Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Poetic Ponderings ~ by Christy Mihaly

When I set my writing goals for the year, a big one was to write more poetry. I've dabbled in poems, and published a few. I offered some poetry ponderings in past GROG posts (one is here) but mostly I write nonfiction books. This year I wanted to develop my poetic side. I joined an online poetry critique group, and I've tried to find inspiration for a new poem every day.  I've also started submitting more poems to anthologies and magazines. It takes persistence! Here are some thoughts after a half-year of paying attention to poetry.

What's so great about writing poetry? Consider these points:

 The right words: In a poem, the selection of each word is crucial. Each word affects the rhythm, the meter, the "mouth feel" of the poem. Writing poetry helps strengthen my word choices in other writing.

 Playful words: Poetry encourages the writer to play with words. A poem doesn't need a plot. Its words may simply evoke a feeling, or describe an object or a moment, or entertain. Developing this in-the-moment mindset can enliven your prose writing too.

 A few words: You can easily write a poem in a morning--and it might even be publishable (after a little polishing). Of course you can write a poem just for the pleasure of it. But, if a writer is struggling through year seven of revising a major work in progress, selling a poem--and seeing it in print--can be a big boost. Kids' magazines, in print and online, often seek kid-friendly poems – the Cricket magazines have been particularly interested lately. (Check out their active calls for submissions, here.) 

Plus, a special bonus for aspiring authors: A  series of related poems can become a published collection, like Fresh-Picked Poetry, about farmer's markets by Michelle Schaub, or Rainy Day Poems, by James McDonald -- and so many others that kids love.
And once in a while, a poem grows into an entire picture book. Think of Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? It's basically an expanded poem, like many other Jane Yolen books.

The text of Snow Sisters, published this year by Kerri Kokias, is a mirror poem, or palindrome poem, in which the same words are used in the first half and the second half, but in reverse order. Simple? Yes! Hard to write? Yes, to get it right. Brilliant picture book? Absolutely!

My debut picture book, Hey, Hey, HAY! (coming August 14) got its start as a simple rhyming poem about making hay. You never know! 

For more examples of picture books that are poems, check out Marcie Atkins's GROG post, here.

Interested but unsure how to begin? Some writers have a  practice of writing a poem every morning. I can't always make this happen, but when I do, it starts my writing day off with a creative splash. It's a great habit to cultivate. Your morning poem doesn't have to be great literature. It's good practice to just do it. 

If poetry still seems intimidating, try working within the structure of an established poetic form. I've found that experimenting with different forms often helps me get a poem started. Here are a few fun forms to try:


In an acrostic poem, a word or phrase is spelled vertically down the page. This word is the poem's theme or topic. Each line begins with the next letter in your topic word. Rhymes are not required.
(Variations: Each line of poetry ends with the letter of the topic word, or the topic word runs down the middle of the lines.)

Here's a simple example, using "Cat":

Content to snooze
and soak up the sun ...
till Songbird shows up.

© Christy Mihaly

A diamante is seven lines long and is printed so that it forms a diamond shape. Again there are variations, but here's the basic idea: The first half describes one subject and the second half describes a different subject, which is often the antonym of the first but may be a synonym. 

The diamante's lines are prescribed as follows:

1: Starting subject
2: Two adjectives about line 1
3: Three gerunds (or -ing verbs) about line 1
4: Four words, consisting of two about line 1, and two about line 7. (This line sometimes has more words, and may be written as one or two short phrases.)
5: Three gerunds/-ing verbs about line 7
6: Two adjectives about line 7
7: End subject

Here's a quick diamante that I posted one recent sunny day—the end of April—when confronting a persistent pile of snow atop my long-suffering garden: 

Double dactyl
I'm a big fan of the double dactyl, which can produce some very entertaining light verse. (A "dactyl" is a three-syllable word with the accent on the first, such as "holiday.")

In a double dactyl, there are eight lines broken into two quatrains, or 4-line stanzas. Each of the first three lines of the quatrain consists of two dactyls. The fourth line contains one dactyl plus another stressed syllable. The last syllable of each quatrain rhymes with the other.

Other requirements: Line 1 is a nonsense phrase; line 2 is a proper name of a person or place. One of the other lines, usually line 6, is a single word that is double dactylic. (And, technically, it should never have been used in a double dactyl poem before.)

It's easier to see how this works by reading an example. Here's one of mine published in April in Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes, an anthology for middle schoolers edited by Tabatha Yeatts. This wonderful collection contains a broad range of middle-school-friendly poems about making mistakes (and learning from them). I included a factual note with this poem in the book – because, as most GROG readers know, it's nonfiction!

Rejecting Harry Potter

Hippogriff, schnippogriff,
Salazar Slytherin.
Publishers dissed Rowling’s
Sorcerer’s Stone.

“Magic won’t sell; we need
They’d be much richer, had
they only known.

© Christy Mihaly

Of course there are many more poetic forms, including the mirror poem, mentioned above, and one I've been meaning to tackle but haven't yet tried myself: the roundel. Children's writer B.J. Lee wrote about roundels recently over on Michelle Barnes's blog "Today's Little Ditty" recently, and rather than try to repeat what B.J. said, I urge you to check out her post here.

If you are interested in writing more poetry, you can read and listen to poems--in books and online--and talk with others who are writing them. Attend poetry readings and other events, and/or seek out a poetry group to join--or form one. Consider taking a class or two. I learned so much from Renee LaTulippe's wonderful "Lyrical Language Lab" online course. 

For more pointers on poetry resources and how to get started, see poet-author Patricia Toht's  GROG posts here and here. Other prior GROG posts about poetry include guest posts by Margarita Engle and Penny Parker Klostermann. And GROG poetry maven Jan Annino offers ideas about prompts, poetry month, and Lee Bennett Hopkins.

Go forth, poets, and good luck. If you're so inclined, please leave a favorite poem in the comments. And happy writing!