Hack Poetry for Beginners

(or, How to Write Poems and Song Lyrics in Four Easy Steps)

As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t consider myself a “real” poet, but I do pride myself in being a fairly good hack one. Do you want to become a hack poet too?

If you answered yes to that question, then today’s your lucky day. Here, free of charge, are my easy-to-follow instructions for writing poetry. The step-by-step procedure I describe is the process I use myself, and works for whatever poetry you want to write: love poems (guys: women love them, so you can score major points just for making an effort), commemorative odes, social/political commentary (like I do), or song lyrics.

Speaking of the latter, it’s always been my goal to try to set more of my poems to music (the only one I’ve done that with so far is this one), mostly since songwriters are considered by society to be cooler than poets (especially hack ones), and it seems to be easier to write successful song lyrics than it does to write successful poems. Or maybe it’s just that the standards are lower. For example, have you ever listened to Black Sabbath’s lyrics? They had some great music, but if you read their lyrics, they seem like they could have been written by a six year old…

Anyway, my main problem with being a songwriter is that I am devoid of talent at the music part (check out the song I referred to before if you don’t believe me), so I’d have to find a collaborator to work with (“words and music, baby”). So if any of my readers out there can write music but are too lazy to teach themselves my simple method for writing their own lyrics, email me at Newsericks@gmail.com, and maybe we can work something out.

But for the rest of you aspiring poets/songwriters, watch out—if you follow these instructions, there’s a risk that you might actually write something half decent some day. As you get more experienced at hack poetry, you can skip from one step to the other, or do some of the steps automatically in your head, but to start, it’s best to follow them systematically.

Before we start, I want to set forth a few rules. These are rules I’ve come up with myself. They’re the rules I personally observe (or at least try to) and blog by, and that will (I hope) eventually lead to my own blogging success. But if they don’t, that doesn’t mean that they’re not good rules to follow. It might just mean that I don’t have any talent.

  1. Content is king. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you say something, if what you’re saying doesn’t have any value or meaning. So if you’re going to write poetry (or prose, for that matter), chose a subject you know something about, or have a unconventional twist on. That might be a clever analogy (here, for example, is an analogy I came up with that I thought was pretty clever), a clever title (here’s one my faves, though I unfortunately can’t take credit for this particular one), or something of actual potential news value that you yourself discovered, rather than just gleaned from other news sources as most bloggers (myself included) do most of the time (here’s my own personal scoop).
  2. Get it done. For blogging purposes, it’s better to get something done and get it out there than it is to spend hours or days making it slightly better. If you’re so inclined, you can then always go back and edit something later, but I find I never have time for this (sometimes an improvement to an earlier poem will just occur to me, but otherwise I don’t dwell on stuff I wrote before). This rule is especially true if you’re writing about current events like I am: if it takes you a week to come up with the perfect poem and now no one cares about the issue anymore, then you’ve wasted your time and effort.
  3. Add value. This is especially necessary if your content isn’t stellar to start with. So, what I do to (hopefully) address that potential problem is add links to other useful articles, videos that I’ve sifted through and chosen the best ones of, and links to books and movies I like (that also has the advantage of potentially generating ad and affiliate revenue). Your way(s) of adding value may be different (or you may have enough value in your basic content), but however you do it, you’ve got to do it somehow.
  4. Be honest. As anyone who has read my blog knows, I’m particular sensitive to hypocrisy and outright lies and misrepresentation, so Republicans and Fox News make regular appearances in my blog. Sometimes I have been tempted to make things up by the convenient rubric of “poetic license” (for example, when I come up with a great rhyme that turns out not to be true), but I usually pass on that opportunity. On the occasions when I have stretched the truth, I always note whenever I take “poetic license” and recommend that you do the same. Similarly, whenever I assert something, I always try to find a link or source to back that up (if only Fox News would be as honest and open with their supposed news). Of course, being honest doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in obvious satire
  5. Get people’s attention. It sometimes helps to be a little edgy or controversial, or at least appear to be (see, e.g., my poem We Are All African-American Homos). You can also do this by being incendiary and distasteful like Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck, but I don’t recommend that. (After all, you do want to be able to live with yourself, don’t you?) Which brings me to my final rule…
  6. Be nice. Most bloggers, Liberal or Conservative, think we’re smarter than the average person (or at least smarter than the average person of the opposite political persuasion), but that doesn’t mean we should cruelly make fun of the dumb people on the other side (or even on our own). After all, they can’t help it, and shouldn’t be subjected to merciless public attacks because they weren’t gifted with above average (or even average) intelligence like we were. But when to that below-average intelligence are added contempt, prejudice, bigotry, intolerance, hatred, and/or cruelty, then those people make themselves fair game in my book (like Dylan said, “don’t hate anything except hatred”). Of course, that doesn’t mean that you don’t call out other people when they’re not nice, but in general, I don’t like to stoop to the same level of those that I’m criticizing for their hatefulness.
  7. Enjoy yourself. After all, what good is living if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing. That’s especially true for blogging (or writing poetry), which for most of us are not (and probably won’t become) our main income-producing, life-sustaining activities. So if you’re going to do, why not enjoy it?

