What makes a poem?

Wednesday, April 1

When you hear the word "poetry," what do you think of? Take a minute to think of all the features that make something a poem, as opposed to any other kind of writing. Work together and note down all the ideas you come up with.

How to Eat a Poem

Eve Merriam

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up and eat the juice that may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth
For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
to throw away.

Describing Things

Thursday, April 2

We won't rush into writing poetry. Unless you want to, then of course you can! But let's describe things. Use your senses and describe something that you can see, or something that you can imagine. Maybe you could think about a sign of spring that you've seen outside lately.


Valerie Worth

The spotted frog
Sits quite still
On a wet stone;

He is green
With a luster
Of water on his skin;

His back is mossy
With spots, and green
Like moss on a stone;

Hi gold-circled eyes
Stare hard
Like bright metal rings;

When he leaps
He is like a stone
Thrown into the pond;

Water rings spread
After him, bright circles
Of green, circles of gold.

Comparing Things

Friday, April 3

In yesterday's poem the frog was like moss and like a stone and his eyes were like metal rings. In your description, did you make any comparisons like that? Do comparisons sometimes help you picture something more clearly? Or do they make you think about it in a different way? Can you describe something using a comparison like that?


Rose Rauter

Touch it to your cheek and it's soft
as a velvet newborn mouse
who has to strive
to be alive.

Bite in. Runny
blooms on your tongue—
as if you've bitten open
a whole hive.

Line Breaks

Monday, April 6

We did some thinking last week about what makes a poem. I wonder if you have anything to add to your list after reading some more of them since then? One thing you may have noticed is that poems look different on the page than stories. Often, the lines of a poem end before they reach the end of the page. That means the poet has chosen where each line break (that's what it's called when you end a line and go to the next) is going to be. Take a one-sentence description that you wrote last week—or come up with a new one!—and think where you could put in some line breaks. Could different line breaks make people read it different ways? Do line breaks make it look like a poem? Or sound like one?

This Is Just To Say

William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Tuesday, April 7

When you're reading a poem and you come to the end of a line, what happens? Do you pause? Or go straight on? Maybe it depends on the poem. Sometimes, poems do want us to pause at the end of a line. Then the poet can use line breaks to tell us the rhythm of the poem, and to give it a certain form. Like in the type of poem called haiku. Haiku are three-line poems which were first written in Japan (and since the word comes from Japanese, even if you write lots you have lots of haiku). In Japanese they often have a pattern of syllables, or beats: five in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Think of anything you want to say—asking for something to eat, describing what you did this morning, telling someone about something you made... Can you put it in the form of a haiku?

Kikaku (translated by Harry Behn)

A bantam rooster
spreading his ruff of feathers
thinks he's a lion!

 Richard Wright

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

More Haiku

Wednesday, April 8

Japanese syllables work differently than English syllables, so poets writing haiku in English don't always use the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Some instead turn to another tradition in haiku-writing: a connection to nature, and especially to weather and seasons. Think of an image related to a season—a bog in spring, the beach in the summer, a sledding hill... anything!—and squeeze it down to just a few words. Write it down: it's a haiku!

Bruce Ross

strawberry season
the muted humph
of a black bear

Francine Banwarth

last pass
through the raspberry patch
                     summer dusk

Words That Go Together

Thursday, April 9

Yesterday I told you to squeeze your idea down to just a few words. When you're writing a haiku, every word counts—you don't get very many! How did you pick the words you wanted to include? Were they the most important ones to describe the scene? The ones that sounded the best? Or something else? It's a big part of poetry, picking words. Sometimes, poets are interested in how words go together. Can you think of a list of words are connected with each other in some way? Can you think of more than one way to make a collection of related words?

Analysis Of Baseball

May Swenson

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
and the mitt.
Ball hits
bat, or it
hits mitt.
Bat doesn't
hit ball, bat
meets it.
Ball bounces
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
ground (dud)
or it
fits mitt.

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat's
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don't
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
(thwack) back
to mitt.

Ball fits
mitt, but
not all
the time.
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
meets it,
and sails
to a place
where mitt
has to quit
in disgrace.
That's about
the bases
about 40,000
fans exploded.

