Five Poetry-Writing Exercises
Back to Basics
Every poet can benefit from writing exercises because they give you the opportunity to brainstorm and practice new forms. For beginners, poetry exercises are a good way to learn how to write poetry. For poets who have been writing for awhile, these exercises can help refresh your style. Writing exercises can also be fun, like allowing your imagination an afternoon at the playground. You never know—a spectacular poem may be born out of a simple writing exercise.
Pull out your notebook, journal, laptop, or whatever you use to write. Some of these exercises can be completed at home, but others force you to head out to a public place (unless you have a fabulous view of a busy street or the doings of your neighbors).
Exercise #1 – Lists
This exercise requires you write a title at the top of your page, and then create a list down to the bottom of the page. You may find the beginnings of a poem, or a wonderful line, in some of your lists. Here are some examples taken from one of my old journals:
- Feeling tired
- Not having enough time
- Being misunderstood
- Not able to speak clearly
- Having a disagreement
- Being late
- Feeling incompetent
- Feeling depressed
- The first time…I was scared when home alone;
- First time I felt comfortable crying in public;
- First time we kissed;
- First time we kissed and it meant something;
- First apartment, the craziness;
- First time I said, “I love you;”
- First time someone told me “I love you;”
- First pair of glasses, with the black frames;
- First hangover…oh, yeah…
Make a list of fears, losses, happy memories, accomplishments, dreams—whatever you can think of. Take some of the ideas from these lists, and see if you can expand upon them. Example: “Feeling tired, like an ant trying to get somewhere with a rock in its.” Or, “Incompetent feels like a fish in a bowl, always swimming, but hitting nothing but glass.”
All of these lists are opportunities for a poem.
Exercise #2 – Making Similes
Look through a book of poems you like, and find a few similes to use as inspiration. Now go someplace where you can observe nature, people, traffic, or something. Based on what you notice, begin listing some similes. They don’t have to make complete sense. Don’t think about what else you would write with them. Just write whatever you think of.
Some inspiring similes I’ve written in my journal:
- “Sounds of leaves moving overhead like so many whispered conversations.” –Jane Kenyon
- “He slumps like the very meaning of surrender.” –Ted Kooser
- “Lawyers encircled the farm like a fence.” –Ted Kooser
- Now, start making your own. Some from my journal:
- Ivy creeping like silent footsteps.
- A breeze gentle as a child wakening.
- Leaves rustling like distant voices.
- Leaves falling like men on a battlefield.
- Breath from her mouth like a wave of sea water.
Go back and read what you wrote to see where the opportunities are. Sometimes, you simply need to close your journal. Come back to the list another day, with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you find.
Exercise #3 – Sensory Observations
Poetry is truly indefinable, but there are a lot of things poetry can do. It can describe a feeling, make a reader see a sight, help you smell a smell, and make something inanimate come to life. Sometimes, a poet has trouble finding ways to describe what she wants to express. This exercise will help you stop and pay attention to the smaller things around you. Go out into the world, and make observations. Wherever you go, make five sensory observations for each sense.
Examples from my journals:
- At Elliot Bay tonight, I see…white, square tiles; the backs of strangers; endless rows of books; a lonely microphone; shadows of chairs.
- I hear…chattering voices; espresso machines whirring and fizzing; dishes clattering, softly, just clinking together; laughter; the crinkle of newspapers.
- I feel…brick wall under my arm; a warm cup in my hand; hot air blowing against my face; the hard seat against my bottom; a wooden curve across my back.
- I smell…coffee, mm; my plum chap stick (smells better than it tastes); used books; cinnamon; baking bread.
- I taste…a soft coffee flavor; a hint of honey; the thickness of hot air; the ink of a fresh pen; more coffee.
You can do this exercise anywhere at anytime. Try it on the bus, at work, in a classroom, on a park bench. You may be surprised at the observations you make, and the opportunities for poetry that you find.
Exercise #4 – Describing a Scene or Picture
Either choose a physical place to observe, or find an interesting picture, and fully describe everything you experience. Don’t forget to include all of the senses, but also describe any action taking places. Get nitty gritty about the details—don’t leave anything out.
Afterwards, go through what you have written to see what stands out. Some detail, description, or word might be the beginning of a poem. You can also try to write a quick poem based on solely on the scene you choose.
Exercise #5 – Making Metaphors
This is actually a really fun, imaginative exercise. You are going to make three columns of lists, one for adjectives, one for concrete nouns, and one for abstract nouns. After you have filled at least one page with these lists, you will create another list: of metaphors. Take a word from each list to create your metaphor.
An excerpt from one of my journals:
The empty outlet of anxiety.
The withered doghouse of grief.
The empty medicine of hope.
What do you see in your metaphors? Are there opportunities for poems?
Don’t be afraid to alter or trash any of the ideas you come up with while doing poetry exercises. It is perfectly normal for a lot of what you write to be crap (one of my metaphors was “the marbled doghouse of apology” – huh?), but there will also be a lot of gems. Writing exercises offer you opportunities to practice and brainstorm. The more you write, the better you will be at finding what works.