is physically unable to fly.

My muse had been the work of inventor Victor Grebennikov and how he had discovered the anti-gravitational effects of resonance.

Sometimes the first phrase I find is the last phrase in the poem I’m trying to write. For instance, The Artist was about a spider and web. Both my muse and my last line in the poem were:

While I look on and see

A spider and web.

Once you have your first phrase, no matter where it ends up in the poem, you are ready to start building (or singing) your poem.

Instinctive Meter

Your third step is to find your instinctive meter. If you don’t feel it, you can analytically choose a meter. However, I usually feel it like this: Just say your first phrase aloud a couple of times, and then add your second phrase using nonsensical syllables; “lalala-lalalala.” While you say this non-sensical phrase, count with your fingers how many syllables you used.

This is your instinctive meter. I sometimes think of it as a tongue tap dance. It should feel natural. There is a chance you might change it later on, but usually, your first instinct is the right one. Here is an example from, We Ate The God of Play Pretend.

I dreamt a vale where rivers ran (8)

lalala—lalalala (7)

Replace the La-La-La

So, now you have a count for your second line. To change the La-La into real words, you have to go back to step one and remember your muse. What is it you want to say? Can you say it with 7 beats? Don’t make a huge effort to rhyme this line with the first. If it happens naturally, great, go with it. If it doesn’t, there will be multiple chances for that later. In this particular poem, it happened naturally for me, and the third line followed easily:

I dreamt a vale where rivers ran (8)

Verdant green spread o’er the land (7)

Woodland folk, trees, beasts and man (7)

Choosing the Final Meter

At this point I needed to decide how to proceed with my meter. I had 8,7,7, but I needed to finish it with at least one more line that would allow me to complete the first thought with a satisfying downbeat. Many times an ending phrase is shorter than the previous ones. I tried my instinctive technique of “lalalalala” using 6 and then 5 beats. I liked the way 5 felt. So I looked for a phrase that finished my thought with 5 beats:

I dreamt a vale where rivers ran (8)

Verdant green spread o’er the land (7)

Woodland folk, trees, beasts and man (7)

Prospered in the lees. (5)

Analyzing Your Work

When a carpenter builds a house, all you need is the basic framework to go up before you can recognize that he is building a house. This first set of four lines is my basic framework. I can look at it and say, “my meter is 8,7,7,5. The first three lines will rhyme with each other, the last will rhyme with the last line of the following four lines. This is how I will build my poem.”

Now I can really focus on my muse and communicate as clearly as possible what I think and feel within the guidelines I have set for myself.

I dreamt a vale where rivers ran

Verdant green spread o’er the land

Woodland folk, trees, beasts and man

Prospered in the lees.

I saw a giant idol stood

Hailed as “God of all that’s Good”

“He blessed us with (and he should)

Power, wealth, and ease.”

Tricks and Tips

Most people think the rhyming part of poetry is the hardest. But once you get going, the poem almost seems to be discovered rather than created. If you do get stuck, go back to your muse and ask yourself what you are trying to say. Think of the clearest way you can say it, and then look for synonyms that might rhyme.

When I got to “Power, wealth, and. . .” I need something that rhymed with “lees.” Sometimes, if I get stuck, I take the end of the word that I need to rhyme with (lees) and then try it with new beginning letters: A-eese, Beese, Ceese, Deese, Ease. . .!

Having an ample vocabulary makes writing more fun, and less work. Words are to poets as tools are to carpenters. A shop full of the right kind of tools will help you reach your goal. However, you can go to far with big words. Remember this rule and you’ll do fine: “Never sacrifice clarity for loquaciousness: An interested reader will stay longer than an impressed reader.”

Reading poetry is inspiring and will get you in the mood to write, as well as showing you other poet’s techniques, vocabulary and style.

One of the most valuable assets to any writer is a quality critic. If you need content criticism, you’ll want the type of person who says, “but why? what does that mean?” This person may not be a writer at all — just a reader, or a child with keen curiosity.

If you need punctuation and grammar criticism, you’ll likely need someone who can’t write a poem to save his life, but knows the rules inside and out.

My husband is my favorite “content” critic. He often says, “it sounds good, but what does it mean?” Or, “is that what you really think and feel?”

Ultimately, you also need the confidence to be your own critic. Sometimes this means being able to say, “okay. . . well, that failed. I will try again.” It also means having clarity and confidence in your own muse. When a critic mistakenly tries to lead you in another direction, you should be able to say, “No. That’s not quite it either,” and stick to your muse!

When you want to say something that just isn’t coming out as poetry, try prose instead.. Prose is a form of language that exhibits a grammatical structure and a natural flow of speech, rather than a rhythmic structure, as in traditional poetry. An example of prose is, God Who? In my experience, many a muse begins as prose and is later transformed into poetry.

My own personal guide when deciding whether to use poetry or prose is to go with whatever carries the most meaning and emotion. If I can’t say what I mean and make it rhyme - I don’t push it. I go with prose instead.

The rest is all practice!

Here lies the mystery to the rhyme:

Sculpt your own soul in measured time

Reflections of your life.

With honest eyes, and curious mind

Chisel your muse and carve it fine

Let rhythm be the knife.