So, Valentine’s day is upon us and you still need a wonderful gift. Why not try something that shows more personal effort than a card and will be treasured for years? Poetry makes a wonderful gift, it costs only your time and it is deeply appreciated – even if it isn’t very good (trust me on that). But what if you don’t know how to write poetry? Let me walk you through the process. It’s not really hard at all.
Pick a topic – imagine a scene.
You need to pick a general theme for your poem. The trick to good poetry is good imagery. Poetry should paint a picture with words. So first you need to paint a picture in your mind. Think of the person you want to write for and imagine or remember a wonderful situation with them. It might simply be looking at them fondly at their most beautiful (or handsome) . It might be sitting together by a fire, or walking through a meadow. Imagine the scene in vivid detail. Add as much interesting visual detail to your imaginary scene as you can manage. For the example, I’m going to remember a scene of relaxing in a little beach restaurant in Mexico on a vacation I took with my wife. I’m just making this up as I write the post, so don’t expect Dante.
Pick a format
If you like, you can simply write in “free verse”. Simply use your best words to take little pictures of what you see in your mind. Keep the sentences relatively short. Something like this:
I remember that day in Mexico.
Making our way across the sandy beach to that small cantina.
It was so warm and lazy to sit there with you,
Sipping our margaritas in the shade.
You get the idea. For a conclusion, you can comment on why you remember the occasion or why it is meaningful to you. Using my example, it might be something like:
No matter how busy our life has been since,
A part of me will always be there with you,
Enjoying the sun on a perfect day.
Free verse is great if you have only a little time or little talent for poetry. But rhyming poetry isn’t as hard as you think. Make your poem really impressive and use a romantic rhyme scheme. For this example I’m going to write a Shakespearian sonnet. You’ll see that it isn’t as difficult as you think.
Writing a sonnet
The rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian sonnet is this: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. I’ll explain. You write three quatrains – groups of four lines where the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. Here’s an example from Shakespear’s Sonnet 54.
O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
“Seem” rhymes with “deem” and “give” with “live”. Easy. And notice the nice images. But don’t worry if you can’t quite equal Shakespeare. The honor of having a sonnet written just for her can overcome a lot of bad style. The sonnet finishes up with a “couplet” of two rhyming lines. In the case of Sonnet 54, they are:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.
One more little detail, a Shakespearian sonnet is written in pentameter. That means that if you read the line, it has five “beats”. If you were reading it in time to a drum beat, the drum would beat five times. Like this:
O HOW/ much MORE / doth BEAUty/ BEAUteous/ SEEM/
A common mistake of beginning poets is to mess up the meter, and put more beats on one line than another. But don’t worry too much about it. The effort counts much more than the meter. Just try to keep it in mind.
Ok, now we come to the part that stumps would-be poets. Finding rhymes. English is a language that doesn’t rhyme very well, and many of our words have no rhymes at all. A common problem beginning poets have is to write a nice line, and then search around desperately for some word to rhyme with the last word of it. Here’s a little secret. Save yourself some grief and pick your rhymes FIRST, and then fit the writing of your line around it.
Go to a site like http://www.rhymezone.com/ (a rhyming dictionary). Now think back to the scene you are describing and think of some simple words that you might use. For example, in my Mexico scene I won’t pick the word Mexico. But some simple words like sand, sun, breeze, day, sea, blue. Type them into the rhyming dictionary and see which ones have lots of rhymes, and put those on your list to use. You can always use words like love, heart, sweet and similar romance words also. For example, if I type in “blue”, I get a huge list of words. Many of them aren’t going to be useful, but scanning the list, I find such words as: clue, drew, due, few, flew, grew, hue, knew, through, two, true, you, who.
You need to pick out seven nice pairs of rhymes (two for each quatrain and one for the couplet at the end). I’ll pick blue and you, day and way, sand and stand, sun and done, sea and free, breeze and ease, heart and part, and finally sweet and complete.
Writing the quatrains
Ok, let’s pick two set of rhymes, remember our theme and images, and see what we can come up with. For my first quatrain, I’ll pick day and way, sand and stand.
How beautiful you looked that autumn day
In Mexico, while walking through the sand
Of Mazatlan, collecting on our way
A carving of a saint, kept close at hand
As I wrote, I made a few adjustments. I decided on “hand” instead of stand for a rhyme. I’ve re-scanned the lines to make sure they all have five beats. Notice how I’ve continued the thoughts onto the next l ine. There’s nothing that says you have to end your thought at the end of a line. But don’t use periods.
Moving along, I work another quatrain
We strolled into a cafe by the sea
Escaping from the swelter of the heat
That table seemed a paradise to me
Your lovely presence making it complete.
A couple more changes. I decided on “me” instead of “free” to rhyme with “sea”. That’s why it’s important to pick words with lots of rhymes. It gives you more flexibility. I started off with “escaping from the swelter of the sun” for the second line, but had trouble working in “done” to the last. I finally picked an whole new set and went with “heat” and “complete”.
Another quatrain to go…
The sea was such a perfect crystal blue
The flavors from the meal so rich and sweet
That only through the sharing it with you
Could any happiness be more complete
Ah, that one worked out well. No changes and it flowed nicely. Sometimes you just get lucky.
Writing the couplet
Now we get to the hard part. At least for me. The bottom two lines should rhyme, and they should sum up the theme of the poem. That gives you a little less latitude with the words you choose. I usually save my best rhyming words for the couplet. Here goes…
The day passed on, we needed to depart
And yet it lives forever in my heart
Ended up switching “depart” for part. Not completely happy with the couplet, but I rarely am. Still, It’s not terrible.
Now write it up on some nice paper with your best penmanship, put on a nice dedication, and you have a thoughtful gift. Even if you just went with the “free verse” option, I’ll wager you’ll do well with it.
If any of you try my idea, let me know how you do with it. Or post your poems here (if they aren’t too personal).