OK, enough with the rules. Here are the easy steps in my infallible method to writing poetry.

Step 1: Content

Write what you want to say in short-medium prose sentences or phrases (shorter are better), which each phrase or sentence representing a single concept or thought. Use a hard carriage return after each phrase or sentence so that there’s only one per line. (See: it’s already starting to look like a poem, and you haven’t even done anything yet.) If you find that as you’re writing, you are already starting to come up with a few rhymes, then go for it and start writing directly in verse. Doing that will save time later, but don’t get so caught up with that attempt that you lose your train of thought and forget what you wanted to say in the first place.

Step 2: Rhyme scheme

Decide on a rhyme scheme. I like A-A-B-B, since this is both simple and tends to have a nice cadence to it. But, there are many other possibilities, as illustrated in the table below.

 

A-A-B-B

 
This is the rhyme scheme I like best. A
I think it’s easier than all the rest. A
It’s easy to do. B
I like it. Do you? B

A-B-A-B

 
Here’s another one that’s good A
(It’s harder so I don’t use it as much). B
I’d use it more if I could A
(For poems and such). B

A-A-B-B-A (limerick)

 
There once was a man from DC A
(If you hadn’t guessed yet, that’s me). A
He started to blog B
And soon went whole hog, B
But still isn’t making much money A

 

 


And so on…

 

Step 3: Rhyming

Convert your prose to rhymed verse. You can do this on the fly (just by coming up with things out of your head), or you can make the process easier by using software tools, as I do. You’ll need two of the latter: (a) a thesaurus, and (b) a rhyming dictionary. For (a), I just use the built-in Word thesaurus, since I draft and save my poems in a Word document, but if you prefer another software-based thesaurus, then go for it. If you’re really old school, you can even use an actual thesaurus book, but that’s more time-consuming (I bet you young folks out there can’t believe that old people actually used to use those things). For (b), there are plenty of online rhyming dictionaries, but I prefer downloadable ones so that I don’t have to go online to write. The software that I use is VersePerfect for Songwriters and Poets (with the McGill Dictionary of Rhyme built in), which is both excellent and free (download a copy at CNET; again, if you’re old school, you can also buy yourself a hard copy rhyming dictionary). VersePerfect also includes other useful tools, like a syllable counter and a hyperbolic thesaurus which I use sometimes but find it isn’t as good as the Word one. You can also write your poems directly in VersePerfect and then save them as text files, and then either keep them like that, or use other word processing software to pretty them up.