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It's done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It's about
home, and it’s
about run.

Connected Word Stories

Friday, April 10

Yesterday you thought about how words can go together in different ways. They can be connected by their meanings: tire, wheel, spokes, gears, chain, pedal. Or by their sounds: steady, silent, slippery, stolen, suspicious, surrounded. It's fun coming up with lists like that! And they're almost poems. Poetry can be about playing with words in just that way. Can you come up with a list of words that are connected and start to tell—or at least suggest—some kind of a story?


Valerie Worth

This clock
Has stopped,
Some gear
Or spring
Gone wrong—
Too tight,
Or cracked,
Or choked
With dust;
A year
Has passed
Since last
It said
Ting ting
Or tick
Or tock.

Acrostic Poems

Monday, April 13

Poets think about their words. When you're writing a story or a letter or a shopping list, you're thinking about the things you need to say—but most of the time it doesn't matter how you say it. When you're writing poetry the how matters a lot. It's what makes your writing a poem rather than a story or shopping list. Of course, when you start to think of what exactly you're going to do to make your poem a poem, you have lots of choices. Some of them are wide open, like using your senses to describe something, or using interesting comparisons. Some of them narrow your choices, like only using words that start with a certain letter, or words that rhyme. And some lock your writing into a certain form that you have to follow. Like the acrostic. An acrostic is a poem where the first letter of each line, taken together, spell out a word or phrase... and that word or phrase is what the poem is about. So when you're writing one, at a minimum you need to come up with something that makes sense without getting to choose the first letter of each line. Do you think you can do it? Try one with your name, or with "April" or "spring" or "Easter"... or anything else you can come up with!

[Note: Acrostics are out of fashion among people writing good poetry these days; all the examples I could find were bad or too old-fashioned for modern tastes. So here's an unrelated poem that plays with words another way.]

Good Morning, Mr Croco-doco-dile

Charles Causley

Good Morning, Mr Croco-doco-dile,
And how are you today?
I like to see your croco-smoco-smile,
In your croco-woco-way.

From the tip of your beautiful croco-toco-tail,
To your croco-hoco-head,
You seem to me so croco-stoco-still,
As if you are croco-doco-dead.

Perhaps if I touch your croco-cloco-claw,
Or your croco-snoco-snout,
Or get up to your croco-joco-jaw,
I shall very soon find out.

But suddenly I croco-soco-see,
In your croco-oco-eye,
A curious kind of croco-gloco-gleam,
So I just don't think I'll try.

Forgive me, Mr Croco-doco-dile,
But it's time I was away,
Let's talk a little croco-woco-while,
Another croco-doco-day.

Didactic Cinquains

Tuesday, April 14

In schools when they teach poetry, they need a way to grade it. And since it wouldn't be fair to grade it based on how good it is—different kinds of people like different kinds of poems!—they look instead on how well it follows a set of rules. Which makes me wonder if they're trying to teach poetry writing or just checking if the kids can follow directions... but never mind that. Just like with acrostics yesterday, sometimes following rules can be a great way to kick-start our poetic thinking. And the most rule-bound school poem ever might be the cinquain. A cinquain is just a name for a poem with five lines, but teachers have come up with a more complete plan for something called a "didactic cinquain" (didactic means "teaching"), which follows this pattern:

Line 1: One word for the subject of the poem
Line 2: Two adjectives describing the subject
Line 3: Three -ing action verbs that fit the subject
Line 4: A four word phrase describing feelings related to the subject
Line 5: One word that means the same as the subject or expands on it

What's awesome about that is, if you follow the rules, you're guaranteed to have something that everyone will call a poem! Give it a try!


Silent, white
Dancing, falling, drifting
Covering everything it touches

Good Words

Wednesday, April 15

Cinquains have a simple pattern, and so do haiku poems. If you follow those patterns, you create something that looks like a poem. But those patterns aren't all there is to good poetry. Having good words is important too. Say you're writing about eating. How many different ways can you think of to say it? Munching, chomping, gulping, slurping, gobbling, chowing down... and I bet there are more than that! As you write, think about all those word choices and pick the words whose music best matches your poem. You might pick the most vivid one, or the one that means just exactly what you want to say, or the one that sounds best with the words around it. Take some time now to think about words and make some lists; how many ways can you think of to say "jump"? How about to describe someone talking? How many different names can you come up with for the color blue? Are there any other lists you can make of almost-the-same words that one day you might be able to choose from?

