So how do you write a poem?

 

This is the complete text of How To Write Poems. It is written for children (aged 8 - 12) and is © Roger Stevens 1997. You may copy it - but to protect the copyright it may only be used for your own personal use or circulated in your school. You are welcome to print it out, put a ring binder on it, and use it as a classroom resource. All poems (unless otherwise stated) are © Roger Stevens 1997

acrostics adjectives and adverbs alliteration cinquain concrete poems cut-ups funny poems haiku imagination limerick mind map nonsense observing onomatopoeia performing re-writing rhyme rhythm scary simile tanka

creating your own book of poems



HOW TO WRITE POEMS

(and how to be a brilliant poet!)

by Roger Stevens


1: I Can Do That!

I can do that! Yes, you can. If you've never written a poem before or if you write lots of poems and want to improve them, then this is the book for you. It's full of practical advice to help you write better poetry.
Where do ideas come from? Why do some poems rhyme and others don't? How do you decide upon the kind of poem you want to write? When you've written a poem how can you get it published?
If you have to write poems at school, this book will help you there, too. But, most importantly, I hope it will show you that writing poems is fun.


2: What Can I Write About?

Anything can be the basis of a good poem. You can choose big important themes like love, death, famine, poverty and war. Or you can write about what you had for breakfast or your new pair of trainers. Your poem can be happy or sad, silly or serious, scary or peaceful. Maybe it will make people think. It can be about people, animals or things. It can be about real life, aliens or magic. It can be about anything at all.
I went to see Peter Pan at the theatre once. Peter Pan flew across the stage on a wire. I thought what if he was to fly right over the audience and then fall off?

In the Christmas holiday
We went to see Peter Pan
He flew right over our heads
And fell on top of Gran


3: Funny Poems

Humorous poems are usually the most fun to read and they're fun to write. Most joke poems rhyme.
William Shakespeare wrote some of the best plays in the world and some of the best poetry. He had a simple rule. If he wanted to write something serious he used blank verse (I'll tell you all about that later) but if he wanted to make people laugh he used rhyme. He wrote his plays nearly four hundred years ago and the jokes in them may not seem as funny today as they did then. But writers have been using this rule ever since.
A good place to start is with a joke book. What sits in the fruit bowl and shouts for help? A damson in distress. What's long and yellow and lives in a Scottish lake? The Loch Ness Banana. Why did the biscuit cry? Because its mother had been a wafer so long.

The Biscuit's Sad Song
Why are you crying?
The mother biscuit said,
And singing that sad, sad song?
I cry because I
Have a crumb in my eye
And you were a wafer so long

You could take an ordinary everyday situation and add a twist to it. Ask yourself the question - what if ? What if my breakfast cereal started talking to me. What would it say? What if we had a supply teacher who was... magic? A superhero? A robot? A werewolf? What if I took my clothes to the launderette and they shrank? What if I took something unusual to the launderette - such as a magic carpet?

Magic Carpet

My magic carpet needed cleaning
So in the launderette I sat
I should have read the label
Now it's a magic mat

Maybe something funny happened recently at school. You could turn that into a poem. Did your mum or dad, or brother or sister, ever do or say something funny? There are thousands of poems sitting around waiting to be discovered. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open. Most writers always keep a notebook handy to jot ideas down.

Swear Box

I said bloody,
Mum said, Sam
I can't believe I heard
You say that naughty word.

I said, You said it
When you dropped a cup
You said it again
When you had to clear it up

Mum produced a tin
And looking straight at me
She said, If either of us swears
We have to pay 10p

Dad came in from work,
He said, I really need a bath.
It's been a bloody awful day...
I looked at Mum
She looked at me
We both started to laugh

How about writing a limerick? Edward Lear made them popular over a hundred years ago.They have five lines and they rhyme. The first line usually begins There was a young (or an old) man (or woman or boy or girl) of Somewhere. You then think of a rhyme for the place and that gives you the idea for the last line. No one knows who wrote these limericks.

There was a young lady of Tottenham
Who'd no manners or else she'd forgotten 'em
At tea at the vicar's
She tore off her knickers
Because, she explained, she felt 'ot in 'em

There was a young man of Bengal
Who was asked to a fancy dress ball
He murmured: I'll risk it
I'll go as a biscuit
But the dog ate him up in the hall


4: Telling the Truth

Most good writers write about what they know. You could write about an awful war, about the terrible fighting in Bosnia for example. You might feel deeply about it but unless you have actually been there and experienced the snipers and the bombs you will only be writing about what you've heard or seen on the television. You could still write a good poem about it but you wouldn't be writing from your own experience.
If you really want to write a poem about fighting, I bet you've experienced it yourself, maybe at school. Perhaps you've been on the receiving end of a bully's teasing? You could write a very moving poem about that. You could show people, through your poem, what it's like to be bullied. How it feels.
I wanted to write a serious poem about the terrible nuclear accident at Chernobyl. I've never been to Chernobyl and I don't know much about nuclear reactors. However...

School Trip of a Lifetime

There's a town called Chernobyl
It's pretty much deserted now
On account of the accident
It's radio-active for miles around
The school children all have cancers
Caused by the toxic dust

Ivan, from Chernobyl,
came to stay with us
He wasn't very well
But he had a good time
His teacher said
It was the school trip of a lifetime.


5: Scary Poems

Poems can be very frightening. My favourite scary poem is called The Visitor by Ian Serraillier. You could compose a scary poem by first making a list of all the scary things you can think off. Dracula, werewolves, ghosts and witches might be on your list. But a better way would be to think of all the scary things that have happened to you. When were you last scared? If you write from your own experience the poem will sound true, and be better for it.

