How to Write a Two-Tone Poem
The tone of a poem is the attitude of the poem’s speaker toward its subject. In a two-tone poem, the speaker expresses two attitudes that are often contrasting or contradictory. Writing a two-tone poem can be an effective way of exploring the nuances of emotion or of portraying a sudden emotional revelation.
Brainstorm a list of topics that you feel conflicted about. Avoid obviously controversial topics, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, as it is difficult to say anything new about such topics. It can be helpful to focus on personal topics such as events you have experienced or people you feel strongly conflicted about. Write down your conflicting feelings -- for example, sad but optimistic or angry but concerned. These are your two tones. Decide which of these tones you want to begin your poem with -- usually whichever tone is more “typical” for the subject -- and which you want to introduce later in the poem.
It’s helpful to think of your poem’s two tones as two notes creating a chord. Introduce one tone early in your poem and clearly establish it before moving on to the second tone. Exactly when you should introduce the second tone depends on the intended purpose or effect of your poem. If the purpose is to explore the nuances of two conflicting attitudes, then you should introduce the second tone early. If you want your poem to surprise your readers or present a sudden revelation, the second tone should be introduced close to the end.
When writing your poem, consider both the denotations and connotations of words you choose. A word’s denotation is its dictionary definition. The denotation for “rat,” for example, is “a large rodent from the genus Rattus.” A word’s connotation includes the associations we have with that word. Common connotations for the word “rat” include “dirty,” “diseased” and “pest.” Being aware of the connotations of words is particularly important when you are trying to convey a certain tone. Describing someone as “like a rat” brings in negative connotations, perhaps indicative of an angry or disgusted tone. Describing the same person as “like a mouse” introduces connotations of shyness or fearfulness, perhaps indicative of a protective or compassionate tone.
You establish tone not only through the words you choose but also through the images you portray. If you are writing about your father with an angry or disgusted tone, it might make sense to describe his ugly hands or his pet rat. If you are writing about your father with a loving tone, it might be best to leave out that he has ugly hands and a pet rat, even if those things are true.
Based in Chicago, Adam Jefferys has been writing since 2007. He teaches college writing and literature, and has tutored students in ESL. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, and is currently completing a PhD in English Studies.