Blackberry Eating

Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.

Words in Rhythm

Thursday, April 16

When you wrote a haiku, you were counting syllables. In the didactic cinquains you counted words. Those are two ways you can think about the rhythm of your writing. But not the only two! In English, the most important marker of rhythm is the pattern of stress in the words. Stress, when you're talking about language, means the syllables that are accented—pronounced more strongly than other syllables. What's really cool about counting stresses is that some short phrases can have lots of stressed syllables, while other much longer ones have fewer. Like "take that ball now," which has four stresses: each syllable is stressed. "Considering the multitude of elephants," on the other hand, only has three! Can you hear where they are? If you underline them, the phrase would look like this: Considering the multitude of elephants. Phrases with lots of stressed syllables close together sound and feel different from those with the stresses separated by lots of padding. That's something you can play with in your poems!

For now, take a few minutes to practice noticing stresses. Look at something you wrote earlier, and underline the stresses in it. Or write some new sentences to check out. Can you come up with a short phrase with lots of stresses? Or a long one with just a few?

My Fingers

Mary O'Neill

My fingers are antennae.
Whatever they touch
Bud, rose, apple,
Cellophane, crutch—
They race the feel
Into my brain,
Plant it there and
Begin again.
This is how I knew
hot from cold
Before I was even
Two years old.
This is how I can tell,
Though years away,
That elephant hide
Feels leathery grey.
My brain never loses
A tough I bring:
Frail of an eggshell,
Pull of a string,
Beat of a pulse
That tells me life
Thumps in a person
But not in a knife
Signs that say:
"Please do not touch,"
Disappoint me
Very much.

Descriptions in Rhythm

Friday, April 17

We started this month by talking about describing things. Descriptive language is a big part of poetry: I bet you used some when you were writing haiku, and you definitely did in your cinquains. But the didactic cinquain you were limited by having to put adjectives in one place and -ing words in another and so forth. There's another type of cinquain, known as an American cinquain, that's more open, and maybe even more focused on describing things. Instead of having very specific rules, it just asks you to have a certain number of stresses in each line: one in the first, two in the second, three in the third, four in the fourth, and one again in the fifth. This type of cinquain has a title, which gives the subject of the poem, and then the five lines describe that subject or evoke a feeling about it. Give it a try: can you write description at the same time as you count stresses?

November Night

Adelaide Crapsey

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

What About Rhyming?!

Monday, April 20

A lot of times when I talk to kids about poetry and ask them the question we started with this month—"what is poetry?"—the first answer they give is that poetry rhymes. So why have said so little about rhyme so far?!

Rhyme in English is when the last part of a word, or group of words, has the same sound as the end of another word or group of words. And it is true that many poems in English rhyme. But certainly not all; and not everything that rhymes is a poem. Still, when you're doing poetry rhyme can be important—and fun! I bet you're already pretty good at rhyming. Take a few minutes to play with it: find a word that's easy to rhyme, and see how many rhymes you can make with it. Then see if you can come up with a tricky one and challenge somebody to find a rhyme for it (but don't pick "orange"—everyone knows nothing rhymes with orange).

When I Was Christened

David McCord

When I was christened
they held me up
and poured some water
out of a cup.

The trouble was
it fell on me,
and I and water
don't agree.

A lot of christeners
stood and listened:
I let them know
that I was christened.

Another Kind of Rhythm

Tuesday, April 21

Last week we started to think about the rhythm in words: stressed syllables, and then those left unstressed. Just like rhymes, the rhythms created by repeating patterns of stress are something poets can play with as they write. Some two-syllable words have their stress on the first syllable—like pumpkin, ninja, penguin, or airport—and others stress the second—alive, despair, forget, delight. You can put them together by type: "salty popcorn tastes like heaven," or "above the moon, beyond the stars." You'll notice that I didn't only use two-syllable words, but also included phrases that follow the same pattern: tastes like has the stress on "tastes," and the moon stresses "moon". Those are both two-syllable patterns; you can also make patterns with three syllables. "Tomorrow I'll go to the concert and listen" takes the weak-strong-weak pattern of "tomorrow" and continues it for the rest of the phrase.