Anyway, back to step 3. Once you’ve got your basic content down and your thesaurus and rhyming dictionary handy, you just need to combine those three things with a little elbow grease and a modicum of creativity (but not much), and out pop your rhymed verses. There are seven basic techniques I’ve come up with to do this. I’ll discuss each of these individually below, but here’s the list:

(a)     thesaurus based approach

(b)     rhyming dictionary based approach

(c)     combo approach

(d)     word order modification

(e)     content modification

(f)       content addition

(g)     cheating

You can theoretically apply these techniques in any order, but I’ve found that it’s easiest to apply them in the approximate order given above, with each step building on and combining with the preceding ones. Here’s how you do it. (NB: For ease of illustration, I’ll assume that you’ve adopted an A-A-B-B rhyme scheme for your poem, but the same techniques apply to whatever rhyme scheme you’ve adopted.)

(a)    Thesaurus based approach

For this technique, you take the last word of each line (starting with either the first or second line, whichever seems like it offers the most rhyming options) and look up synonyms for it in your thesaurus. If you’re really lucky, you’ll come up with one that rhymes with the last word of the other line. If so, click “Replace” and move on to the next couplet. For example, say you’re written this as of yet un-rhymed text:

I walk down the street

Singing a happy refrain.

 

I quick click of the Word thesaurus on “street” shows the choices road, lane, avenue, and boulevard. Low and behold, one of them (“lane”) rhymes with the last word on the next line (“refrain”), so we just select the former and click “replace” and we’re done.

I walk down the lane

Singing a happy refrain.

No, usually it won’t be quite that easy, and you may have to do several iterations. For example, if you started out with this,

I walk down the street

Singing a happy tune.

then you won’t be able to use synonyms to come up with a rhyming couplet with just one iteration. If that’s the case, I simplify the process of using multiple iterations by writing out all the synonyms for each ending word, like this:

I walk down the [street, road, lane, avenue, boulevard]

Singing a happy [tune, melody, song, jingle, harmony, refrain].

And there we go: a match.

(b)    Rhyming dictionary based approach

For this technique, you repeat the same process, but with the rhyming dictionary instead of with the thesaurus. Start with the last word in the fist line and click on it to see the selection of rhyming words. If you’re lucky, you’ll come up with a synonym for the last word in the next line. If so, select that word and proceed to the next couplet.

Conceptually, you could try this technique first if you wanted to, but I usually start with the thesaurus in order to save time, since the thesaurus lists 5-10 synonyms for each word, while the rhyming dictionary sometimes lists 50-100. But it doesn’t really matter that much, because you’ll usually need to proceed to the next step, the…

(c)     Combo approach

Usually, you’re not lucky enough to get away with just (a) or (b) above, so you need some combination of the above two techniques. Before thesauruses and rhyming dictionaries were invented, this is what real poets did in their heads. Even as a beginning and/or hack poet, you’ll end up doing some of it in your head as well, but you’ll still need to periodically resort to your thesaurus and/or rhyming dictionary.

So, using the combo approach, what I usually do is type out (in Word, but you could do this directly in VersePerfect or your other software too) a list of synonyms (or alternative words/phrases) for what I want to say at the end of each line that I’m trying to rhyme. Sometimes just doing this will cause a rhyme to pop into my head, but if not, then I just copy the whole thing into VersePerfect and click on each word in my list looking for something that rhymes with that word or one of my other words.

In the majority of cases, this does the trick. If not, proceed to…

(d)    Word order modification

If the combo approach doesn’t provide a direct solution, then start looking at the rest of your line to see if changing the word order makes things easier. For example, instead of “give him the book” you can say “give the book to him.” In practice, most of the time you can do this mentally at the same time you’re doing step (c) above, but sometimes it takes a little more thought. The trick with word order is to try to keep your language natural, though sometimes you may have not choice but to make it a little stilted (e.g., “go to the store” becomes “to the store to go”). But it’s poetry, right, so that’s OK.

(e)    Content modification

Normally I don’t like to change my substantive content just to get it to rhyme, but I don’t mind small changes. I place this low on the list because I usually try the other techniques first, but if they fail, then I consider this one. Practically speaking, you can use this technique at the same time that you’re trying (d) above, and the modified substantive content will just pop into your head. But again, I’d recommend minimizing any substantive changes. After all, even hack poets need to maintain their integrity.