Make a list of all the things that have scared you. Then ask yourself the question - what if ? Most good writers write from their experience - but then add a little bit extra, a little imagination. I used to be scared of the dark. My grandma and granddad lived next door and you could reach their house by a path that joined our back garden to theirs. When I visited them at night I used to run very fast in case I was attacked by a ghost. Of course there wasn't really ghosts in the garden. But what if there had been? What would they have looked like? What would they have done?
At the top of our stairs there was a hatch that led to the loft. Some nights I would go to bed and peer up at the hatch, imagining what might be up there. I managed to really scare myself sometimes. There wasn't really anything up there. But what if....?

Bedtime Terror

Every night
I creep up the shadowy stairs
stealthy as a cat
carefully placing my feet
at the edges
in case the steps creak
beneath my weight.

At the top
I hold my breath
fearfully glancing up
at the trapdoor
high overhead,
a white wooden frame,
a thin square of wood,
all that separates me
from...

Listen. Can you hear breathing?
Is that a twisted claw
scraping the wood?
A drip of blood?
A heavy body settling in wait?
Waiting for me?


I hurry by.
Tense. On tip-toe.
My back now exposed
I dive for the safety of my bed.


6: Getting It Right

I don't know of any poets who get it right first time. Usually you have to re-write a poem several times before you're happy with it. Every night I take our dog for a walk. It's usually very late and the streets are deserted and this is a good time for me to think.
One night I thought - I know, walking the dog at night would make a good poem. So I started thinking about what the poem could say. I could write about the night sky and how the stars are very beautiful. Or I could write about how our dog Judy tries to chase cats and nearly pulls me over.
Then I thought about how some nights I didn't want to walk the dog, because I was tired, or it was cold, or it was raining. Then I thought about an argument I once had with my wife about whose turn it was to walk the dog. So the first version came out something like this.


Every night I have to walk the dog
Tonight it's wet and rainy and I really don't want to
But the dog doesn't mind the wet
She just wants to go for a walk

Not much of a poem is it? So I added the argument.

It's your turn to walk the dog.
No it's not, it's your turn.
No it's not, it's your turn
I walked her last night.
But I walked her every night last week...

Then I thought what if I was a child and it was my parents arguing.

Dad said, It's your turn to walk the dog.
Mum said, No it's not, it's your turn.
Dad said, I walked her this morning.
Mum said, She's your dog.

I remembered that phrase from when I had a rabbit. I looked after my pet very well for the first few weeks. Then I got bored with cleaning the hutch out. I thought, I'm fed up with this, Mum can do it. But when I left it, Mum said, You have to do it. She's your rabbit.
So far, so good. But the argument my parents were having in the poem was a bit boring. But what if dad got really cross?

Dad stood up and threw the remote control at the television.
Then he said, I'm going down the pub.

What would mum do then? Would she walk the dog? No, I'd do it. And I'd enjoy it. Just like I do now.

I said, I'll walk her.
The stars were shining
The dog ate someone's left-over kebab on the pavement
The dog chased a cat
I don't know why they were arguing
Walking the dog is fun

Should I make the poem rhyme? It was a serious poem but also, I hoped, a bit funny. But usually if a poem is meant to rhyme - it somehow starts out by rhyming. Poems often have minds of their own. So I decided not to make it rhyme. Now I had to put it all together. I remembered one more thing, the time the dog met a hedgehog. Good, that could go in.
It took me several more attempts before I felt happy with it. (Sometimes, if a poem isn't going well, I put it aside and come back to it. I've just finished a poem that I started over thirty years ago.)

Walking the Dog Seems Like Fun To Me

Dad said, The dog wants a walk.

Mum said to Dad, It's your turn
Dad said, I always walk the dog.
Mum said, Well I walked her this morning
Dad said, She's your dog -
I didn't want a dog in the first place

Mum said, It's your turn.

Dad stood up and threw the remote control
at the pot plant
Dad said, I'm going down the pub
Mum said, Take the dog

Dad shouted, No way!
Mum shouted, You're going nowhere!

I grabbed Judy's lead
and we both bolted out the back door

The stars were shining like diamonds
Judy sniffed at a hedgehog, rolled up in a ball
She ate a discarded kebab on the pavement
She chased a cat up a tree

Walking the dog
seems like fun to me


7: You Gotta Have Rhythm

The very first music that anybody made, thousands of years ago, had a beat or a rhythm. The beat of music has always been very, very important. Why? Because our lives all revolve around a beat. Everything we do has a beat to it. Even when we are asleep we have a beat. What is that beat? It's the beat of our heart.
Poetry has a beat, too. Almost all poetry has it. Poetry may rhyme or it may not rhyme - but it has to have a rhythm. This beat is not always obvious, but it's usually there. That's the difference between a story and a ballad or a conversation and a poem.
You can hear the beat in song words because words to songs have to be written to fit in with the beat of the music. You can hear this very well in rap music, where the words often sound like another drum. Say this poem out loud with a good solid rap-beat behind it (clap or stamp your foot, or both)

The Most Important Rap

I am an astronaut
I circle the stars
I walk on the moon
I travel to Mars
I'm brave and tall
There is nothing I fear
And I am the most important person here

I am a teacher
I taught you it all
I taught you why your
spaceship doesn't fall
If you couldn't read or write
Where would you be?
The most important person here is me
Who are you kidding?
Are you taking the mick?
Who makes you better
when you're feeling sick?
I am a doctor
and I'm always on call
and I am more important than you all

But I'm your mother
Don't forget me
If it wasn't for your mother
where would you be?
I washed your nappies
and changed your vest
I'm the most important
and mummy knows best

I am a child
and the future I see
and there'd be no future
if it wasn't for me
I hold the safety
of the planet in my hand
I'm the most important
and you'd better understand

Now just hold on
I've a message for you all
Together we stand
and divided we fall
So let's make a circle
and all remember this
Who's the most important?

