Article for Students

How to Make a Poem

The journey from idea to draft.
Image of a pencil and blank paper on a table.

I sometimes forget that not everyone knows what a poem is—what, in its physical and emotional manifestations, a poem contains. It’s perfectly fine not to have preconceived ideas about poetry—they’re not always positive or helpful anyway. Anyone might think of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which has populated many a high schooler’s monologue, or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which has brought gravitas to car commercials, with a sleek sedan growling down “the [road] less traveled.” Others feel a special palpitation when the word poem is uttered, feel some unnamed interior animal that at last has permission to hunger—and they write or have written or remember a time when words brought comfort. But what of students who hear the word and shudder, hear the word and feel encumbered by its weight or notice the swift approach of a foreign language? I speak to you.

Let’s start with what I hope will be a few helpful statements about poetry. The idea here is not to overwhelm you with rigid definitions but to share the wide possibilities of poetry. A poem is

  1. an arrangement of language that conveys a story, an idea, or an emotion.
  2. an emotional expression including (but not limited to) loss or love.
  3. a purposeful gathering of literary techniques, which may include the visual (imagery), the sonic (assonance, alliterations, repetition), and the figurative (metaphor, simile).

I also have a few personal definitions of poetry. A poem, as it relates directly to me, is

  1. the sense I make of my sister’s death.
  2. how I explain the way my body acts in love or danger.
  3. a place to tell secrets—a lamplight for difficult experiences.

I mix these standard and personal definitions intentionally because a poem is made of both. There’s no exact recipe for writing a poem, but it’s worth looking at these possibilities—standard and personal—to make that blank page a lot less intimidating. Now I am going to join the three standard definitions of a poem with the three personal definitions and make notes for poems with them.

My sister’s skin was the color of a peach pit. The last time I saw my sister was in her mahogany casket, and her color was not quite—she had highlighter on her cheeks and nose as a spirit would—would I never see her again? It was October. The sky was on fire. Also, ashes, her ashes, I fell all down. The casket was not centered and knocked (was she knocking) against the hearse door. I fell all down—as an echo. All down in black wool. My body so near hers in the cuff of Fall air.

Here are the notes, with a title, some line breaks to add emphasis, and a few tweaks:

My Sister’s Skin

was the color of peach pit. I saw
my sister in her mahogany casket, her color
was not quite—she had high-
lighter on her—as a spirit would—her
cheeks and nose. Would I never see her
again? It was October and the sky in flames.
Also: Ashes. Her ashes.
I fell all down.
The casket was not centered and
knocked (was she knocking?) against the hearse
door. I fell all down (as an echo. All down)
In black wool, my body so near
hers in the cuff of wintering air.

I’ve forced you into my combined definitions of a poem above. I defined what a poem is—or can be—then wrote it according to my definitions: story, elegy, and literary elements. What I am trying to tell you—who may be new to poetry—is that writing poetry isn’t magic—it isn’t made by the hand of a muse or by born-geniuses. It is work, the close study of language, practiced again and again, often with less-than-stellar results. Poetry is also life, imagined or real, told selectively, told so that someone else might understand the truth of it and its emotional and experiential content.

So how do you make your own poem? There’s no one way and certainly no best way. All you can do is find a way—preferably, a way that makes poetry interesting and exciting to write and one that helps you discover things about yourself in the process. Here’s my favorite method to help my students write new poems.

First, you need to decide what you want to write about. I know—it is a difficult—but necessary—place to start. Don’t worry: poems aren’t made or broken just by their chosen subject matter. Many students have told me, “I don’t have anything to write about!” but I’m pretty sure this means only that they haven’t sat down to consider meaningful events in their lives. But if it really is the case that in the whole lives of these whole people there is nothing to write about, I tell them to write about not having anything to write about. If met with a blank stare, I ask, “When you can’t think of anything to write about, what else do you do?” Let’s say they answer

  1. Watch the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
  2. Listen to Kendrick Lamar’s new album.
  3. Go for a walk.

No matter how much I don’t want to read a poem about the Kardashians, the subject of watching their show on television could make for an interesting poem once the writer considers how to talk about it. If we go back to my list of what makes a poem, we can surely make a poem of them:

  1. Story, idea, or emotion? The Kardashian sisters.
  2. Expression of loss or love? Loss or tragedy.
  3. A gathering of literary techniques, including the visual (imagery), the sonic (assonance, alliterations, repetition), and the figurative (metaphor, simile).

