Poetry Tips

Hi everyone,
(Of course I used to have more hair! Of course it had real color!)

Yesterday I noted that visitors to my blog had pulled up two of the poetry tips I first posted in 2010. This happens now and then, enough that I’ve decided to give the dates and topics of the original series. They are:

1/18/10: The Foot
1/27/10: The Line#1
2/10/10: The Line#2
3/30/10: Visual Elements
5/4/10: Accentual and Syllabic
5/19/10: Short Stanzas — Couplets and Triplets
5/26/10: The Quatrain

In addition, I occasionally post something such as these:

1/22/11: My approach to writing this month’s W.O.M. poem
7/12/14: Preparing for a villanelle
8/22/15: Sizing and Shaping for Impact
1/3/16: Putting Lines to Work

Poetry Tip #7: The Quatrain

BULLETIN: Our friend Jana Foster at Maumee Valley Country Day in Toledo, Ohio just sent poems by three of her 6th grade students. Although the end of school pressures delayed posting these poems until after our May cutoff, I want you to see the students’ work and let them know you appreciate their sophisticated efforts. The students are Lexie Lewis, Karena Amy, and Elora Scamardo. Way to go, kids!

If you wonder why I’m posting poetry tips more frequently these days, I’m getting my act together for the upcoming three-hour workshop on June 4 at the SCBWI conference in Princeton, New Jersey. Nothing like a little deadline to promote action! This tip is about the quatrain.

POETRY TIP #7: THE QUATRAINThe real workhorse of verse is the four-line stanza. It’s a good length and construct, in English at least, to say what one has to say or conclude one thought before moving on to the next. Like the couplet, the quatrain my stand alone as a single poem or be the building unit for poems of any length.Quatrain means four lines. There are, however, numerous variations on the theme. First, I’ll explain the shorthand method of describing both the rhyme scheme and the meter of the stanzas.

Ends of lines are noted as: a, b, c, d, etc. A 4-line poem in which the first and third lines do not rhyme but the second and fourth lines do will be written like this: abcb. Two couplets would look like this: aabb.

Meter is noted with numbers to represent the total beats (stressed syllables) in each line. A stanza with three beats in lines 1, 2, and 4 but with four beats in line 3 would look like this: 3/3/4/3.

Here are examples of how slight differences in rhyme scheme and/or meter can make large differences in the final result.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/3/4/3
Rhyme: abcb or abab

Example: (abab): Joyful
By Rose Burgunder

A summer day is full of ease,
a bank is full of money,
our lilac bush is full of bees,
and I am full of honey.

Example: (abab): The Puffin
By Robert Williams Wood

Upon this cake of ice is perched
The paddle-footed Puffin;
To find his double we have searched,
But have discovered – Nuffin!

Example: (abcb): Family Secrets

My aunt thinks she’s a mallard duck,
It’s sort of hard to explain,
But don’t go eat at her house
‘Cause all she serves is grain.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 3/3/4/3
Rhyme: abab or abcb
Example: (abcb): Beside the Line of Elephants
By Edna Becker

I think they had no pattern
When they cut out the elephant’s skin;
Some places it needs letting out,
And others, taking in.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/4/4/4 (tetrameter)
Rhyme: abcb, aabb, or abab
Example: (abab): My Treasure
By David L. Harrison

It’s such a slender little book
Squeezed between a larger pair,
Unless you know just where to look
You could easily miss it there.

But it’s worth more than all the host
Of books on shelves beside my bed.
I’ll forever treasure most
This book – the first I ever read.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 5/5/5/5 (pentameter)
Rhyme: abab, abcb, or abba
Example: (abba):Things we Prize
By David L. Harrison
1st two stanzas

Hidden in the mountains, fed by snow,
The lake was small. We stayed there every year
And got to know our neighbors camping near
In tents like toadstools growing in a row.

I found a secret pool, a little nook
Where I could lie and watch the fish below
But no amount of coaxing made them go
For worms, or bits of bacon on my hook.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 5/5/5/5
Rhyme: aaba
Example: Translated from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
By Edward Fitzgerald

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Typical meter: iambic
Line lengths: 4/4/4/4
Rhyme: abba
Example: Death of a Wasp
By David L. Harrison
(1st two stanzas)

Bumping at the windowpane
He fought against the solid air
That held him as a prisoner there,
But all his struggles were in vain.

