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Poetry for beginners

How to Distinguish Poetry from Prose

 by Amanda Patterson

Sound is how we identify poetry. Everyone finds it difficult to forget rhythmical poetry. Children love it. The most important element of poetry is that it should ‘sound right’ when it is read aloud. It should flow without effort. Poetry allows you to play with words – to manipulate, to suggest, to twist and to turn words inside out. The fundamentals of poetry and prose are the same. However, poetry forces us to experience the human condition in its most naked form. It is also to there to entertain.

Three differences between the two

1. Emphasis on the line. Poetry is more about a line than a sentence. Poetry lines never reach the right hand margin. Prose does. The line of poetry is more focused, unique and intense.
2. Emphasis is on rhythm. Although creative prose can be melodic, poetry is rhythm.
3. Emphasis on the notion of less is more. Poems are bound by the limitations of line and the elements of rhythm.

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” – John Milton

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear.” – Henry Longfellow

“Whose woods are these I think I know.” – Robert Frost

“Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made.” – Yeats

The Sonnet – 14 lines, that’s all

The English sonnet consists of 3 quatrains (4 line verses) rhyming as follows:

ABAB, CDCD, EFEF and generally ends with GG – these forms vary, ABBA, CDDC, EFFE, GG – read a few and get an idea.

This is the least difficult of the sonnets, and the most powerful

Listen to Sonnet 18 by Bryan Ferry

Exercise: Shall I compare you?


1. The poem is about a couple. You have been friends with them for 10 years. They have moved down to Cape Town.
2. You bump into one of them having a cosy dinner with someone who is not the other half of the couple.
3. Write the poem comparing the new love with the old’ love.

Write a list of 5 things that struck you about the couple.

Now write: I felt ____________________________ (an emotion please!)

Now write a sonnet: Shall I compare thee?

The Couplet

This form of poetry is all about powerful rhyme.

“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.” – T.S. Eliot

Wendy Cope is an expert at this art. Cope does this so well because she does not bore the reader with rambling couplets. She maximises the use of what she wants to say.

Two Cures for Love

1 Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2 The easy way: get to know him better.


Your character, Sam, has just heard that grandmother is dying. Grandmother has serious money but Sam has not seen her for 3 years. Write a poem from Sam’s viewpoint showing how she schemes and dreams to curry favour with grandma.

1. Write a tight targeted couplet.
2. Write down 10 things about them – phrases, words, descriptions, emotions.
3. Now write an 8 line rhyming couplet.


Japanese art of poetry about the traces left by life experiences. Become a forensic detective. Think about something that happened. A trace is evidence left behind. It is a snail’s trail, the wine stain on the tablecloth, the smoke after a fire.

What are the possible traces / evidence left behind of the following?

Shelly knows it would be wrong to take the baby. So many people would be hurt. It would be illegal too. But no one knows how bad she feels after the miscarriages. And she’s sure James is sleeping with his secretary. Her pills aren’t helping much.

Who will be hurt if she does this?
What motivates Shelly?
Where is she?

Choose 10 traces you imagine would haunt Shelly.
Select 2 of the traces. Write 5 phrases that paint a picture. Choose 2 of the phrases.


17 syllables – That’s all

· 5 syllables
· 7 syllables
· 5 syllables

There are two levels of haiku – the physical and beyond the physical


Under the rainclouds
The plum blossoms seem like stars
Despite the daylight.


Shakespeare regrets that
He wrote poetry in haste
Using clichéd words.

Free Verse / Blank Verse

You can make your own rules here. However, you should be using this style to create an emotional response in your reader. It is also about honesty of expression. You cannot write about an object, for example, in this form. Find an idea, a situation or a cause that you are passionate about. It can also be something that you’ve witnessed.

You can use this format for your own emotions. The trick here is to make sure that you are not self-indulgent. Keep your ego out of it. Bear in mind that line supersedes sentence.

Tips to help you with this form of poetry

Is it interesting? Is it melodic? Does the poem say anything?
Is the viewpoint appropriate? Is it specific? Show, don’t tell!
Does the poem have power or beauty? It should have one of these.
Are you forcing words into a poem because you think you should?
Is the poem marred by old fashioned diction or clichés?
Are there interesting words in the poem?

Exercise: You’re under arrest

Give these 2 names. One will be arrested. Use the photo to create a crime.

Write down what motivates him – 5 things
Write a scene where the one character posts bail for the other in prison.
What does the prison smell like?
Sound like?
Look like?

Now turn it into free verse...

Next week, we’ll talk about rhythm - maybe!