I’ve been writing poetry off and on since 1999. During these seventeen years I’ve taken English classes, creative writing classes, read poetry books, read poetry essays, written poetry essays, and written a poem a day for a month. My greatest time of growth as a poet came while taking a graduate-level poetry writing course a few years ago, which allowed me to take note of a few habits that helped me to grow and become a better poet.
Sadly, I have not completed a poem since that class concluded. I have done some major revisions on one poem, a short epic called “Taking Down Goliath”, and have started working on two different poems in the meantime. One was taking a previous flash fiction piece that I wrote in 2012 and turning it into a ballad poem. I mean to return to that and finish it at some point, but other writing projects currently demand my attention.
The other I began just this morning. It is something I have felt on my heart for a few weeks now to do, and I just worked up the courage to begin today. I have a journal that sits beside my Bible. I’ve tried journaling. My wife is great at that in her walk with God. Not me. I’ve tried writing favorite verses but find I lose interest quickly. Today I turned to a new page and started writing a poem. My hope is to slowly fill the rest of the pages with some poems and then have a nice chapbook in my possession with poems that explore Bible stories, center around Scriptural passages, and give glory and praise to God.
So the five things I have discovered helped me to grow as a poet are fairly simple. Some may seem to be common sense. Others might seem surprising to you and run counter to what you would usually do when writing poems. Don’t balk at them! Trust me, each of these was very instrumental in my growth, as the challenge from some of them is what is needed to be forged into a better poet.
1. Write More Poetry – This really should be a given for anyone who writes, poetry or otherwise. The more you do something, the better you will become. A blank page won’t get accepted for publication, and the words don’t just magically appear on the page. And, no matter how busy your schedule might seem, there is always time to write. Even if that means waking up earlier or carrying a small notebook and pen with you everywhere you go. If you want to write more often, you will find the time. My own plan with my bigger project is not to sit and write a full poem each day, but rather to get down a few lines. I know I can find the time to do that.
2. Read More Poetry – This is another given for writers. A person who writes Mystery novels will read a lot of other mystery novels. Poets have it lucky because there aren’t many modern novel-length poems that we would have to read. I personally think that the best thing to do is read a variety of poems, spanning across different poetic movements and different time periods. Read the old, the really old, and the new. Read local and read poems from around the globe. It is easy to stick to a poet or an era you love the most, but that can only take you so far. There is a wealth of poetry out there to discover, and many of them are not found in anthologies like Best Loved Poems of the American People. Those are a great starting point, but they are far from being definitive sources. Pick up the complete works of a few major poets. Pick up some of the more specialized anthologies. Get a poetry collection from a local author at an Indie Bookstore.
3. Begin Compiling Your Favorite Poems – This is, essentially, what an anthology editor will do: select their favorite poems and put them all together. If you are like me, you have read anthologies and found some, or even many, of the poems didn’t stand out. But some will stand out. And by taking the time to write them, or type them, you will be reconstructing the poem and seeing it in a new way. Don’t just copy and paste it from a website. Type it out word-by-word. When you are done you will have a best-of poetry collection and you will, hopefully, learn a few things about the poems as you type them out. Bonus points if you take the time to annotate as well!
4. Use Writing Prompts – It seems like so many of the prompts are meant for poets because they focus on one moment, one scene, one idea. This is a free idea factory for any poet, which takes away the whole writer’s block excuse before it even starts. They also serve another purpose, which is to move you out of the comfort zone. We all have those topics we return to over and over. The prompt moves you into uncharted territory, which is why it also goes well with number five…
5. Experiment – This applies to topics, but also to something far more beneficial. Write poems (note this is plural, meaning do each one more than once!) in new formats, like the villanelle or sestina. Expand beyond the sonnet and, especially, past the modern habit of free verse. If you always capitalize the first word of each line, try writing poems without capitalization. If each line is always a complete thought, write poems where the only line ending with a period or comma is the last line. Mix things up, sprint so far past your comfort zone that you can’t see it any more. The class forced me to do just that. One of my best poems was also the hardest one to write the rough draft for. I’ve not only discovered new formats for poetry, but I’ve also found that my natural style of writing a poem isn’t anything like what I wrote for those first thirteen years as a poet.
What are some of the things you think are most important for becoming a better poet or writer? Is there one thing that has helped you grow more than any other?