How to Poem

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


For Catherine Ballay, who asked.


Read all instructions before attempting.

Follow each instruction exactly.

If an instruction doesn't work, do the opposite.

Use only as directed.


May cause dizziness, dreaminess, distraction, temporary social estrangement. More rarely, alienation, loss of income, inability to think in conventional ways, loss of inhibition in self-expression, obsessive noticing of every detail however seemingly ordinary, uncontrollable urge to make pointless rhymes.

Don't drive or operate heavy machinery while composing.


Congratulations! If you're reading this you have decided to try making poetry, joining the thousands who are pursuing this rewarding avocation. Whether you want the fame, the glamour, the financial rewards, or all three, you will surely be disappointed. In fact, there's really no reason at all to write poetry. You have to want to and why would you? You probably should hit the Back arrow and read the film review….

If you've made it this far and really want to continue, let's get started.

1. Read poetry. Every day. All kinds but especially living poets. Steal what you can use.

2. Sit still on a park bench and look, listen, smell, and feel everything. Notice what stands out. Some words will arise.

"Bare branches finger

the air and the rooftops'

edges soften into the dark" (1)

Write them down. Keep going. If nothing else appears, close the notebook and get a cup of coffee.

3. Look at what you wrote down and try to remember what else you saw. Write that down.

"Loose flocks

of starlings drift

through the deepening blue

sky." (2)

4. Repeat as necessary.

"Evening is dissolving

into night, autumn brushing

up against winter.

The park is a quiet island

and even the sound

of traffic seems muffled." (3)

5. What feelings does this scene evoke? Describe without using any word that designates an emotion.

"The chill breeze scatters

a few leaves, then stops

for just an instant,

still and silent as

a held breath."

6. Once you've written everything you can think of, let it sit for at least 24 hours.

7. Read your draft. Reread it. Rinse, repeat. Read it out loud. Any fat to cut? Any abstractions that need to be eliminated or concretized? Any details missing?

8. Share it with trusted readers, at least some of whom should be poets. Listen carefully. Take good suggestions but stand firm if you think something should remain. It's your voice that's being shared.

9. Optional: Submit for publication. Repeat as necessary.

Dusk in Farragut Square

Loose flocks

of starlings drift

through the deepening blue

sky.  Bare branches finger

the air and the rooftops'

edges soften into the dark

just above the reach

of the streetlamps'

light.  Evening is dissolving

into night, autumn brushing

up against winter.

The park is a quiet island

and even the sound

of traffic seems muffled.

The chill breeze scatters

a few leaves, then stops

for just an instant,

still and silent as

a held breath. (4)

10. Cultivate your obsessions. The more the better. Music, birds, weather, what you see and feel riding buses and trains, alcohol are all great poem triggers.

"It has to be Johnny Hartman

with Trane framing that

voice that flows smooth

and rich like a river

of barrel proof bourbon" (5)


"Smells like rain

he says and she

barely able to reach

his hand looks out

across the clear

sky at the thin

line along the far horizon." (6)

11. Forms are fun and useful if you can do them, but language and craft are the most important things. Write in the language we use now.

12. Discover what you can do best and keep doing it. Then try something completely different. Repeat this process regularly. Make a list of things you'd never write about and then write about some of them.

13. Always have a notebook and a pen or pencil. Write it down as soon as it comes, a title, an image, one word or phrase. Don't worry if it takes years to come to fruition if ever. In the late 1980s I was driving to Ohio on I-70 when I noticed a small flock of black birds alongside the road. "There's some grackles," I said idly and that phrase "some grackles" stuck in my head for several years before it became a poem.

Some Grackles

One windowpane only

stands between you and

what's out there,

the lawn slowly filling

with sunlight that stings

your eyes a little

but you keep on

looking anyway waiting

while coffee drips,

one eye propped

open and glassy,

like a stuffed bird's,

and outside on the lawn

some grackles are milling,

mobbing and strutting,

flaunting their tails like

soiled shiny suspect flags. (7)

As Philip Larkin once said about one of his poems, I wish I could write like this more often.

These rules are very strict. Like all rules, they are meant to be broken. The final and most important instruction:

14. Find your voice and play with it endlessly. Write about anything and everything you can/will/must.

If, after you've tried and mastered these techniques and procedures, you have still not attained the status of semi-famous poet that I enjoy, with all the money, glamour, and glory it entails, I will gladly refund 200% of the money you have not paid for this course of instruction.

"I eye the bed but there's that black

shadow on the wall so shower,

find clothes, another glass of coffee.

Time to write." (8)



(1) "Dusk in Farragut Square," originally published in Northern Virginia Review, Winter 2010.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) "Lush Life," https://www.marylandliteraryreview.com/category/poetry/page/54/

(6) "Smells Like Rain," https://bit.ly/2E3O5PM

(7) Originally published in Dancing Shadows Review, Summer 1993. Also appears in the chapbook Signs of Small Grace (available from the author).

(8) From "Rouge et Noir," published in part in Wordgathering, December 2017.


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Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of four books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©2020 Gregory Luce
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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