Just like with rhymes, you already know about these patterns because of all the picture books you've listened to that use them. But maybe you haven't thought about them quite as much. Find a rhyming picture book, and see if you can tell what kind of a rhythm pattern it has. Then come up with some of your own examples of different patterns!

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Couplets and Quatrains

Wednesday, April 22

I don't know about you, but when I write one phrase in rhythm, like we were doing yesterday, I immediately want to write another one in the same rhythm to continue the pattern. Yesterday I wrote, "Tomorrow I'll go to the concert and listen"... what comes next? "to cellos and oboes and trumpets that glisten!" It's not good poetry, but it fits together like two matching puzzle pieces in a very pleasing way. Lots of people have felt the same, so a two line rhyme like that has a name: it's a couplet. And sometimes you want to go on and write even more; if you come up with four lines that go together, that's called a quatrain (I bet you know how someone came up with those names!).

Not all couplets and quatrains have to rhyme; in fact, they don't even absolutely need to have matching rhythm. Any two lines that are meant to go together in a poetic way are a couplet, and any four are a quatrain (three lines that form a unit are called a tercet; they're much rarer in English poetry). But most of the time you can expect regular rhythm and rhyme in both. Look at some of your rhythmic lines from yesterday and see if you can extend them into a couplet or a quatrain. Then write some new ones!

The Sky Is Low, the Clouds Are Mean

Emily Dickinson

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

Rhyme Schemes

Thursday, April 23

Couplets don't have much in the way of variety in their rhymes: they either rhyme or they don't. But when you're writing a quatrain you find that you have some choice. Do you rhyme all four lines? Or do you make the first and second have one rhyme and the third and fourth another? Or something else? As you think about it, you're developing the rhyme scheme of your poem.

"Rhyme scheme" just means the pattern of rhymes used in a poem, and it can be shown using letters to represent each rhyme. For example, a couplet would be shown as AA, and a quatrain where the first two lines are one rhyme and the last two another would be AABB. Another way to arrange a quatrain would be to have the first line rhyme with the third and the second with the fourth; that's an ABAB scheme. Take a look at the poems I've shared so far this week, by David McCord, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson. Can you tell the rhyme scheme of each poem? What rhyme scheme did you use in your own quatrains yesterday? Do different rhyme schemes change the feel of a poem? See what you notice about the rhyme scheme of this poem by Robert Frost.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Limericks and Sonnets

Friday, April 24

Now that we know about rhyme schemes, we can start to look at some specific forms of poems that follow particular patterns. Like the limerick! I bet you've heard a limerick before: they're five line poems that follow an AABBA rhyme scheme. They almost always have a rhythm with three syllables to each beat—either weak-weak-strong or weak-strong-weak, and have three beats on all the A lines and two on the B lines. Often they start by naming a person who comes from a place and end with a joke; some people have argued that the joke has to be off-color for the poem to count as a real limerick, but there are tons out there that are perfectly clean.

Limericks have a low-brow reputation; sonnets, on the other hand, tend to be considered literary and refined. A sonnet is a 14-line poem—there are a few different types with variations in their rhyme schemes (the original Italian sonnet form was ABBA ABBA CDE CDE), but all sonnets have a first section of eight lines, followed by six more with some change of tone or perspective. Almost all sonnets are written with a rhythm called "iambic pentameter," which is a name you may have heard before; it just means that there are five two-syllable beats to each line (that's the "pentameter" part) and that the unstressed syllable comes before the stressed one.

Which form speaks to you more right now, the limerick or the sonnet? Can you find some examples of each in poetry books that you have, or on the internet? Do you think you'd be willing to try writing one or the other? I warn you, neither is at all easy! (If you want to have a go at a sonnet, maybe start with the Shakespearian sonnet, which is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG—just three quatrains and a couplet!)


