Poetry For Writers Who Aren’t Poets…Or May Be

The mythic phoenix rises in this vibrant Malaysian Batik.


Poetry Without Fear

Many writers I meet are scared of poetry, scared of reading it and scared of writing it. But poetry is simply another way to express ourselves with language. Here’s an opportunity to find out how much fun it can be to use a poetic form—a set of guidelines—to make writing poetry easy and approachable.

Write a Poem Today

I’ve chosen the Pantoum, the Western word for a Malayan poetic form from the fifteenth century. I’ve chosen it because without excessive planning and thought, it can yield surprising results. (Here are detailed instructions, which include the repetition scheme and changes you can make to the repeated lines.) This is just one way to approach it. You are free to find the way that works best for you.

Step 1.

I write a paragraph about what’s on my mind as quickly as possible:

The Phoenixville, PA Firebird Festival was a lot of fun. The structure of the bird impressed me, especially how it was crafted to let us see the flames lighting the sculpture from within. I can’t help it. I’m doing a bit of research. Here’s something I found:

A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration.

—From www.mythicalrealm.com/creatures.html, which is quoting  The Feng Shui Handbook, feng shui Master Lam Kam Chuen.

I’m not much into Feng Shui but I like this description of the myth. The myth exists in many cultures. How many cultures must tell a myth before it ceases to be a myth? When the fire breathers exhaled their flames, the eye of the phoenix gleamed.  Watching the phoenix burn was such a primal ritual. We could feel the heat where we were standing, not just on our faces, but everywhere. Then the embers started coming our way and Jon smelled burning hair. He worried I’d catch on fire. He ushered me away from there to protect me.

Step 2.

I choose my first line from the paragraph. It can be a phrase, a fragment, or an entire sentence. You can change your words around to make your lines.

Step 3.

Following the guide, I take more phrases from my paragraph and place them in without thinking too terribly much about how it will pan out. After all, I’m not a poet, and if I do want to make something of this, I can always go back to edit it. This is what I came up with based on my paragraph, in about 40 minutes.

The eye of the phoenix gleamed
reflecting the fire breathers’ dance
glowing embers cast from the primal rite
he ushered me away before I caught on fire

Reflecting the fire breather’s dance
the mythic bird rises from its own pyre
he ushered me away from the embers
smelling burning hair

Mythic bird rising from its pyre
eternally alive, scanning the landscape
the stench of burnt hair
wafts into distant space

Eternally alive, scanning the landscape
warming our wintered limbs
aloft in space
for a moment he thought he’d lose me

his hand warning my transfixed limbs
glowing embers cast from this primal rite
for a moment he thought he’d lose me
the eye of the phoenix gleamed.

Step 4.

I give myself credit for having written a poem today (a very important step!) I’m not planning on editing it or submitting it, but it’s a nice way to stretch my writers’ muscles.

Step 5.

Don’t forget, if you use someone else’s words in your poem, as I do here, and publish it somewhere, you’ll need to give the writer credit (as I have done above).