EVERYBODY IS


8: More About Rhythm

Here are two versions of the same poem. The first doesn't have a rhythm but the second does.

First Train Passing

The train makes a clickity-clack noise
on the track
You can see ducks and geese from the window
and they fly up when the train goes by
I can see a big, heavy suitcase
on the rack. It doesn't look very safe.
The train is going into a tunnel
and when it does, everything goes dark

Second Train Passing

Clickity-clack, clickity-clack
Ducklings and geese, fly from the track
Big heavy case, rocks on the rack
Tunnel ahead, everything's black
Clickity-clack, quickity quack
Clickity-clack, rickety-rack
Clickity-clack, blickity-black
Clickity-clackity trickity-track

The second version feels as if it's actually moving along a railway track. Not all rhythm in poems is as obvious as this, of course. But it's usually there if you look for it.

How can you get rhythm into your poems? You could write your poem to a well known tune - like Old MacDonald had a farm. (No one need know that you used a nursery rhyme to compose your masterpiece.) Or you could try saying it to a rap beat.

It's easier to get a rhythm going when you say words out loud. Words are made up of syllables. The word rhythm has two syllables, rhy and thm. The word syllable has three syllables, sy - lla - ble. The word, word, only has one. And when you say words out loud you'll find that some syllables are long and some are short. For example say out loud:

I never like to do the washing up

We can use special symbols for long and short syllables: - is a long one and x is a short one. We sometimes say that the long one is a stressed syllable, because we put more emphasis on it. So,

I ne-ver like to do the wa-shing up

becomes
x - x - x - x - x -


and Clickity-clack, clickity-clack
becomes

- x x - - x x -

Notice that the symbols make a pattern.

Now don't worry. You don't have go through this rigmarole every time you write a poem. Once you're aware of the rhythm you can just feel it. But it's useful to know this kind of rhythmic shorthand. And it will be useful when we look at other types of poems you might like to write. In the meantime, why not have a go at writing a train poem?
First think about any train journeys you may have taken. Then think of something that may have happened on the journey. Did the train break down? Did you lose your ticket? Did you have to stand up all the way? Where were you going? Somewhere exciting? Or maybe to the hospital?
Next ask the question what if ? Add a touch of imagination. What if the ticket had blown out the window? What if the ticket had been stolen? What if it had been a magic ticket. And finally tap out a train rhythm on the table and see if you can fit the words to it. You might also add some train-sounding words.


9: The Poet's Tool Kit

What happens when the washing machine breaks down? A plumber comes round to mend it. He usually has a big bag of tools with him. Nearly everybody needs tools to do a job. An artist can't paint without a paintbrush, paper or a canvas to paint on and the paint itself. These are an artist's tools. Even a graffiti artist needs spray paint and a wall.
A poet needs tools, too: A pen or pencil, something to write on, perhaps a word processor, but most important of all - words. The more words you know, the better equipped you are to write poems.
You don't have to have a big vocabulary to write poems. Sometimes the simplest words can produce beautiful poems. But poetry is all about finding the exact word that you need. And so, the more words you know, the better.
How do you improve your word power? The best way is to read. Read lots - and whenever you come across an unfamiliar word, find out what it means. It could be just the word you'll need in your next poem. Get yourself a good dictionary
Most people (adults as well as children) tend to read the same sort of things all the time. You find a type of story you like, or a favourite author, and that's what you read. But poets try different sorts of stories. Read newspapers and magazines. Try reading classical stories. Once in a while try an "adult" book. And if you are going to be a poet, read lots of poetry. You probably have some favourite poets, but read other poets too. Read. Read. Read. And improve your word power.


10: Observation

A poet is an observer. A poet keeps his or her eyes open and notices things. It's a good idea to keep a notebook handy at all times because you never know when you'll see or hear something that might be useful in a poem.
Not only keep your eyes and ears open, but your nose as well. Have you ever noticed how smelly a classroom gets sometimes? My class had just come back from PE and were changing in the classroom and I thought - this room stinks. Then I started thinking about how some people always have particular smells. And I wondered what my smell was. Then I wrote this poem.
(I started with some true smells and then I added some imagination. I don't have an Aunt Agatha and I've never met anyone who smelled of rope but I did need something to rhyme with Cousin Tracey's soap. Actually, I don't have a Cousin Tracey but I did once meet a girl, years and years ago, who smelt really strongly of soap. It was something I observed at the time and stored away in my memory. There it stayed until it popped up for this poem.)