Never comprehending glass
Clear as air that stopped him hard
And blocked his freedom to the yard,
Repeatedly he tried to pass.

Of these forms of the quatrain, by far the most popular is the first one I gave you, the BALLAD stanza, usually with a rhyme pattern of abcb. Next is the LONG BALLAD, also with an abcb rhyming pattern. Why? Because these are the easiest forms to construct. It’s not as hard to find one pair of lines that rhyme as it is to find two pairs that rhyme. But there is a danger in always going with the most expedient. If we’re not careful, we can fall into a sing-songy rut when using this form. A well turned ballad can be truly effective but a poorly constructed effort sounds trite, silly, or worse.

There are all sorts of variations on these basic forms.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he writes 4-line stanzas with 4/4/4/4 beats (LONG BALLAD) and a rhyme scheme of aaba (RUBAIYAT). So did Frost write a variation of a LONG BALLAD or a variation of a RUBAIYAT? It doesn’t matter when it works.

(1st stanza)
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.

Elizabeth Coatsworth shows us another variation in her poem, “Sea Gull.” She chooses a pattern of 3/3/4/2 with a rhyme scheme of abcb.

The sea gull curves his wings,
the sea gull turns his eyes.
Get down into the water, fish!
(if you are wise.)

The sea gull slants his wings,
the sea gull turns his head.
Get deep into the water, fish!
(or you’ll be dead.)

And what about a 4-line stanza with three beats in every line (3/3/3/3)? And what if the rhyme scheme looks like this (abbb) but lines two and three are the SAME word? Why, then you would have a wonderful poem, “One Day When We Went Walking,” by Valine Hobbs.

(1st stanza)
One day when we went walking,
I found a dragon’s tooth,
A dreadful dragon’s tooth,
“A locust thorn,” said Ruth.

Or a 4-line stanza with three beats in every line and a rhyme scheme of abab? Here’s A. E. Housman’s “Amelia Mixed the Mustard.”

Amelia mixed the mustard,
She mixed it good and thick;
She put it in the custard
And made her Mother sick,

And showing satisfaction
By many a loud huzza
“Observe,” said she, “the action
Of mustard on Mamma.”

I hope these examples provide more help than confusion. A cardinal rule of writing verse is to be consistent. If you find a pattern with its own unique rhythm, line length, and rhyme scheme – and it works to say what you want to convey –go with it.

Don’t forget to vote for your selections for May Hall of Fame Poet and May Hall of Fame Young Poet. Polls close on May 30. Here’s the link: https://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/let-the-voting-begin-4/ 


Last day for your poems

My sincere thanks to Vicki Grove for yesterday’s guest article. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure you don’t miss it!



BULLETIN: Guess who posted a poem last night? Kathy Temean, that’s who! Better go have a look. It’s a fun poem.

Hi Everyone,

This past week was a busy one.

On the 16th, I proposed to provide tips on writing poetry and said I’d get back with a plan. I also listed the schedule for upcoming guests including Vicki Grove (1/22), Laura Robb (1/29), Laura Purdie Salas (2/5), and Lee Bennett Hopkins (2/12).

On the 17th, Kathy Temean posted another of my poems, “My Essay on Birds,” as the Poem of the Week. Thanks to the generous support of George Brown, Sharon Umnik, and the graphic team at Boyds Mills Press, Kathy now has access to all of my books with BMP and can choose at random a poem each week for the Sunday feature. I hope you enjoy the weekly feature because I have enough published poems to last a number of years. By asking Kathy to do the choosing, I’m often surprised to see old friends.

On the 18th, I told you about newly posted poems by Liz Korba, Rosalind Adam, Erin McMullen, V. L. Gregory, Melanie Bishop, Reta Allen, and Genia Gerlach. I also discussed the poetic foot as part of my proposed series of poetry tips.

On the 19th, I posted a proposed outline for poetry tips to come. I said that I’ll try to stay with a schedule of adding tips on Wednesdays but asked that you not hold me to it every week.

On the 20th, I announced that we had heard from our first four young poets of the month and urged everyone to read their work. Jan Gallagher posted a poem. I reported on an article I like in this issue of Language Arts, a publication of NCTE. The article is called “Asking the Experts: What Children Have to Say About Their Reading Preferences.”

On the 21st, you read some biographical information about Vicki Grove prior to her appearance the following day as my guest. Mimi Cross posted her poem for January.