There once was a man from Peru
Who dreamed he was eating his shoe.
He woke in a fright
In the middle of the night
And found it was perfectly true.

The Sound of the Sea

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide
Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep;
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
A sound mysteriously multiplied
As of a cataract from the mountain's side,
Or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us at times, from the unknown
And inaccessible solitudes of being,
The rushing of the sea-tides of the soul:
And inspirations that we deem our own,
Are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
Of things beyond our reason or control.

Sound Correspondences

Monday, April 27

Rhymes work because the parts of the word that match together connect words of a poem together in a satisfying way. But perfect rhymes, as the type of rhymes we were thinking about last week are called, aren't the only way words can share sounds: there are lots of other sound correspondences that you can use to make your poems sound interesting and connected. People have given them all names—like alliteration, which is what it's called when words have the same starting consonant sound. But the names don't really matter, since if you pay attention you can tell when words go to together for one reason or another. Like in this line, by David Henzie-Skogen: "We are soaring so simply it's missed by reason and exists as silent song". Or these, by Valerie Worth (the slashes mark line breaks in the original): "Blinks, rolls / On his side, / Sighs, closes / His eyes: sleeps". Can you find sound correspondences in those lines? More than one in each one? Do any of the poems you've written this month have sound correspondences?

Frog or Loon

JonArno Lawson

Pond: frog's bold workshop stronghold —

Frog scoots,
scoops brown froth


Prolongs hollow
gorp gorp chorrrrrrrrrrrt!



Storms lop off old growth:
logs flop down to pond,
frog pops off tops of logs, drops on rocks —
Frog hops.


Oh no! — loon:
Frog stops.

(Loons concoct bon-bons
from frogs ...)

loon's food —

loon shoots to frog —
Oh Lord God! Poor frog's sorrow:

for low-born
forlorn frog,

no tomorrow.

Arresting Images

Tuesday, April 28

Figurative language is when you say one thing but mean another. When you say, "I'm starving!" you don't really mean you're dying from not enough food: it's just a more interesting way to announce that you feel extra hungry. Poets use figurative language as another way to play with words and ideas, to make the reader connect one idea with another just like sound correspondences connect the words. There are lots of examples of figurative language that people say all the time: can you think of some? In poems, figurative language that's fresh and new makes readers take notice, and invites them to think about things in a new way. Look back on your comparisons from the April 3rd exercise. Those are figurative language. Were any of them startling and interesting?

Listening to grownups quarreling,

Ruth Whitman

standing in the hall against the
wall with my little brother, blown
like leaves against the wall by their
voices, my head like a pingpong ball
between the paddles of their anger:
I knew what it meant
to tremble like a leaf.

Cold with their wrath, I heard
the claws of rain
pounce. Floods
poured through the city,
skies clapped over me,
and I was shaken, shaken
like a mouse
between their jaws.

What Makes a Poem?

Wednesday, April 29

When we started this month of thinking about poetry, I asked you what you think makes a poem. Then over the next few weeks I took you through some of my own ideas about the subject—and I really appreciate you coming along with me on the journey! I learned some things as I wrote these little exercises; I hope you did too, as you read them (or at least that you found them interesting). Did we decide what makes a poem? I'm not sure. But here are my thoughts right now:

Poems play with words, and with ideas. More than just telling us something, they make music with sounds and rhythms and unexpected words. They lead us to think about things in new ways, and open us up to new possibilites. They let us know that we can do things differently, and that we can make music with words ourselves, if we want to!

The poem I have for you today describes things using unusual words and figurative language. It's a sonnet, with an ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme and five stressed beats in each line. Besides the end rhymes, it's filled with sound correspondences that make me want to read it out loud again and again. And it makes me think—what is it about? What does it mean? If you ask me, that's a good poem.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Now You

Thursday, April 30

You've heard lots of my words, and you've read at least 24 poems by other poets. We're at the end of National Poetry Month. But poetry is good in May, too! And now it's your turn: to find your own poems to read, or to make your music with words! What next? Maybe you want to just sit with the new things you've learned and get used to knowing them. Maybe you want to go back and collect some of the poems you've written this month and make a book of them. Maybe you want write a book's worth of new poems! What next? It's up to you!