(f)      Content addition

I actually use this technique a lot. If nothing else works, I solve the problem by adding a new line of verse. That gives you a lot more flexibility, because in rhyming that line, you’re no longer trying to come up with a rhyme without changing the meaning of your prose text. Instead, all you’re trying to do now is come up with something that rhymes with your first line but doesn’t contradict your overall meaning. If that extra line of verse further emphasizes your overall point, so much the better. But, that’s just gravy.

When I use this technique, I often (but not always) use parenthetical comments, which makes sense, considering that’s basically what the added lines of verse are. You can see a few examples (there are lots of them) of where I’ve done this in my own poems here, here, and here. Of course, a lot of the time, I use parenthetical expressions for their own sake, but they do also come in handy as cover for this rhyming technique.

(g)    Cheating

When all else fails, cheat (honest cheating, of course). How? I’m sure you can come up with your own tricks, but here are a few of mine. If you read some of my poems (especially the later ones), you’ll notice that they all have (usually) brief introductions, and some have both introductions and postscripts. So if you have something to say and you can’t figure out how to say it (or say it well) in rhyme, just say it in prose and put it in your introduction or postscript. Or, you can also use hyperlink “screen tip” notes. Just take the content that you can’t rhyme and put it in as hyperlink text, in combination with the hyperlink source for that information.

What do you do if you don’t have a source to link to? What I do in those cases is either link to an earlier piece on the same topic (that also helps drive readers to some of your earlier work, and provides a value-added service to readers who might be interested in reading more), or I just link to a Wikipedia article or a book in my Amazon store for further background info. Easy, right? Of course, the hyperlink notes approach only works in the online version of your poem (or in the electronic Word or PDF version), but if you’re an online blogger or otherwise distributing your work electronically, that’s fine.

Step 4: Finishing touches

So those are the techniques. In practice, I usually end up using all of them pretty much simultaneously, picking whatever solution pops into my head first. Sometimes I have to be a little more systematic about it, and if that first solution is not ideal, I try a little longer to see if I can come up with something better. But if not, I usually just go with that first solution and move on (remember Rule 2). But what if there’s nothing to move on to?

Is it possible with all of these excellent steps and techniques that you could still hit a wall? It’s rare, but it does happen now and then. When it does, I recommend taking a break. Work on another poem for a while, watch TV, reorganize your sock drawer, or take a nap. You’d be amazed what your subconscious mind will come up with if you let it work on the problem for a while. And even if that doesn’t work, at least your sock drawer will be nice and neat.

But if after you’ve tried all these techniques and cleaned your sock drawer but still haven’t come up with anything good, then it’s usually time to give up, at least for now. Post what you’ve got, or if you really don’t like it, don’t post it with a second best solution (or without the verse you’re having problems with) and just let it set. Maybe a week or month later, you’ll be hit with an inspiration, and you can go back and fix the problem then, or maybe one of your readers will come up with an idea. Or, if you’re really motivated (and remember, like with healthcare reform, the perfect can be the enemy of the good, so don’t go too far with that), you can go through each of the techniques again and see if you come up with anything the second time.

But whether or not you do that, the final step is to make last minute finishing touches to your poem (or song)—changing the order of verses if that makes sense, trying to edit down lines that are too long (you can use the VersePerfect syllable counter to help with that), making sure everything’s spelled right, checking external links, and/or deleting lines that are superfluous or badly written. And then it’s done. But remember: the key word in “finishing touches” is finishing. So like the man says, git ‘r done. And if you’re still a little cautious, or too much of a perfectionist to let go of something that isn’t perfect, remember that the beauty of online publishing (and face it, that the only publishing that most of us are going to get) is that you can always change it later, or even delete it – both luxuries that those poor book poets don’t get.

That’s it. Congratulations – you’ve now joined the ranks of hack poets.

And since all “how to” programs need a snazzy name, here’s mine: the 747 Method for Writing Poetry and Songs. That’s 7 rules, 4 steps, and 7 rhyming techniques. What do you think?