On the 22nd, Vicki’s straight talk from the heart reached a lot of readers who related to her words and shared similar problems in making time to write. Vicki observed that life-inspired surprises can happen to a story when it’s left alone. Jane Yolen shared her term for it: “Here come the elves.” We also received poems from three more young poets.


Poetry tips #1, the poetic foot

BULLETIN: In the last week or so we’ve received poems from Liz Korba, Rosalind Adam, Erin McMullen, V. L. Gregory, Melanie Bishop, Reta Stewart, and Genia Gerloch. Nothing yet from our young poets out there but there is still time. The cutoff for January is this Saturday, the 23rd, at midnight CST. Don’t miss a chance to participate!

On with poetry. Let’s start with definitions. For the sake of my upcoming posts about poetry, I’ll divide all poetry into two categories, verse and free verse. Verse is metered language. We can measure it. Verse doesn’t have to rhyme but it does have to be metered into lines that we can recognize by their pattern. Historically, much of the world’s poetry has been told in verse, partly because it’s easier to memorize structured language than prose and poetry was a handy device for remembering and passing on important information or entertainment.

Through common usage verse developed into a number of recognizable patterns, that is, number of lines, length of lines, rhyme schemes and, in modern English, arrangement of accented and unaccented syllables into units called feet. Although the root words in today’s English come from Greek, Latin, and a good many other backgrounds, our modernized derivitives generally fall into a system of stressed and unstressed syllables that can be metered rather easily into lines of verse. I’ll begin with four groupings that have gained recognition by most poets over time.

4 Basic Patterns of Meter

Iambic: da DA — above, below, a boy, a girl, reduce
Anapestic: da da DA — in the night, from the light, from above
Trochaic: DA da — doggie, kitty, morning, teacher
Dactylic: DA da da — following, teaching us, tricycle, Harrison

Iambic: The Farmer in the Dell
da DA da DA da DA
da DA da DA da DA

Anapestic: A Visit from St. Nicholas
da da DA da da DA da
da DA da da DA

Trochaic: Peter, Peter
DA da DA da DA da DA da
DA da DA da DA da DA da

Dactylic: The Cat and the Fiddle
DA da da DA da da DA da da
DA da da DA da da DA da da DA

Iambic line: The English language has a basic beat.
da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA

Anapestic line: You can practice the meter aloud by yourself.
da da DA da da DA da da DA da da DA

Two others should be mentioned. Once in a while a poet needs a foot that has no accent in it: da da. That’s known as a pyrrhus. It’s opposite, a syllable with two accents only, is a spondee: DA DA.

There are other kinds of poetic feet but these six basic arrangements will account for nearly all of what you need to function well when writing verse.

Tomorrow I will present an outline of subjects to come so you’ll have a chance to consider them in advance and, if you wish, add to them.

If you have questions or comments as we go, please let me know.



Marilyn Singer

December 21 — Cutoff for posting bone poems at midnight CST.
December 23 — Voting begins for December Hall of Fame Poets.
December 30 — Voting ends at midnight CST.
December 31 — December winners declared and January word announced.


I hope that everyone can take a few minutes to enjoy the remarks of my blog guest today, Marilyn Singer. She has much to offer and has managed to be concise and helpful at the same time by first responding to six questions and then suggesting 10 tips for writing poetry. She threw one of the questions back to me so I have a reponse in there too. This is the kind of information you’ll want to refer back to from time to time. My thanks to Marilyn. Without further ado, read on.

(David) How did you know you were a poet? Describe your decision and how you went about getting published.

(Marilyn) Hmm, well, I thought I was a poet at age 6 when I started writing poetry. I didn’t think about whether my poetry was great so much as that it just was. And it’s probably a good thing that I have held this belief for so long because it has allowed me to keep writing and writing, no matter what. I remember one teacher suggesting that I try some free verse instead of rhyme, and I wrote a short story (a very short one, but still…). It took a while to understand what free verse was, but I was still confident that I was a poet.

In college, a creative writing teaching told me that my poetry was actually pretty good—but my fiction sucked. That reinforced my belief that I was a poet. Unfortunately, it also made me feel that I couldn’t write fiction for years. I’m not sure what changed that perception, but at least it did change—so much so that my first children’s books were picture books and novels. It was a number of years before I wrote poetry for children and submitted it for publication. That book was TURTLE IN JULY—and it started out as a prose picture book! But then I realized it should be a series of poems. When it was published and well-received, I knew I could write other poetry books for kids. Have they all done well? No way. Do I still have trouble getting poetry (and other manuscripts) accepted? You bet. But at least I know it’s possible to get children’s poetry published. And I still think I’m a poet. 😉

(David) Why are some people afraid of writing poetry? How can a beginning poet get past the fear factor?

