How should we begin a poem?


What do we understand by poetry, what by poem?

Lyric, sometimes also poetry, has been called the entirety of poems since the early 18th century and uses this generic term to distinguish them from novel and story (epic) or from theater play (drama). In antiquity, any poetry that was performed to the music of the lyre, i.e. lyre, was still included. We still use the name derived from the instrument. But the assignment of the texts has changed over the millennia. The relationship to music, which was important at the beginning, has moved into the background.

So what makes a lyric text today? In the diversity of all poems across the ages, there is only one small common denominator. Because neither rhyme nor meter, neither fixed form nor free language game, let alone inwardness and feeling have to be part of a poem. According to Dieter Burdorf, only those are counted as poetry

Oral or written speech in verse [... which] is set apart from the normal rhythmic or graphic appearance of everyday language by additional pauses or line breaks. [1]

This utterance must also differ from the scenic dialogue, as is customary in verse dramas.

A foreign language with its own rules

Short, often a few lines on an otherwise empty page - poems stand out due to their appearance. The optics quickly make it clear what lies behind the brittle definition: instead of running text - especially in modern poetry, often without punctuation marks and capitalization - loosely arranged words, sentence fragments are on paper.

What we would perceive as stammering in prose, we accept in the poem. Because lyric texts follow their own rules.

You use the German (or English, French, etc.) language when composing. Nevertheless, it behaves differently, even stubbornly. It does not exclude knowledge about the norm (alssprach) - it does, however, sabotage it. How are readers supposed to interpret a series of nouns without a verb that is related? Why do words repeat themselves when we've learned that variety is more stylish? Why do sentences break off in the middle and seem to be continued differently in a new line?

  • The key difference:

There are certain design moments that catch the eye or reach the ear and which we (have to) become aware of while writing and reading. The information that we formulate as clearly as possible in everyday life in order to rule out misunderstandings becomes a minor matter in poetry. Not What is stated is important, rather how it is expressed.

As a poet, you want to use Eichendorff's famous “magic word” that moves your readers or listeners deeply. To do this, you design language as your most important “material”. They do not describe spring or any emotional state. Instead, you create with your poem, as the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl (1925-2000) demanded, an “experience from language” that infects the reader like a disease. Everything that cannot be an immediate experience, according to Jandl, must therefore disappear from the poem. A disease is transmitted and not just reported. It is similar with the poem:

we have an experience, and it is us, we must be in it; an experience is communicated, means: we are not in it. [2]

So cast a spell over your readers. You will find the ingredients for your magic mix on the different design levels. You will get to know some of these work stages in the following.

The row structure

Even the line of poetry is explosive and indicates the tension between poetic and normal language. In contrast to the body text, the length of a line is limited; the necessary change into a new one heralds the verse. Because a lyric text must consist of at least two lines. From one alone it would not be clear whether it is not just a few thrown words or a short prose sentence.

How you relate the line of verse and sentence unit to one another not only creates friction, but also gives your statement a keynote. At the Line style The sentence or clause run parallel to the verse, the end of the sentence coincides with the end of the line. This creates a harmonious unit that can be brought to life through insertions or short sentences:

Prohibition signs speak for themselves /
And yet: I don't give a damn about the ban!

Rolf Bossert, 1952-1986

However, leave the sentence at Hook style or Line skip / enjambement Abruptly aborting the sending process creates a traffic jam and at the same time an acceleration, because in the artificially created pause the sentence still needs to be read immediately.

[...] without a doubt my /
But rather the one he leaves it /
pass by [...]

Ralf Thenior, * 1945

With an enjambement you set strong accents and even play off words against each other. Because in the following lines, as in the example above, new references can arise, so that the meaning becomes ambiguous. There are gaps between the words and parts of sentences, in which the reader begins to combine and thereby incorporate their own ideas and experiences.

Creating order with stylistic devices

Poems don't have to be short, but they often are. Every word, every punctuation mark is poetically “charged” in a concentrate of a few lines. Lyrical texts do not go out in length, but rather shorten them, leaving references open in order to encourage the reader to make their own associations.

However, if you rigorously delete your poem draft until only sentence relics or individual words remain, you need a structure that replaces the syntax and grammar of normal language. How else should the reader, the listener, recognize an order in the poem?

A variety of stylistic devices, also called figures, offer themselves to link words and parts of sentences across the lines and poem stanzas. The two basic principles Repetition and contrast are the secret in this new system of order.

Only the helmsman who watches and stands! /
Just the wind that blows in my hair! "

Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, 1825-1898

We were light as birds, heavy as trees

Ingeborg Bachmann, 1926-1973

When lines of verse begin with the same words, we see them as a unit. If words are repeated several times, we pay attention to the nuances that may be in a changed prefix or time step. Alliterations weld words closely together over the same initial sound.

In such a concentrated form of speech, lyrical statements get their weight, since with each repetition of a word, part of a sentence or sound pattern, there is also an increase. If opposites are also woven in, the contours are sharpened and the statement becomes even more acute.