Smelly People

Uncle Oswald smells of tobacco
Aunt Agatha smells of rope
Cousin Darren smells of aeroplane glue
Cousin Tracey smells of soap

My mum smells of garlic and cabbage
My dad smells of cups of tea
My baby sister smells of sick
and my brother of TCP

Our classroom smells of stinky socks
Our teacher smells of Old Spice
I wonder what I smell of?
I'll just have a sniff...
hmmm... quite nice


11: Acrostics

This is a simple poem based upon a single word. Choose a word - football, netball, Christmas, autumn, school, thunder, animals, giraffe, orchestra, gymnkana, aliens, ghosts, or any other. Write the word down the left hand side and then try to find other words, beginning with those letters, that match.
T eacher's Desk

E lastic bands (confiscated}

A box of tissues

C up of tea (cold)

H anky (for runny noses)

E ggboxes (useful)

R egister

S ausage roll (half eaten)

D iary (last year's)

E lastoplasts (for cut knees)

S ellotape (used up)

K ind words (unlimited supply)


12: Haiku and Short Poems

The haiku (pronounced hi-coo) is a type of poem that first appeared in Japan. In it, the poet tries to describe a natural object or scene in exactly seventeen syllables. The poem is usually laid out in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. This sounds easier to write than it really is. The best haikus use simple words, not only to describe a scene but also to give us a feeling or make us think. There is often more to the poem than meets the eye.

Haiku (1)

The old bicycle
leaning against the lamp post
Will it fall over?

Haiku (2)

When I write haiku
I always seem to have one
syllable left o

ver

Another Japanese poem is the tanka. This has thirty-one syllables arranged in five lines (five, seven, five, seven, seven).

Pouncer

Still as a statue
the cat awaits her breakfast
An innocent mouse
carelessly crosses the grass
The cat explodes into life


Another kind of short poem you could try is the cinqain, this time invented in America by the poet Adelaide Crapsey (unfortunate name, good poet though). A cinqain has twenty-two syllables in five lines (two, four, six, eight and two).

Panic at Midnight

It's dark
I'm surrounded
by strange shapes and shadows
There's someone coming up the stairs
It's.... Mum!

As you can see, poems can be very short. This is a very short poem based on a very simple idea. I was writing some love poems for Valentine's day. Then I started thinking about love poems that animals might write to one another. Then I thought about dragons...

Dragon Love Poem

When you smile
The room lights up

and I have to call
the fire brigade


13: Sad Poems

Sad things happen to everyone. I've written lots of poems about death. When a person or a pet that you love dies it is a very sad and upsetting time. I like to write a poem when this happens. I think of all the good times we shared. When I read the poem again, weeks, months, or even years later, it always brings back fond memories, a smile and sometimes a tear.

Shelley

I was thinking about my dog,
Shelley.
She died a while ago
but you still remember friends, don't you,
friends who have passed away.
She was unhappy at the end,
confused, she would bump into
the furniture, and stand
staring into the corner of the room.
But I was thinking about the good times.
When she leapt into the icy water
at Betws-y-Coed
and had to be rescued.
She loved swimming in the sea
and shaking herself dry over sunbathers,
especially old wrinkly ones.
She was a great one for fetching
sticks and balls -
you couldn't take her to tennis matches.
You know, sometimes I think I hear her
in the next room.
I forget she's gone.
Just the wind, I suppose,
rippling through my memories.


14: Word Sounds

Some words sound like the things they represent. If you say the snake hissed out loud, the word hiss makes a hissing sound. You can make it even hissier by stretching it. The snake hisssssssssssssssssssssssed. Lots of words do this. The word pop makes a popping sound. The word whisper has a soft sound and the word crunch has a crunchy sound.
You can have fun with this. Think of something that makes a particular noise, like a bee, the rain, a storm, or a noisy scene like a market, a train station or the school orchestra practice, and have a go at a poem.
Think of something that happened to you once. Add a what if, then describe the scene (version 1) and finally add some sound words. (There's a name for word which sound like their meaning, by the way. It's called onomatopoeia - pronounced on-o-mat-o-pee-ya.)

Version 1

The car drove down a bumpy road
We bounced up and down inside like sacks of potatoes
Then we had a puncture

Version 2

The old car bumped and bumped and bumped
Down the lumpy, bumpy track
In the back we bounced and bounced
Like potatoes in a sack
Then we had a puncture
The air began to essssssssssscape
Don't worry, boomed Uncle Carbuncle
I have some Sssssssssssellotape

In version 2 I added Uncle Carbuncle, just for fun. And instead of him just saying that he had some Sellotape I used the word boomed, which gives him a big, loud sounding voice. I think I'll change the word began in line 6 to started. Can you see why? The poem isn't finished yet. I'm sure I can think of other ways to improve it. Can you?
One of the reasons that jokes are funny is that the punchline is usually unexpected. This poem has to be said aloud, because it relies on the sounds of the words. The joke is in the unexpected end.

Sneeze

It's c c c c cold out here
It's f f f f freezing
and as you know
the cold and snow
always starts you
sn sn sn sn sn

ATISHOO !


15: Describing Things

Lots of poems describe things. Try this. Write down I am sitting at my desk (or at the table, or in my chair - wherever you really are sitting.)

I am sitting at my desk

Now try and find some words to describe the desk. Imagine you are explaining to someone who hasn't seen your desk before what it looks like. You could use words like brown, grey, white, buff-coloured, grainy, wooden, solid, rickety, shiny, gnarled, ink-stained, tidy, untidy, big, huge, enormous, tiny.... or there are lots of other words to choose from. (We're trying to find adjectives here. A desk is a thing, so the word 'desk' is a noun. Words that describe nouns are called adjectives.)
Once you've found the adjectives which describe your desk you might now have something like:

I am sitting at my huge, wooden, desk.

Now try to find some words to describe how you are sitting. You could use words like still, awkwardly, quietly, dreamily, happily, miserably, nervously... and so on. (Now we're looking for adverbs. Doing, or action, words are verbs, so 'sitting' is a verb. Words that describe verbs are called adverbs.)
So once you've added your adverbs you might now have something like:

I am dreamily sitting at my huge, wooden, untidy desk.

