Skip to main content

Poetry Writing: Invention

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

Poetry is an exciting form because it allows for a great deal of exploration and experimentation. Most writers are acquainted with poetry at a young age, through nursery rhymes or through children’s poets such as Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky. You may also be a fan of rhyming poetry, and of some of the set forms for poems, such as the sestina or the pantoum. These forms for poetry, along with the other existing forms, give a new poet a place to start—a container to be filled-in with one’s own ideas.

Most contemporary poets write in free-verse instead. Rhymes are not common here; instead, the poem draws its shape from the natural pauses between thoughts and images. Contemporary poets use line breaks, caesura, and stanza breaks to slow a reader down or to emphasize important ideas, instead of relying on the repetition of sounds. Sound is still a vital element of contemporary poetry, but the aesthetic principles (what we find beautiful) have changed from the days of Shakespeare or even Robert Frost. The white space on the page is a valuable tool for poets, as it gives the reader time to pause and to make leaps between moments in the poem.

The hardest thing about writing a poem is often finding a place to start. You may have been told to “write what you know”—always good advice. Sometimes, certain images/moments/experiences will strike you as somehow important; something happens, and you find yourself thinking about it for days afterwards. It’s important, therefore, to always be aware of the world around you—always looking for inspiration.

Alternatively, you may sit down to write a poem with a specific agenda in mind. You want to make a statement about the world, maybe personal, maybe political, and you want to say it in through a poem. Poems written this way require a lot of reflection, as the poet works to find the images or narrative that will get their point across skillfully and artfully.

Poet H. L. Hix writes that a poem always has a “synoptic moment,” one in which “the whole is implicit in the part” (41). This moment could also be considered the heart or main idea of the poem. The poem may start with this moment—a technique Hix calls “expository” (41). Alternatively, the poem may build up to that moment in a “cumulative” way, meaning the point falls at the end (41). Many writers begin a poem with an image and “write into” the synoptic moment; they don’t know what that moment will be until they arrive there. The opposite approach is to set out with the synoptic moment already in mind. Nix writes:

Unless I reflect on—unless I choose—a poem’s aims, I remain confined to received aim, those most typical of my time and place (41).

In other words, by beginning with an aim/something you want to get across, you open yourself up to more possibility in terms of imagery and form. By starting with an image, or by not knowing the poem’s aims ahead of time, Hix suggests that you are limiting yourself to only the images you see, things that are thrown into your path by chance.

At times, you may feel less inspired—you may not have a set agenda or “synoptic moment” in mind. That’s perfectly okay. Your own daily life experience is rich in images and material for poetry; you just have to focus in on the material to find a starting point. When you want or need to write something, you may have to prod your subconscious into it—find a hidden moment or image that can become something. Generative exercises are helpful for starting from scratch when you think you’re out of ideas, and some might help you figure out what happens next. The links below provide a few generative exercises to get you going:

Works Referenced:

Hix, H. L. “Two Modes of Disclosure: A Meditation on the Craft of Poetry.” The Writer’s Chronicle 47.3 (2014): 40-50. Print.