You know the poems you hear at readings that elicit gasps and snaps from the crowd? Or those poems that leave you lingering on a book’s page, rereading your favorite lines and leaving crowded, awestruck notes in the margins? You’ve probably wondered how you can write a poem with that strong of an impact.
Of course, it’s easy to grasp that you should possess a passion for your subject matter. However, beyond that, staple literary devices like sound, line breaks, imagery, and more can increase your chances of wowing readers, making an important statement, and—most essentially of all—finding pride and worth within your own writing. Here are some of the most compelling tools that language and the writing process have to offer.
Use Specific imagery
You may have heard that words like “love,” “pain,” and “heartbreak” don’t belong in a poem. Accounting for rare exceptions, here’s why that stands largely true: Those general terms — known as “abstractions” in the field of poetry—can mean something different for every reader, and fail to account for the evocative, personal experiences that make poetry shine.
Instead of writing about the vague idea of “pain,” get to its surface—for you or for your poem’s speaker, what does pain look like, sound like, smell like, taste like, or feel like? Due to poetry’s tendency to be highly focused on the visual, engaging other senses can create a deeper pull for the reader. Furthermore, finding that exact and fresh metaphor for a common sensation or emotion can leave a reader marveling with both surprise and understanding.
For example, read Monica Youn’s “X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz.” Though the poem hinges on ideas of longing, desperation, and the ache of missing someone, Youn never directly states these emotions. Instead, the speaker constantly catalogs the distance between her and her love interest throughout the entirety of the poem, employing geography, math, and transportation as unlikely metaphors through which to express love.
Be intentional with line breaks
Line breaks stand out as one of the key features that distinguish poetry from other genres. A line break can underlie a sentence or phrase with more than one meaning, convey a tone of suspense or, oppositely, of contentment, and can create a steady or erratic rhythm.
After I write a poem, I read just the last word of every stanza aloud to myself. I ask, Am I breaking lines on the most significant words? Breaking on strong verbs can enrapture the reader in a sense of urgency while breaking on a thematic noun can reinforce its thematic role in the poem. In comparison, breaking on words like “a,” “of,” and “with,” can sometimes be a missed opportunity.
In Richard Siken’s “Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out,” Siken uses line breaks to emphasize a sense of indecisiveness. He writes, “Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts / from one foot to the other.” In the line following, he uses the weightiness of an adjective to bolster the same looming, ominous feeling: “Every morning the same big / and little words spelling out desire.”
Employ effective repetition
Many forms require repetition: the villanelle, the sestina, the duplex, and dozens of others. However, it can be hard to use repetition effectively, without a poet making it obvious that they’re writing in a form or without straining a poem’s language.
The best repetition manages to say what’s technically the same word or phrase in a radically new way or invokes the intensity of a speaker’s repeated experience or emotion.
In Noor Hindi’s poem “I Once Looked In A Mirror But Couldn’t See My Body,” the speaker reflects on Muslim identity, a lack of citizenship, and watching her father miss his home country. “My father / in the middle of the night / drawing & redrawing / a map of Palestine, green / ink — / & it hurts / & it hurts / & it hurts / & it hurts,” Hindi writes.
Far from being redundant, this repeating line works to show how constant and deep the hurt is, almost as if the reader can feel this hurt within their own body, as well.
Play with complex rhymes and sounds
Rhyme, of course, is a poetic staple. While the classic end rhyme—traditional rhymes at the end of a line—will always have its place within the genre, poets can add variation for an unexpected, less sing-song tone. For example, there’s slant rhyme: rhyme that relies on either similar vowels or consonants (think “eyes” and “lights”). There’s also internal rhyme—rhyme within the same line, or in the middle of lines rather than at the end—which amplifies the tension in a poem.
Resist the misconception that rhyme presents the only strategy for playing with a poem’s sound. Poets have a more diverse array of tools, including alliteration (a series of words beginning with the same consonant), assonance (the repetition of a stressed vowel sound within a word), and consonance (repeating consonant sound within a word). All of these devices help both readers and listeners get into the rhythm of your poetry.
For example, assonance serves as a central feature in Amy Lowell’s “The Taxi”. The speaker “shout[s] into the ridges of the wind” and the “lamps of the city prick [her] eyes.”
Revise, revise, revise
Lastly, the best way to write a hard-hitting poem might just be to write it more than once. Taking time to revise your poems strengthens what works and cuts or alters what doesn’t. One of my go-to exercises involves rewriting my poem from memory. I find that I usually only remember the strongest lines and images and that these lead me down a new, compelling path.