Some poems just tell us about things. The describing words, the adjectives and adverbs, give us a lot more information and make the poem more interesting. 'I am sitting at my desk', on its own, is fairly boring, isn't it? 'I am dreamily sitting at my huge, wooden, untidy desk', gives us a more interesting picture. It also makes the reader curious. What are you dreaming about? Why is the desk huge? If you were sitting nervously at your tiny, purple desk, it would conjure up a very different picture.
Write a simple poem describing something in the room. Try and make it into a vivid picture. And don't forget you don't only have to describe what it looks like. You can also describe what it feels like, or maybe sounds like, or even smells like.
This is a poem I wrote one morning when I was a teacher on playground duty. I've put all the describing words in italics. Have a go at re-writing the poem with your own adjectives and adverbs. It's a serious poem but you could turn it into a funny one if you like. Or you could change the poem to take place in the playground in summer. For the poet, adjectives and adverbs are powerful tools.

The Playground in Winter

I am standing in the playground
on a wintry morning in December.
The sunlight is a burning gold
and the sky a clear, crystal blue.

Crisp leaves of copper and ochre
rustle like a thousand paper flags.
A white seagull and a black starling
weave complicated circles.
A distant aeroplane
glints like a silver star.

Shrieking children chase shadows
that stretch across the cold ground
and cars and lorries
rumble along the road,
distant across the frosty fields.

All is noise and movement.
But low in the sky
last night's moon still hangs,
pale now, and tired,
gazing silently down.


16: Telling Stories

Some poems tell stories. The most common story poem is the ballad. It usually rhymes and has a definite rhythm. Think of a story that you know, or think of something that you've done that would make a good story. You could turn one of Robin Hood's adventures into a ballad, or take a story from Star Wars, or a story you've seen on the television. You could tell the story of a school trip, or what happened when your teacher fell into the school pond.
The story doesn't always have to have a particular rhythm or rhyme, of course. One of my favourite story poems is by Michael Rosen. It's the story of a group of children who should be outside at break but stay in by pretending that have to move chairs from one classroom to another.
In The Big Wave I was thinking about walking along the beach with some friends. Then I thought what if there was a storm? Then I thought what if a huge wave came in.... I've used lots of adjectives and adverbs, too, to make a better picture in the mind of the reader. And I've used a rhythm that goes dah di dah di dah di dah di, dah di dah di dah di, dah di dah di dah di dah di, dah di dah di dah di.

x - x - x - x -

x - x - x -

x - x - x - x -

x - x - x -

The Big Wave

We took a walk along the beach,
Bill Bains, Sam Spoons and me.
The wind was howling overhead
and whipping up the sea.

The surf cracked like a cannon's fire,
the seagulls scattered wide,
when Bill turned round, his eyes were wild,
and, with a desperate shout, he cried,

The Big Wave, The Big Wave,
so old seafarers tell,
When skies are black and thunder roars
The Big Wave comes from Hell.

The good ship Saucy Sally
set sail for Kingston Docks
When The Big Wave like a giant's fist
held her high in seaspray mist
and smashed her to the rocks.

And as Bill spoke The Big Wave broke
with a monstrous wail of pain.
The freakish wave missed Sam and me
but Bill was carried out to sea
and was never seen again.


17: Concrete Poems

To write a concrete poem you don't have to go out and buy some sand and cement to mix together. Concrete poems are sometimes called shape poems or calligrams. The Greeks wrote them first over two thousand years ago. A Greek poet might have written a poem about a tree and then made the actual shape of the poem look like a tree. You could do the same. Why not write a poem about a shark in the shape of a shark? You could write a poem in the shape of anything that has a good, strong outline. A bus? A guitar?

Nearly eighty years ago the French poet Appollinaire wrote a poem about rain, so he made the letters trickle d

o

w

n the page like raindrops. Concrete poems can change the shape or size of words or they can change the kind of letters used.
As well as being visual, concrete poems can also be about how letters sound. In Louder I've used small words when they should be spoken quietly and big words for when they should be loud. The second poem can't really be read out loud. Like a lot of concrete poems it's purely visual.

Louder !

Okay, Andrew, nice and clearly
off you go

Welcome everybody to our school concert...

Louder, please, Andrew. Mums and dads won't hear you at the back, will they?

Welcome everybody to our school concert...

Louder, Andrew. You're not trying.
Pro -
ject -
your -
voice.

Take a b i g b r e a t h and

louder !


Welcome everybody to our school concert...


For goodness sake, Andrew. LOUDER ! LOUDER !


Welcome everybody to our school concert

Now, Andrew, there's no need to be silly.



18: Beginning Sounds

Have you ever noticed when you read a poem that sometimes words that are next to one another start with the same letter? This is called alliteration and it's a useful tool in the poet's tool box. It helps the rhythm flow. You'll notice it a lot in adverts and newspaper headlines. When you're writing a poem and you come to the final draft, see if you can put in some words, maybe adjectives or adverbs, that start with the same letter. Then read the poem out loud and see if it improves it.

The You Can Be A B C

You can be
an artistic actor or a brainy barrister
a clever conductor or a dynamic dancer
an evil enemy or a fantastic friend
a green-fingered gardener or a healing herbalist
an interesting inventor or a jovial jolly juggler
a keen kitchen designer or a loggerheaded lumberjack
a melodious musician or a natty newsreader
an over-the-top opera singer or a princely-paid pop star
a quipping quiz master or a rugged rugby player
a serious scientist or a typewriting traveller
an uppity umpire or a vigorous vet
a wonderful winner or an expert xylophonist
a yelling yachtsperson or a zealous zoologist.
So go to it, you can do it.
Someone's got to, why not you?
And who is going to stop you?
The only person who can stop you -
that's YOU!


Alliteration is used in tongue twisters. Here is a version of a well-known verse, written by a friend of mine, Michael Leigh.

Peter Piper

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
A pleck of prickled pleppers Peter Piper plicked
If Peter Pipered pipped a plop of puckled pleppers
Where's the plip op pleppy pluppy plip ploppy plip - oh, plow it!


19: You're Imagining It !

I said a few pages back that the best poems come from experience. They have truth. They do, but there are some poems that come purely from the imagination. I call them extra what if poems. If you decide you want to write about aliens - then you keep on asking the question what if - and don't stop until you've entered the world of fantasy.

What if an alien visited .... Earth, my bedroom, school, the supermarket, a duck pond..
What if it thought a duck was intelligent....
What if the alien was tiny, huge, had twenty arms, was made of cheese....
What if my step-dad was an alien?
What if...

When you're writing a fantastic poem, keep asking what if, and never be content with the first thing you think of. You can probably think of something better.
You can write about other worlds (what if there was a planet just like Earth where dogs could talk...) or about magic or about elves and goblins or about anything at all.

What if you won the lottery, what would you buy?
What if you were granted five wishes?
What if you could control the weather?

This poem did start from something that really happened. My step-son came to live with me when he was six. And for some reason he thought I was an alien. That gave me the start. From then on I kept asking myself the question what if and the poem seemed to write itself.

My Step-dad Is An Alien

I'd suspected it for some time.
I finally got up the courage
to talk to him about it.

I think you're an alien, I told him.

Nonsense, he said. Why do you think that?

You're bald. You don't have any hair,
anywhere.

That's not that unusual, he said.

Well, you've got one green eye
and one blue one

That doesn't make me an alien, he replied.

You can make the toaster work
without turning it on

That's just a trick, he smiled

Sometimes I hear you
talking to mum in a weird alien language

I'm learning Greek
and mum lets me practice on her

What about your bright blue tail?

Ah, he said thoughtfully.
You're right, of course.
So, the tail gave it away, did it?


20: A Load of Nonsense

Lewis Caroll wrote He thought he saw an Elephant, that practised on a fife: He looked again, and found it was a letter from his wife. Utter nonsense but quite funny. You can do this too.
Write down a few sensible lines first based on everyday happenings: Getting up, having breakfast, walking to school, running a race, playing netball or football. Anything you like. Then start adding some ridiculous things. Change the cornflakes to an elephant or a drain pipe or a Boeing 707 or Dracula. Put Dracula on roller skates. Make the roller skates jet-powered. Keep thinking of weirder and sillier things. Think of things that are the opposites of one another. Instead of flying a kite, why not bury it? Have a cold fire or skate on hot ice. Play around with words.
This is a good chance to flex your rhyming muscles because by finding rhymes you'll think of other ideas. If your breakfast turns into a 'hippopotamus', then what rhymes with that? How about 'a lot of us'? If your toast becomes a 'penguin', then what rhymes with that? 'Violin'? Was the 'penguin' playing a 'violin', or flying a 'zeppelin', or did it sit on a 'hatpin'? Was the penguin with a 'dolphin', or was it wearing a 'sheepskin'? Did it live in the 'Kremlin'? Or 'Berlin'? Was it called 'Catherine'?
Another way to do this is to start with a well known verse or nursery rhyme and then change it. Instead of Humpty Dumpty, have Mr Bean sitting on the wall. Instead of a wall how about a bridge, or a roof, or a wardrobe?
As always, when you've written your first draft read it out loud. Can you change it to give it a good dah di dah di dah rhythm? If it's got two verses can you make the second verse match the first verse? Could you add a few good adjectives or adverbs - crazy ones of course?

When I Am Eighteen

When I am eighteen
I'll paint my nose green
And sing all night in the park
I'll bury my kite
And I'll pick a fight
With an imitation shark

When I'm twenty nine
I'll wear a big sign
Made of straw and eels and grunge
I'll juggle with crumpets
I'll play seven trumpets
and I'll clean my teeth with a sponge

When I'm forty two
I'll fly a kazoo
From the top of a mountain peak
I'll balance a hose
On the end of my nose
And I won't have a wash for a week

When I'm old as the hills
I'll look back on the thrills
That I had in my life and tell tales
Of the terrible jokes
That I played with egg yolks
and a small suitcase full of nails


21: Cut-up Poems

You can create brand new poems using a pair of scissors and a glue stick. Find an old magazine or colour supplement and cut out several lines of text from different articles. Then stick them on to a clean sheet of paper. The beauty of this is that you have no idea what the poem will turn out like until it's finished. You might end up with something weird or funny. It may even turn out to make sense and sound quite serious. It will certainly be an interesting poem.
This is a good way to make up nonsense poems. This poem was made from The Sunday Times Style magazine.

Hollywood stars today
go through life
buying
furniture shops
worm charming
rolling pin throwing
snail racing
iron ball throwing
porridge-making
toe wrestling
sedan chair carrying
Don't wash, then sleep on
Strawberry and fresh smoked trout
for a week

Another way to use the cut-up technique is to start with a well known verse, such as a nursery rhyme, and then cut out words from a comic or magazine to stick on top. It's a good idea to type out the original first on a word processor and print it out. This poem is by Michael Leigh.

