It’s not the size that matters…

It’s whether you start your post with a semi-appropriate joke.

Actually, what I did just there is what you’ll be doing this month: wrote a couplet. Although we usually think of couplets as building blocks for longer poems, they can be complete on their own. Take, for example, Walt Whitman’s “To You:”

Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you.

A good couplet acts almost like a microstory. See how Whitman set up a scene and an interaction all in the space of two lines? For this month’s slam you’ll be trying to do the same thing. Other than that, there are no real rules (but I’ll give you some prompts and ideas at the end of this post). So let’s jump in and see what a couplet should do, but also take a look at some do-nots.

Do:

Set a scene. You don’t have to describe everything, though. Using complex words with coded meanings will help you. Think about where you’re sitting or standing right now. What can you feel? Hear? Which of these things gives you the most complete clues about your environment?

Think about characters. Is your poem about you? About someone else? How specific or ambiguous do you want to be?

Pick a meter or rhyme scheme, even if it’s “none.” While you’re doing that, consider what mood your meter or rhyme scheme sets. A bunch of anapests in a row reads as “playful” while strict iambic meters are more formal. rhyming couplets with both lines the same length are often less “serious” than mismatched lines that don’t rhyme. Make deliberate choices.

It’s ok to choose a style before you choose a subject! If you really like rhyming couplets with short lines, write one of those. Just be aware that the style is more playful, so pick a more playful subject.

Leave your reader wanting more. Leave some of your story outside the lines. You won’t have room for everything, so hint at as much as you can but don’t be afraid to leave a question at the end.

Don’t:

Don’t try to get around the two-line rule by writing one really really long line, or even two. If you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in terms of subject or scene, change that rather than trying to kludge together a couplet that’s really a paragraph.

Don’t make one line in strict meter and the other… kind of. Unless you’re doing it for deliberate emphasis, but be aware that breaking a meter scheme in a poem this short is more likely to read as a mistake than a calculated choice.

Don’t try to describe everything. You don’t have room, and you’re more likely to bore your reader. Yes, even in just two lines. A good couplet should read quickly and leave the reader re-reading and finding more hidden meanings. If you’re too explicit, all you’ve done is write a short answer to a grade-school textbook question.

Don’t be super vague. Try running your poem past someone you haven’t explained it to. If they can’t guess what it’s about, you’re being too coy. Don’t do that. Use layered meanings, not hidden ones. (I’m sorry. I really can’t make it any clearer than that.) Allusions to commonly known stories or social customs can help you out here.

Don’t overthink it.

This is only two lines. Why is it so hard?

Often, shorter-form poems or stories are harder to get “right” than longer ones. You don’t have the space to overexplain yourself, and every word has to be the right word in the right place at the right time. With all that on your mind it can be hard to come up with an idea, so here are some prompts to help you out.

Grab one idea from at least two of the three lists below. If you want to up the challenge level, roll a die for each list and take the prompt for the number you land on. Or roll three dice and pick which one goes to which list.

Meter will give you the structure of your poem, from counting to marking out stressed vs. unstressed syllables. Subject is what your poem is about, the heart of the matter. And content is something that must be in your poem, but not the focus or subject.

Good luck, and happy writing!

METER

  1. iambic, any number of feet per line
  2. no meter
  3. iambic pentameter (5 iambs per line exactly)
  4. anapestic meter, any number of feet per line
  5. Twice as many syllables in line 1 as line 2
  6. iambic tetrameter

SUBJECT

  1. A season
  2. A temperature
  3. Loss
  4. Climbing
  5. Celebration
  6. Something that can be held

CONTENT

  1. The word “limb”
  2. A shiny object
  3. A child (you or someone else)
  4. Light
  5. The word “border”
  6. An animal