This article is directed toward the elements of free verse poetry, but many of the concepts can still be applied to prosodic poetry.
Writing good, quality free verse is not very hard if you subscribe to several simple rules. Many people overlook these three elementary ideas, but, in looking at the larger scope of poetry, these concepts change bad poetry to good poetry. And best of all, they’re easy. These elements are not the first things people attribute to poetic devices, but they are the biggest improvements you can make in your free verse poetry writing. I'll go through the three basics which are forgotten the most, then touch on some other basics you are probably already familiar with.
Abstraction vs. Imagery
This is the biggest one. An abstraction is anything that is not tangible and does not bring a picture directly to mind. Love, future, grief, and time are all abstractions. Images are anything that are universally seen similarly in our minds. Apples, ladders, and canes are all images – we all see them in a similar way. This gives us the advantage of identification, or the ability to understand another viewpoint.
In short, images are good and abstractions are not. Abstractions are often unavoidable, and that’s where forms of trope, such as metaphor, simile, and personification come in handy. You can use trope to help someone connect an abstraction with an image; thus allowing them to understand the abstraction more fully.
Syntax and Half-Meaning
Syntax in poetry refers to the way sentences are spread throughout lines and stanzas or strophes. Syntax defines the rhythm, and, in part, the meaning of a poem. First, utilize syntax by changing sentence lengths and the spacial orientation of sentence beginnings and ends. Just like prose, poetry will get monotonous if every sentence (or phrase) is composed of the exact same amount of syllables or words which start and stop at the exact same spots on the line. Write short sentences; write long sentences, and always make sure to keep the rhythm interesting. Also, enjambing your lines allows a much freer rhythm. Enjambed lines are lines which do not stop at the end of a sentence, phrase, or clause, but rather spill the rest of the word group onto the next line.
Besides allowing new and interesting rhythms, changing your syntax can open the doors of half-meaning. Half-meaning is created when a phrase suggests a complementary meaning to the poem’s meaning through image, word choice, or line breaks. Every enjambed line provides half-meaning, whether intentional or unintentional. An example of intentional half-meaning can be found in this excerpt from Shakespeare:
. . . perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: To have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery.
In this passage, Shakespeare uses half-meaning to imply that inaction is equivalent to hanging for a crime (Keeps hour bright: To have done is to hang). The whole meaning of the passage has a very different meaning, though: It suggests inaction is simply embarrassing, like owning a suit of mail that is never used. Half-meaning is everywhere is poem; it might as well be used cleverly and adeptly.
Formatting a poem can make a pivotal difference in rhythm and enjoyment. One-word lines and indentations create pauses in the reader’s mind, which can be used for emphasis and half-meaning. A poem that is formatted with all similar line lengths and identical stanzas will not be interesting enough, even if the syntax throughout is changed and modified. Try indenting every other strophe, or isolate lines you see as important. Experiment with formatting enough that you know where the rhythm needs to change speed and how to do it.
Formatting also includes italicization, bolding, and parentheses. These devices can be used for alternate voices. The reader will generally read italics as a whisper or very breathy voice, and bold as a shout or clear-ringing voice. Parentheses have a very similar application as italics, but with different visual ramifications. Use these techniques, especially italics, in poetry to make the voices more exciting and dynamic.
Besides these three points, there are plenty of other guidelines to follow. Most of them are common sense, universally known, or can be cleared up by applying the concepts in this article. I’ll go over some others briefly.
Grammatical Errors: Don’t write poetry with disregard for common grammatical rules unless there is substantial need for it. Use punctuation that fits the purpose (unless aesthetics demand otherwise), capitalize, and use correct spelling.
Cliches: Don’t write something if you think you’ve heard it somewhere else. If an image pops into your head, analyze it for originality before putting it down on paper. Abstractions are far more overused than images, so think of something fresh and new to describe.
Alliteration: Forms of alliteration can make a poem much more enjoyable to read. Just don’t overdo it or force it. Also, assonance can be less noticeable but even more effective than consonance or alliteration.
Repetition: Repetition can sometimes work, but it is often overused. Don’t repeat the same exact lines over and over again just to take up space. Repetition in formatting and theme is often necessary and very effective.
Know It: Know what you’re writing about. If you can’t completely deconstruct your poem and tell a reader what every single word’s purpose is, then you’ve failed as a poet. Be aware of how every symbol and metaphor complements your poem as you write it. Later you can edit it, but if there isn’t a strong base there will not be a strong finished piece.
Read and Write: The more you read and write poetry, the better you’ll read and write poetry. I recommend Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, as it delves very deeply into half-meaning and context. Also, subscribe to a modern poetry journal to read what’s new and cutting-edge. And always make it a point to write a poem whenever you can.