Wee Willie Winkie
Runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs
In his three door hatchback


22: Mind Map

Most people, when they try to think of ideas, make lists. But there's a better way. The creative part of your brain isn't very good at lists because lists have a habit of reaching dead-ends. The creative brain works by making connections. Instead of making a list try making a mind map which imitates the way your creative brain thinks.

Start with a key word - something you'd like to write a poem about - such as an alien, school dinners, your teacher, a pigeon, a giraffe, an explorer, a tea pot, the caretaker, a netball match, midnight, clouds, Spring, travelling or a bicycle.

Then get a big piece of paper and write the word in middle. Draw four lines radiating outwards. At the end of each line write a word that is connected to the first word. From each of those four words draw four more lines and add four more words. Keep doing that until you've filled up the page. By now you should have lots of ideas for a poem.
Mind mapping was invented by Tony Buzan and can be used for all sorts of things. It's a great way to take notes, to remember things, to revise all you know about the Pyramids or to write stories. Try to find one of Tony's books, such as The Mind Map Book, in the library to find out more about it. It's an excellent book for all serious writers and poets.


23: A Poem like a Waterfall

One way to understand what something is like is to compare it with something else. This is called a simile, because it's similar. You could say that a poem was like a waterfall because words splash down the page. If you wanted to explain how your teacher laughed you might compare her to an hyena. Teacher laughs like an hyena. My dad laughs like a drain (think of the sound of water running out of the sink). You could write a poem like a list. Try six ways to be happy, or angry, or lonely. Or think of several ways to describe life, or school or the weather.
Similes are always cropping up in poems because they are so useful. If you wanted to describe the sky in your poem you might use an adjective - blue sky (boring), brilliant blue sky (still quite boring) - or you might use a simile: The sky was as blue as a millionaire's swimming pool (not boring at all, and very descriptive).
You can even use similes as you would use adjectives - The sky was a swimming-pool blue or even The swimming pool-blue sky.


As Sad As...

I'm as sad as an odd sock
with no one to wear it
as sad as a birthday
with no one to share it
as sad as a teddy
with no one to care for it

as sad as a firework
with no one to light it
as sad as a strawberry
with no one to bite it
as sad as a grey day
with no sun to lighten it

as sad as a bonfire
with no one to poke it
as sad as a puppy
with no one to stroke it
as sad as a promise
when somebody broke it.

An unfinished poem called Life
(Perhaps you could finish it for me)

Life is like a cherry
Sweet, with a hard stone inside
Life is a damp patch on the carpet
That mum tries to hide
Life is like a door that is locked -
When you find the key you can enter the garden
Life is a bar of lemming-scented soap
Life is the name of the game
and I want to play the game with you
Life is like...



24: To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

When in doubt - don't. Rhymes are fun in nonsense poems but trying to make something rhyme just for the sake of it usually produces the sort of nonsense you didn't want. Poems are about feelings, making pictures with words or making people think. Poems are about choosing just the right word that fits your poem. Poems are not about always having to rhyme.
This is a non-rhyming poem about a school cookery lesson. But it does have a rhyming theme. I started with the list of words that rhymed and wrote the rest of the poem to fit them.

Pancake

Our class made a pancake
with finely-ground flour
and cheese and tomatoes
wrapped in it.
It had a crinkly edge
with lots of little holes
for the steam to escape.
Then Billy knocked the whole lot over
but our teacher rescued it
Then we cooked it under a flame
and put it in the fridge for later.
It was a real work of art.
It was our
milled, filled, frilled, drilled, spilled, grilled, chilled, skilled pancake


25: Other Kinds of Poetry

There are riddles and puzzles in poems. There are poems that mix up very long lines with very short lines. There are chants and prayers. There are question and answer poems. There are epitaphs or graveyard poems. There are poems in which each line rhymes with the next one, or in which every other line rhymes, or in which the first line rhymes with the last.
There is blank verse, the verse William Shakespeare used in his plays in which each line has a particular rhythm. There are complicated poems like sonnets or very simple poems with just a few, well chosen, words.
Read any good poetry anthology (a collection of poems), and you will see lots of different types of poems. You should try to write poems in every style. This is learning your craft. Later you will be able to choose the style that fits what you want to write about. And as you develop as a poet you will find your own style.


26: Style

A long time ago people thought that poems had to be written in a certain way. They thought that every line had to begin with a capital letter, even if it was in the middle of a sentence. For a while people thought that poems had to rhyme. Then they thought that they didn't and that rhyming was old fashioned.
Today there is no right or wrong way to write a poem. You can use capital letters and punctuation, as you do in normal writing, or you can use no capital letters and/or no punctuation at all. My favourite poet is called e.e. cummings and he hardly ever uses capital letters, not even when we writes his name.
Writing poetry is easy but there are a few rules you should follow. Firstly always write in short lines. Then your reader will recognise that he or she is reading a poem right away.
Secondly, keep to the same style all the way through your poem. Don't start using capital letters and normal punctuation and then change half way through. And if you start using rhymes don't give up half way through. Either use rhymes or don't.
And lastly, and most importantly, remember your poem has to communicate with the reader. It's your job to make the poem as clear as possible. This is why some of the best poems ever written are also the easiest to read. Keep it simple.