Here’s a quick example of my putting that into practice:

What happens in the bowlegged posture of night, when
Chloe’s blush mutes blue and Kim’s eyelashes lilt into
Her sightline, blurring the book she reads to North and
the others? They look alike in perfect light, but,
when the crew departs, what else can be said
without a director’s cue or producer’s nudge? Is it
quiet until the quick chirp of the assistant raises
them for the next shoot? Do they glance into vials
of serum for a new face? Do they garment in un-
common, couture frocks? Do they do anything, after all?

This is a draft, a beginning of expression, a way of bringing words to the page. I had to narrow my broad subject to allow the poem to show specific people and a specific moment in time. I also needed the tragic tone of the subject to show through my word choices, including night, mute, blue, blurring, and departs, so I could land the poem in its essential question—what do the Kardashians do? But what if you desire more from the writing of a poem? What if you don’t want to write about reality television stars but about yourself, your own important life, with all its experiences, stakes, and movements? There is a long history of poets—and poetry—who accomplish this very art. Some examples here include Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Lucille Clifton’s “wishes for sons”.

I selected these poems because they are stunning and because they clearly answer the most important question I believe there is for a poem: what is this about? Their titles announce their subjects, and the poems expand what any reader might imagine about those winter Sundays and wishes for sons. I must tell you that knowing what your poem is about and understanding your intention for that subject are two of the most important things you can know as a writer. As a creative writing professor, I look not for perfect poems but for students who clearly understand what they want from their poems and what they want their poems to communicate to their readers. I know that this is more easily said than done, so here are some steps you can take to make your way from idea to poem:

  1. Choose a specific event from your past.
  2. Imagine the event from start to finish. Really see the memory.
  3. Make a list of all the things you remember—all the objects and moments that you recall from this event. If your event is a block party, for example, some of your objects might be the plywood DJ booth, a purple ice cream truck, the neighborhood grump sitting on his porch yelling at kids, the Cubs ball cap you were wearing, a fire hydrant, someone’s creamsicle melting on the sidewalk, hearing the O’Jays’ song “Family Reunion.” The list could go on, but name everything you remember, and don’t worry if it seems to be ancillary to the event itself.
  4. Read through your list of all the things you remember, and choose three of the most interesting things—or have a friend do it for you.
  5. Focus on those three things, which are probably specific images, as you construct a poem about your event or incident. Let’s say you choose the creamsicle melting on the sidewalk as one of your three most interesting things. You might begin the poem
     Ants swarm the creamsicle melting on the pavement.
  1. Don’t be afraid to extend the moment:
     Ants swarm the creamsicle melting on the pavement. They drown in sweetness,
     Drunkenly swim in sugar.
  1. Then you may want to transition to the next thing on your list of three. In the following, you’ll notice that I use the transition to widen the scope of the poem—to allow the speaker of the poem to see more. This allows me to identify more things from my list:
     Ants swarm the creamsicle melting on the pavement. They drown in sweetness,
     drunkenly in sugar, unaware of the surrounding party, overgrown grass being
     Tamped by neighbors’ glad dancing to the O’Jays’ croon of “Family Reunion,
             bass tremoring the DJ’s plywood booth.
  1. At this point, the poem has its start. If you get stuck, return to your list of things and add more of them to the poem.

To help your poetic imagination, here are more poems that can inspire: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “a song in the front yard,” Rita Dove’s “Teach Us to Number Our Days,” and Jericho Brown’s “Prayer of the Backhanded.” Reading poems is one of the best ways to find inspiration and to realize what is possible to write about in your own poems. 

I expect this will help you understand what can lead a writer from idea to poem. I realize that your poem may be about something more complex or frightening or specific than a block party. If you are writing about a trauma, a list of things can be especially useful. If you are not ready to focus on the main moment of the poem, allow the speaker of the poem to be visually distracted by the things around the main scene of the poem. In other words, go at your own pace, and the poem will become braver and clearer as you write and revise.

Originally Published: September 7th, 2018

CM Burroughs's debut collection of poetry is The Vital System (Tupelo Press, 2012). She is an assistant professor of poetry at Columbia College Chicago, and she serves as senior editor for Tupelo Quarterly and coeditor for Court Green. Burroughs has been awarded fellowships and grants from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave...