Calling All Young Poets

Time for the Monitor's second children's poetry contest! Send us as many as three poems; you choose the subject.

If you're feeling rusty or have never written a poem, think of it as being similar to making a cake, with a twist. You must include a few basic ingredients: words, rhythms, images, and feelings. But you decide how much of what to add and when.

Here are some ideas to help you along:

1. Use what's in your cupboard. Many people have trouble getting started writing a poem because they think they need a flashy, far-out subject. "My life isn't interesting enough," they say. But that's not true. Often the best subjects are the simplest: walking the dog, fishing with Dad, a swing. You want to be able to move the reader, and that's hard to do if you're making up everything and can only give sketchy details. Write about things you've seen or done and know well.

2. Put all your ingredients on the table. Once you've decided on your subject, you need to think about what you'll say. How much do you tell? What's the most important thing to say? It may help to write down as much as you can - whatever comes to mind - and don't worry about how it sounds. The goal is to let your thoughts wander freely. Surprise yourself. Then go back and look for phrases or images that you like, that have energy. The basis of your poem is probably there.

3. Add lots of flavor. Say you've decided to write about how wonderful your grandmother is. Instead of making direct statements, show her in action. Focus on one particular day or moment, perhaps (making cookies?). The general idea or feeling always comes through best in specific details. Without details, the poem will fall flat. You want readers to feel that they've been right there with you.

4. Don't forget the frosting. Some people like cake without icing, but in poetry, the "icing" is crucial. What you say is as important as how you say it. Why? Because poetry is music mixed with imagery and imagination; it should appeal to the eyes and ears.

Once you've got a draft, look at how you've described things. Do the words flow? Do they sound nice together? Compare these pairs of sentences: "At the beach, there's a girl by the water looking at a fish"; "A girl and a fish at the ocean's lip." Or: "Everything sounds louder just before I nod off," and "Everywhere a numb hum. Now I am ready for the sound of milk on a white cat's tongue, the sound of apples on the tree; one more falls."

5. Baking can be a blast. Writing takes effort, but it also involves wordplay. That's why even little kids can do it. (One six-year-old described newspapers on the floor as "paper chairs.") Push the words around, be as silly as you want. If you get stuck, ask someone to give you 10 random words and make a poem of them.

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