Tips for Writing Poems

by Robert Hass, River of Words Co-founder &
United States Poet Laureate, 1995-1997

Two very famous teachers of haiku gave very different advice about writing poetry. Basho, who many think is the greatest of haiku poets, had this to say; "Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo." In other words, pay attention.

And Buson, another of the great haiku poets, when someone asked him how to improve the spirit of their work, said "Read Chinese poetry." In other words, if you want to write good poems, read good poems.

It is an old debate: which comes first, art or experience? What if you
have skill but no heart, or heart but not skill to express it? Luckily, young writers don't have to choose. So here are a few tips:

1. Get something down on paper. Or as the Irish short story writer Frank O'Connor said, "You can't revise nothing." Waiting for inspiration is like waiting to be asked to dance. If inspiration comes, it comes. And it will come more often if you show you are interested.

2. Pay attention to what's around you. If you write nature poems, look at things. If you write poems about people, notice them. There are ways to practice noticing; teach yourself the name of some of the birds in your neighborhood, the trees; learn the names of the stars overhead. Listen to the wind. Look at the way light fails on your
street at different times of day.

3. Pay attention to what you're feeling. A lot of poetry has to do not with knowing what you feel, but discovering what you feel. Sometimes, if you notice what you're feeling, a phrase or an image for it will come to you out of nowhere. It will be a place to start and the result may surprise you. It's hard not to present to the world the feeling you think will please other people by having or seeming to have. Poetry ought to be the place where you don't have to do that.

4. Pay attention to your own mind. No thought is too weird for poetry. And everyone has weird thoughts all the time. Some people are just good at not noticing that they have them. Noticing is what makes any kind of art fresh and interesting.

5. Say your poems out loud to yourself until you're pleased with how they sound. Some thoughts are quick, some thoughts are slow and deep. Some skip, some pace slowly, The pleasure of poetry for people who write it a lot is mostly here, whether you write in rhyme with a definite beat, or write in the rhythm of natural speech. The poem isn't finished until it's pleasing to your ear.

6. Read lots of poetry. It will give you ideas about what poetry can do, techniques you can try. And real feeling will put you in touch with real feeling. Someone else's originality will make you feel yours.