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Fostering Originality In Poetry

Poetry demands originality. It is, however, unfair to expect brand-new poets to produce fresh, original work all the time—even the most seasoned poets struggle with this task. Poets often find that they must first imitate what has come before them—by reading the work of others and by imitating the work that inspires them—until their own unique voice begins to come through. And by honing the craft through dedicated practice, a poet develops his or her own style.

Finding the creativity needed to create new subject matter and imagery in poetry is easier said than done, but we’ve come up with a few tips on fostering originality. These can be applied to most other genres as well.

Read widely. By reading and absorbing the words of others, your repertoire of skills widens, building on the skills you’ve already developed. Read collections of contemporary poetry, attend readings, and subscribe to poetry journals to broaden your horizons.

Imitate. We’re not talking plagiarism here. Imitating the works you admire helps to develop your own style, and as confidence grows, so does individuality.

Avoid cliché. Images and themes that have been overused lose their power and beauty. Period.

Make each word count. Poetry is a spare form of writing, requiring each word to pack a punch. Choose your words carefully, and aim for clear and concise language. Use action verbs and concrete nouns, which require fewer modifiers and are more dynamic. Avoid the passive and the abstract. And when searching for that perfect word, keep in mind that it need not be exotic or scholarly or unpronounceable to be meaningful.

Make each line count. Each line should be an integral part of the poem and help the poem progress. A four-line poem with four powerful, original lines is better than a two-page poem with four powerful, original lines.

Imagery. Let the poem’s images appeal to the readers’ senses—sound, sight, taste, smell, touch—through metaphors, similes, or descriptive words. Avoid tired similes (free as a bird, quiet as a mouse) and overused metaphors (my love is a rose). It can be difficult for even an experienced writer to create fresh metaphors and similes, but this is what makes a poem interesting.

Don’t overexplain. If the poem is effective, your use of language is sufficient to get the message across to the reader. You don’t have to explain everything.

Take risks. Poems that tackle difficult or uncomfortable subjects make an impact on the reader. Or try using humor, satire, or irony, which can also make even dull subject matter come to life.

Write naturally. It’s not only unnecessary for a poem to rhyme, but it can sound forced or strained if not done properly. And unless you are attempting to write in a Victorian style, avoid the use of “thee,” “o’er,” or “’tis.” While the poetry of a hundred years ago may be appealing, most poets are writing for a modern audience.

Grammar and punctuation rules need not apply. Poetry is free of the usual constraints of writing rules. Line structure provides natural breaks without commas or periods, and the author has free reign over other matters of style. If it works for the poem, the grammar police will turn the other cheek.

Form. There are many different forms of poetry that can be employed, but it is not necessary to write in couplet form, for example, in order to be taken seriously.

Enjoy yourself. Letting go and writing for the sheer pleasure of it often produces the most original and creative pieces. Embrace the joy of writing and see what happens.

Want to publish more poetry? Check out Writer’s Relief.

7 Responses to Fostering Originality In Poetry

  1. While it is true that poetry does not need to follow all the rules of grammar, poets should have a reason for breaking them. Too often rules are ignored, not out of choice in order to create a certain effect, but out of an ignorance of the rules. A poet would do well to learn the rules of grammar, and then use or abuse them to accomplish his or her goal. You are very right, though, about the need to rein in the explanations. Over-explaining is one of the new poet’s most frequent weaknesses.

  2. Barry, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is important to be familiar with the work of other authors and it is also important to leave that familiarity behind and take chances.

  3. Reading the work of others is essential to all poets but originality requires closing the books and letting your imagination go wild. A few years ago, Billy Collins wrote a piece about this in POETRY. I tell poets to write what they really want to write and what they want to read. Don’t be afraid to be a little crazy; just let go. “Emotion recollected in tranquility” is no less free emotion and “form is an extension of content” because our imaginations dictate both. Trying to hard to write “well” leads too many of us to safe harbors where there are no storms…and no wind at all.

  4. As a facilitator of an eclectic writing group:fiction, non-fiction, memoir, essays, and poetry,our group has learned the difficult truth about poetry. It’s not easy to write the GOOD stuff! Two members who basically blew off the "four short lines" as being so simple to write as opposed to a chapter in a novel. I suggested they bring a piece of their poetry to our next mtg. They did…and they’ve changed their perspective on the delicate/difficult art!

  5. Yeah..people do expect a lot out of poets. I think being a poet is the hardest writing job ever. With other writing, you can think of something new to all the time, but with being a poet, you have to come up with metaphors and crap. I feel for poets.

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