All the Write Stuff: Pursuing Poetry

Poetry readership is on the rise. As PBS reported, twenty-eight million American adults read poetry this year, amounting to the highest percentage of poetry readership in over 15 years.  

The boundaries of poetry have long been contestable, with movements ranging from traditional form poetry to the minimalism of the imagist poets. Recent developments have, if anything, only made it harder to define poetry, with the rise of spoken word and slam poetry, the social media trend of “instapoetry,” the popularity of the poetic musical Hamilton, and even songwriter Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Writing in a form without definition can be difficult. I favor T.S. Eliot’s broad definition: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Many poets describe poetry by the process rather than the product itself. Emily Dickinson famously said “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Robert Frost’s experience of poetry was less painful: “Writing a poem is discovering,” he wrote.

If you’re interested in writing poetry, begin in whatever way is easiest for you. Some writers thrive in the limitations of form poetry, which often has a meter, rhyme scheme, and set number of lines/stanzas; other writers prefer the liberty of free verse, which does not have to fit a set meter, rhyme, or length.

If you’re interested in publication, note that many presses ask for concrete poetry, or poetry that ties its central ideas in clear images and experiences. If you prefer writing abstract poems, you can still play around with concrete images by grounding your balloon of an idea to examples or metaphors. That very sentence, for example, evokes a concrete image by comparing abstract ideas to balloons that can be tied to physical things.

You may also choose write poems based on your own experiences. Even though readers may not share your exact anxieties, dreams, and memories, there is an underlying humanity to personal writing that endures it to other humans. If you write about a memory of you and your father at the local ice cream shop, for example, it is likely that few readers have visited the shop, but many will relate to or understand your relationship to your father in that moment. Writing about personal interests can also help add complexity to your poem. So, if you write about your love of pinball machines, readers may understand the poem at different levels based on their own experiences with pinball.

As most poets will tell you, the revision process for poetry is important if not essential. Many of today’s publishers prefer concise poetry, and a sure but painful way of creating concise poetry is revising to ensure the strongest impact in the fewest words. Once you’ve written a poem, try to delete or replace all the words that do not contribute to your poem’s purpose, sound, and/or appearance. You may find other revision methods work better for you; I’ve heard that Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, would repeat a baby poem in her head and make changes throughout the day before writing the final poem on paper. Play around with other approaches to develop your writing process.

Perhaps the best way to pursue poetry-writing, though, is to read poetry. Fortunately, we carry poetry books and can recommend collections that fit your target.

For more information on how to write poetry, check out:


Poetry Matters by Ralph Fletcher How to Write Poetry by Diane Mehta

For strong examples of poetry, check out:

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson Technically, It's Not My Fault by John Grandits
Listen Up edited by Zoe Anglesey Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Zuong Silencer by Marcus Wicker

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