Three kinds of poems

Masonwabe said here recently that he writes lots of poems when he’s hurt or sad. Writing poems is a great way to think through difficult times.

I believe there are three kinds of poems:

  1. Poems we write for ourselves to work through our feelings;
  2. Poems we write to be performed aloud, like on stage; and
  3. Poems we write for other people to read in books or magazines.

Each one requires a very different kind of writing style.

When you write a poem for yourself, you can write using phrases and images that only you understand, or only meaningful to you. Other people reading this poem will see that you are struggling with something, but they won’t feel the same as you do, because your phrases and images are just for you. If I write “She left me feeling like a toffee apple”, you don’t know what I mean. Is it good or bad to feel like a toffee apple? Who knows. I know, because in my mind I know what “toffee apple” means to me and my history. But you have no way of knowing. So my poem will not make you feel anything that makes sense. This poem may be important for me. But I don’t expect you to want to buy it in a book.

When you write a poem for performance, you are writing down the words of a script that you will add to with your voice and your body language when you perform it. These poems are like song lyrics: lyrics written down often don’t make sense. Sometimes they even seem silly when you read them on paper. Only when they are performed do they come alive and make sense. If I’m on stage and I whisper, smiling with my eyes closed, “She left me feeling like a toffee apple”, now you have an idea of what I mean: I felt happy and sweet and maybe even tasty! Performance poems also tend to rely a lot on rhythm and repetition and the poet’s real-life personality.

When you write poems for others to read, you have to write in phrases or images that mean something to other people. You don’t have your voice and body to help you. You can’t use an image that means something to you only. You have to use phrases and images that your reader will identify with; things that they have experienced in their lives; things that everyone feels the same way about. You have to tell a story in your poem that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, so that your readers can follow what you’re trying to explain. If you want your reader to feel sad when they read your poem, you can’t just say ‘I am sad! Really sad!’ Who cares if you say you’re sad? Everyone gets sad. Instead, you have to draw a clear picture in their head that makes them remember something sad in their own lives. Like this: “The Ferris wheel tickets crumpled in my hand. She left me melting in the crowd, dust under my sticky eyes, like a chewed-up toffee apple.”

If you want to get published, you have to write poems intended for others to read.

Before you plan to publish poetry, think carefully about what kinds of poems you are writing.