Poetry: Six Essential Principles

Here are six essential principles for writing lyric poetry. They are based on my many years of writing and studying “ars poetica,” the art of poetry. Keep these principles in mind when drafting and revising.

1. Poetry is Music

A poem isn’t just words in a certain order. A poem is also made up of sounds the words make, arranged to create effects. Poets train their ears to be aware of sound. Therefore, a poem is a musical performance.

A poem can be enjoyed as much for the sound of it as for the sense. In fact, the experience and meaning of poetry is tied up with the music of the language.

Think how sound in English includes so many things we have musical terms for, because vocal production works like a musical instrument. For example, tone, attack, accent pitch, melodic line, and silence between sounds (in music known as rests). Consciously or unconsciously, poets consider:

  • all the different blends of vowel and consonant sounds that have lighter, sweeter/darker, heavier tones because they are produced in different parts of the mouth
  • attacks using open or closed lips and the position of tongue that make slurs, legatos, staccatos, glissandi;
  • English is an accentual language. It places strong and weak accents in different places, such as Ken-TUCK-y, FAS-cin-A-ting that create rhythms
  • Longer and shorter lines and sentences create melodic phrases.
  • Pauses due to punctuation and the spaces between words function like musical rests (line breaks, periods, commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, exclamation points, question marks, and the natural boundaries between clauses).

Being sensitive to the melodic and musical nature of language will help your poetry become more interesting.

2. Poetry is based on Image

When writing fiction and other narratives such as creative nonfiction, you learn to “show and not tell” or at least “show as well as tell.” The emphasis is on showing or describing. That is, using vivid language to evoke the senses and create an impression of a real place. 

Just as with narratives, description (called “imagery” in poetry) that is vivid and evokes the senses is key.

Images, and not statements, carry the experiences, emotions, and ideas to the reader (poems based on “wit,” meaning wordplay and punning, being perhaps an exception).

Newer, less experienced poets often feel the purpose of poetry is to fill the page with lofty sounding statements. This concept is an error. Time after time, it has been shown that “lofty” or “important” statements often sound trite and make the poet seem pretentious. It robs the reader of discovery, trying to tell the reader what is important.

In contrast, poetry is a vehicle (poet William Carlos Williams called it “a small machine made out of words”) that carries experiences and emotions as well as ideas to readers. While ideas can be mentioned, the need to be “earned” by images. Also, images contain ideas that are open-ended. Statements tend to be closed. Therefore, statements shut down a poem to readers, while imagery opens up a poem to readers

3. Word Choice Matters

In a vocabulary-rich language like English, there are many options. In a flexibly-structured syntactic language like English there are many places within a sentence in which to place words, phrases, and clauses. The words you use and where you put them matter.

I like to think of words like cherries placed for the reader to taste. It gives the idea of an image where a word = a sweet, delicious fruit. Though this is misleading because sometimes you want words to taste “bitter” or “acidic.”

At any rate, experienced poets soon discover that in a short form like poetry, every word counts. And a deletion, addition, or substitution of just one word can have profound effects on a poem. 

Make attention to vocabulary and the study of vocabulary part of your life of poetry. 

4. Poems “Turn

The “Turn” (called the “volta” in Italian) is an important part of poetry. Think of it as a change of direction in the poem’s tone, subject, language, or direction. There can be more than one “turn” in a poem, but often a poem “turns” towards the closure. Discovering the “turn” is part of what makes a poem surprising and interesting. Another way to put this concept of the turn is that poems need to “go somewhere” in terms of emotion, experience, and meaning. That is, the mood, meaning, building of tension create some kind of what might be referred to as “arc,” “direction,” or “flow.”

5. Lines Matter!

Poems are made up of lines. Lines do not have to equal one sentence. The idea of line NOT sentence is important. Sentences can stop in the middle of lines, and they can span multiple lines. Putting language into lines, and modifying the lines in revision changes the way we experience something. On the page it is visual, on the page and on the “stage” it is a part of performance.

Line endings are important places of emphasis, and so it’s important what word you place there. Your line endings should do some “poetic work.”

6. Use Modern Language

Writing contemporary poetry, we should not deliberately sound archaic or “poetical.” Strive to make your lines and syntax sound natural, not tortured. And this will be true in formal poetry as well. That is, unless you are deliberately playing past against the present in terms of language effects. 

(updated 12 January 2020)

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

Although the lessons are free of charge, please help support all my work in writing and maintaining this site through a small contribution using the PayPal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

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