No poetry without pictures

Art is thinking in pictures - this is often said, and the sentence seems to be tailored to the poetry. Bold metaphors, Symbols or Comparisons as the three most important pictorial means surprise us by “creating” strange worlds with just a few words. What explanations require long passages of text happens at lightning speed on the visual level: We intuitively understand the relationships. Our head does not (only) agree, we are primarily addressed emotionally.

It is not the abundance of individual motifs that counts in the construction of a picture, but how they are linked to each other in order to ultimately create a unity. Precondition for a successful poetic picture is precise observation. The writer and literary scholar Raoul Schrott (* 1965) demands that you

Thinking things or motives to the end, bringing analogies together and continuing. [3]

If you - for example with Gabriele Ricos Cluster-Method [4] - opening different sensory channels and bringing the corresponding facets to light, you create a more poetic effect with the restriction to a few, even to a single image than with an overabundance of unrelated or weird image motifs.

Kitsch and cliché threaten a second danger on this level of design: Standard formulas do not open up new image horizons, while pathos and kitsch reveal elevated or exaggerated motifs as "hollow shapes".

Likewise, idioms are considered "faded" metaphors. So bring some color back into the picture! Pick a phrase or a saying and take a close look at the words one by one. Is there an opportunity here with the use of stylistic devices, with repetition or contrast, to alienate the familiar and to turn the view upside down?

It's the sound that counts

Image and sound are basic ingredients of poetry. Both belong to the impressions that we process “right-brained” and that directly target our feelings. The sound influences more subtly than the picture, also more suggestive. Because, unlike seeing, hearing is constantly receiving. This can be used for poetry.

Let's take alliteration, in which you use the initial sound - referring to the main stressed syllable of the word - as a sound amplifier. If you pay attention to the advertising slogans in everyday life, then you will know why some commercials get stuck. Alliterations can weave an entire poem through the play of language, but even individual passages in such vowel or consonant bundling create a sound space that the reader can hardly escape.

Knowing how the letters work in their sound form is a wealth of experience for your poetry. Observe in everyday life at what level of sound, with what exclamations people express their feelings.

Rewrite your own texts or poems by well-known authors by limiting yourself to just one vowel - similar to Ernst Jandl's poem “ottos mops”. You can with such Lipograms, in which you do without certain letters, not only create chimes. The lack of words, especially when whole rows of letters are omitted, also makes you inventive and is a worthwhile “training program” for poetry.

Bound language and free verse

In addition to meter and rhythm, the sound also naturally includes rhyme. But the German language is having a hard time. The words suitable for rhyme have been used up, the perfect couple heart / pain shows it.

In my song a rhyme /
Almost felt like high spirits

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

The poet wrote in his programmatic poem “Bad Time for Poetry” in 1939 and used the one that grew stronger in the 20th century free verse. With a rhyming corset, which also binds the language in the regularity of a bar, not only the poetry is restricted.

The associated harmonious and self-contained worldview allows modern poets to break out of conventional forms and use rhyme differently. As an acoustic phenomenon, the “word twins” also appear distributed across any poem. The "routine" end rhyme chain is released in favor of a greater scope for word sound and echo.

With the free verse of our time, the strictly regulated forms of poetry have not had their day. They provide a wealth of treasure that invites you to experiment with writing. Song, sonnet, haiku or pantum, to name just a few, shape the message in a certain way with their strict specification of lines of verse, meter and number of stanzas.

With the change of form, the "message" also changes. In the sonnet, the lyrical ego is communicated differently than in the song, the classic haiku even completely excludes an ego in its 17 syllables. Even if you are sworn in free verse, an excursion into tradition is worthwhile to hone your own craft and to try new things.

The lyrical self as a character

The alienation that language formation brings with it abstracts the personal and private level. It is true that a biographical thread can be reconstructed in many texts. However, it remains irrelevant. Texts work even if we don't know their authors.

The experience that you are writing about or that is at the beginning of a poem is just "material" that needs to be worked on. This is the only way to create a wide-meshed fabric in which readers can connect with their ideas, conceptions and experiences.

Whoever speaks in a poem is therefore always an invention, a play figure of the author, even if an "I" - namely that lyrical i - is the focus. It is a role that readers slip into, provided that it is sufficiently empty for such an identification: This is done through intensive language design, not through mere emotional expression. This is the only way that lyrical texts are immediately infected and your readers are “infected” right in the middle of it.

[1] Dieter Burdorf: Introduction to poetry analysis. J. B. Metzler Verlag. Stuttgart 1997
[2] Ernst Jandl: The poem between language norm and autonomy. In: The fine art of writing. Luchterhand literary publisher. Darmstadt 1976
[3] Raoul Schrott: Pamphlet against fashionable poetry. In: The earth is blue like an orange. Polemical, political, private. German paperback publisher. Munich 1999.
[4] Gabriele L. Rico: Guaranteed to learn to write. Methodically developing linguistic creativity - an intensive course based on modern brain research. Rowohlt Publishing House. Reinbek near Hamburg 2004


This article varied slightly in the appearedFeather world(No. 112 June / July 2015) as a prelude to the ten-part series Learn to write poetry. You can read the first articles in the blog of the author world, the others follow successively here in the company Lyrik Blog.

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