How to Write a Portrait Poem
Poetry uses imagery and metaphor as a means to explore emotions or share ideas. A portrait poem can serve as a lyrical means for the depiction of the writer’s self-perception, or feelings for another. Ideally, a portrait poem should capture the subject’s interior essence rather than focus on simple observables like physical appearance. This use of the expressive capabilities of language differentiates the poem from other mediums of portraiture, such as painting.
Choosing a subject is the first step in writing any poem. A self-portrait poem can provide information about you to others or serve as a means for personal reflection. A portrait poem of another person should depict your perception of him, along with any emotions that person inspires. For either type, the first step is to generate a list of words that come to mind when you think of the subject. These words can draw upon memories or spontaneous associations and include abstractions, like feelings, or simple physical details. The usefulness of physical details, however, depends on how they are used to share profound meaning.
Settle on a Form
The lyrical quality of a poem derives from its format. While specific structures may seem inhibitive, they can actually aid creativity by forcing the writer to narrow her scope. Each poetic format has its own benefits. The sonnet, invented in Italy in the 13th century, lends an air of classicism to any poetic effort. The traditional sonnet has 14 lines and a rhymed structure. Another simple form is the haiku, which has just three lines for a total of 17 syllables. You may also choose to write your portrait in free-form, which establishes a flow through the music inherent in language itself.
The trick to composing an initial draft of a poem is spontaneity. Often the best lines are those that appear of their own volition rather than through a dedicated process. Use the list of words generated in your brainstorm. Create individual lines that focus on one association at a time. Try to develop physical details through the use of simile or metaphor. If you have trouble getting started, organize your poem around a series of simple declarations. These declarations could describe the subject’s hopes, fears, likes, dislikes or even his family.
Revise, Revise, Revise
As a painting begins with a crude sketch, your poem begins with its first draft. Find a main theme in your portrait and think of ways to develop it. If you find yourself highlighting your subject’s strength of character, consider changing an unrelated simile like “flaxen hair like shining silver” to “flaxen hair like new-forged steel.” Also, use the flexibility of poetry to combine simple declarative statements. For example, the lines, “I am a child of the rodeo / My heart is brave and strong,” could become a single line, “My rodeo heart, brave and strong.” Try to delete or rework as many unnecessary phrases or clichés as possible. The power of a great poem resides in its brevity and originality.
Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.