(Marilyn) I had no idea that some people ARE afraid of writing poetry—other than the stereotypical “poetry is for sissies” notion. I mean, some people don’t like to write anything, so poetry seems just part of that mix. I know that people are afraid of READING it because it seems (and sometimes is) abstruse. To be honest, I think that kids are more willing to try their hand at poetry than at prose because it appears to be easier to write—closer to their feelings and fun to rhyme, if they use rhyme. The operative word is “appears,” however. I’m going to throw this question back at you for a dialogue—why do you say some folks are afraid of writing poetry?

(David) Agreed that children are more fearless than adults about making up a poem. Many teachers face a fear factor because they lack formal training in writing poetry and feel uncomfortable standing before their students and revealing that their own poems may not be much better than the kids’. Men who might tackle a short story or even a play on the grounds that they’ve always been good at telling stories sometimes balk at putting it all on the line in a poem. I’ve even met a few poets who were influenced by a prevailing notion that circulated for years through academia that verse was simply too hard and one should stick to free verse, particularly when working with young people in elementary school.

(David) Which is easier to write, verse or free verse?

(Marilyn) Neither. They’re both difficult. In free verse, I believe you’re focusing more on the imagery and emotion; in rhyme, there is of course both of those things, too, but the main focus is wordplay that gets across your point. Conveying all of those things is always tricky, especially in poetry, where every word counts. Because many people associate poetry with rhyming, I’d say there’s a lot more bad verse out there than free verse. But I may be wrong.

(David) Why poetry? Why not stick with fiction or nonfiction? What attracts some writers to poetry?

(Marilyn) “Stick with”? There’s no question of sticking with or not sticking with. Different pieces require different types of writing. Poems to me are about capturing moments in time, answering questions I ask myself, exploring emotions I feel, or, if I’m writing narrative poems, capturing the essence of characters. They’re also about playing with language in ways that are impossible to attempt in prose. Novels are extended developments of story and character. Nonfiction is information, which may be conveyed lyrically, but again, is extended and factual and calls for prose. All of these genres are appropriate…when they’re appropriate. I like having them all in my toolbox.

As far as poetry goes, it’s true that it is my favorite thing to write. I can’t speak with other writers, but for myself, I love the succinctness, the imagery, the capturing of moments, and the play aspects of poetry. I find writing poetry generally more relaxing than writing prose—although my forthcoming book, MIRROR, MIRROR: A Book of Reversible Verse (Dutton, March 2010) was not particularly the latter. I created a new form called the “reverso.” You read one poem down and then, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, you read it back up and it’s a different poem. The reversos in this collection are all based on fairy tales. It was really hard to write this book, but it was energizing!

(David) How much does a children’s poet need to know about poetry to become a poet?

(Marilyn) Do you mean the history and scope of poetry, or the forms, or something else? I think it helps to have some knowledge of history, scope, forms, etc. I took a lot of classes in the classics, and we read a lot of poets. I learned a number of the forms and I like to fiddle with them. Writing in set forms helps sharpen my skills, I think. However, I have to confess that I don’t know all of those forms, nor can I write poems in all of them (a sestina? Uh uh) and I’m not very up-to-date with contemporary adult poets. I am pretty in touch with contemporary children’s poets, though, especially since I co-host the ALSC Poetry Blast at ALA each year and we feature lots of poets. I read all of their work, so I’m lucky if I find time to read folks who write strictly for grown-ups as well.

(David) While waiting for the big break from an editor, how should budding poets work to perfect their craft?

(Marilyn) My answer to this is really obvious: write, write, write. Reading helps, too. So do workshops and classes. It’s especially good to HEAR poets read. Poetry is an aural art. My husband says he didn’t really appreciate some of my stuff until he heard me read it. I feel that way about some poems/poets I’ve read. So, listen…and learn!

1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?

2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?

3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?

4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?

5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, 1st and 2nd lines rhyme; 3rd and 4th lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or 1st and 3rd lines rhyme; 2nd and 4th lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”

6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.

7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.

8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.

9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says, “You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”

10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.

Have questions for Marilyn? Post them.