Poetry is a strange medium. It’s both heavily critiqued and profoundly subjective. A poem can be as timeless as the best classical literature or it might only ever move one reader. When a format is so artistic and personal, it seems absurd to impose rules or suggest ways in which one poem is objectively better than another. Nonetheless, there are certain ways in which a poet can make her own work the best it can be, regardless of how it compares to the mainstream.
Write when you’re ready.
This advice may seem obvious, but too many poets worry first about writing a poem—any poem—rather than deciding on what they really want to say. Others may have a great central idea, but nothing else to follow it, so they end up filling in the gaps with stuffing. When inspiration is lacking, don’t try to force creativity. Work on peripheral things, expand your vocabulary, research something that interests you, and examine those old ideas you put aside. When the time is right to put pen to paper, you’ll know. By exercising patience, your work will come from inspiration rather than obligation.
Write what you know.
This is just as true for poets as it is for novel writers. The best poetry comes from the heart and soul, so examine what lies within your own. Experiences, both good and bad, are ideal fodder for inspiration and will give your words the ring of truth. Look through old photographs or diary entries and ask your friends and family about past events. Compare their perspectives or recollections to your own. Remember that nobody else has had a life quite like yours; what better subject matter for a unique poem?
Borrow from known techniques.
Poetry is personal and expressive, so you shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the classic literary techniques, no matter how boldly academics tout their importance. Having said that, they are useful as tools to help you develop your own style. Try a simple device like alliteration, wherein words are grouped together by their first letter to create a sound pattern, as in “The train tore along the track at a terrifying speed.” When read aloud, the consonant sound mirrors the clacking of the tracks, and the motion of the train becomes a little more real. There are plenty of classic poetic forms you can try, such as elegies and ballads, but never let them hem you in. The key is to consider how these techniques can help you, not to blindly follow them.
Remember the power of words.
Poetry tends toward the short form, especially when following a rhythm or meter that requires a set number of syllables. Expanding your vocabulary will make it easier to find one word that can do the job of three. Similarly, you can use literary devices to layer on additional meanings; with the right expression you can make your words say more than one thing. For example, hyperbole involves making outlandish exaggerations that paint a bold picture. Instead of “My father was very strong and supported the household,” try “My father could lift the whole house with one hand.”
Write for yourself.
You are not writing for the critics, or a publisher, or your readers. Poetry is written for the poet. Even when you do have adoring readers, or you choose to craft a piece as a gift or homage to another person, the spark that makes your poetry special is you! Readers follow writers because something about their talent appeals to them. Publishers look for unique points of view. Switch off the inner voice that tells you to follow certain rules or avoid certain subjects. There will always be people who don’t like your poems, but your poems can only be considered art if they remain true to your vision.