27: What next? Your Own Book of Poems

When I've written a poem I like to try it out on someone. Give it to your best friend to read, or your teacher, or one of your parents - anyone you can trust to tell you the truth. You want to know if they enjoyed the poem and if they think you could improve it. And most of all you want to know if they understood it. Always be prepared to re-write a poem.
Some people write private poems just for themselves or for their boyfriend or girlfriend, husband, wife or best friend. But I personally believe that once a poem is written it should be shared with as many people as possible. So as soon as you have a few poems that you are happy with, you should think about publishing them. You could send them to The Poetry Zone. Or you compile your own poetry book. I'm sure your teacher will help if you ask her or him nicely. It's best to print the poems out on a word processor but you can hand write them out neatly.
Here's one way to make a poetry book: Fold several sheets of A4 paper in half. Open them out again so you can see the fold. Using a glue stick, paste one poem on the left of each fold and one on the right. Take two sheets and stick them back to back. Do the same with the third and fourth sheets and the fifth and sixth - and so on until you have pasted in all your poems. Fold the sheets together again and you have a book.
Don't forget a cover and a good title. The title might be a line from one of the poems in the book. You can illustrate your poems using a black fine line pen. If you're not very good at drawing you might ask the class artist to illustrate them for you.
Then ask your teacher to make several copies of the book for you on a photocopier. You could sell the books to raise money for charity or you could give a copy to each class in your school.
If you don't think you have enough good poems of your own for a whole book you could share the idea with your friends so that you each contribute a few poems. You could all base the poems on a theme. How about a book of space poems, or sports poems, or animal poems? You could even produce a class poetry book.
You might then like to try to get a poem published in a professional poetry book or magazine. Go to the library or a book shop and find the names of poets who edit poetry anthologies. Send them a few of your poems - you can write to the publisher whose address is usually at the front of the book. Most editors are very pleased to receive poems from children. Even if they don't decide to publish your poems they will usually write to you and tell you what they think of your work.
When you send your poems to a publisher or editor always write a polite letter and never send too many poems. After all, you are asking them for help and they will be busy people. They won't have time to wade through fifty of your poems. Just send them your three or four best ones.
(In the UK there are also poetry competitions you could enter. W.H.Smith runs a competition for young writers every year. If you write to The Poetry Library and include a large stamped address envelope they will send you details of all the competitions you could enter. The address is The Poetry Library, Royal Festival Hall, Level 5, Belvedere Rd, London, SE1 8XX.)


28: Performing

Poems love to be performed. Perhaps you could perform your poems to the class or to the school. How about a poetry show? I'm writing this chapter on Children In Need Day. You could organise a sponsored poetry show to raise money for this or for some other charity.
When you read your poem to an audience you must speak clearly, not too fast, and project your voice to the back of the room. Here are some other tips for performing poetry.
Vary the pace of your poem. Exciting poems can be read faster with lots of enthusiasm. Reflective poems can be read more slowly. Always rehearse and as you do look in the poem for lines that need to be read with speed or slowed down. Varying the pace of a poem will make it more interesting for the listener.
Pausing in a poem is very effective. Leave a couple of seconds gap just before a funny line or just before something important is about to be said. This will grab the listeners' attention. A pause just before or just after a word or phrase underlines it. Experiment with your poem, pausing in different places and see the effect it has.
Vary the pitch of your voice. A monotonous voice, all on one level, will send the audience to sleep.
Add some movement to the poem. Use your hands and arms to emphasise certain points. If the poem is about things that move, move around. Your poem is like a mini-play and you are an actor. Be an actor as you perform.
Use different voices for different characters in your poem.
Some words in your poem might need emphasis. Try reading the following lines, emphasising the words in heavy type. You will see that the meaning changes every time.

I like a cup of hot chocolate at bed time (But some people don't)
I like a cup of hot chocolate at bed time (It's one of my favourite things)
I like a cup of hot chocolate at bed time (At other times I have a mug)
I like a cup of hot chocolate at bed time (At other times I like it cold)
I like a cup of hot chocolate at bed time (At other times I drink something else)
I like a cup of hot chocolate at bed time (I rarely drink it at other times)

This next poem is very simple, but uses pace, pauses, pitch, movement and emphasis. I perform this poem for infants. The dog's sneeze is like a bark. For the ant I make myself very small and the sneeze is very, very quiet. For the frog I hop across the room. For the elephant I sneeze very, very loudly. Infants love it. But imagine what it would be like if I just stood in one place and read it in a normal, flat, boring voice.

Animal Sneezes

A dog sneezes

atishoo !

An ant sneezes

atishoo !

A frog sneezes

a.. tish... oo!

An elephant sneezes

ATISHOO!


29: Don't Just Sit There...

Get writing! The most important rule about writing poems is to enjoy it. Have fun. Don't be afraid to get things wrong. Good poets write lots of really poor poetry. But they learn from their mistakes. They re-write and redraft. And every now and then they come up with something really good.
There are poems all around you waiting to be discovered. From the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you go to sleep at night you are doing something that you could write a poem about. Keep a notebook handy.
There are thousands of animals, birds, fish and insects waiting to have a poem written specially for them. There are lots of poems about cats and dogs but I bet no one has yet written a poem about a stick insect. You could be the first. Or you could make up an imaginary animal, like Lewis Caroll did in Jaberwocky.
You can write about travelling, your holidays, your family, your brother or sister, your teachers, the first man on the moon, explorers, the homeless - what must it be like to sleep in a cardboard box? - famine, war, illness...
You can write about how you feel - feeling scared, feeling lonely, loving people, hating people, ways to be happy, ways to be miserable...
You can make things up, write about dreams, write about monsters, goblins, aliens...
Let's face it, you can write about anything, you can even write about writing poems.
So, good luck, and maybe I'll read one of your poems in a book one day.

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