I’ve devised a little exercise called “poem du jour” for when I want to get riffing on the page, laying ideas and images and rhythms down. It’s a good calisthenic for those cold and rusty mornings. Sometimes it results in a poem I want to keep, other times there’s only a good little bit in it, and sometimes it’s a throwaway. But the nice thing about this exercise is that it gets the mind focused on poetry quickly. Here are the guidelines:
Find a poem that’s going to provide your template, the poem du jour. Page through a favorite book, or a new book you’re reading, or scroll through a website like Verse Daily. It should be a poem you admire.
From this poem, you’re going to extract your “rules” for writing your own poem. Give your template poem a good read and from this devise several rules regarding form that will give a framework for your poem. Some examples might be a specific number of lines, line length, stanza length, and the use or non-use of punctuation. Another way to think about the form the model poem takes is its mode of expression — is it addressed to someone else or a musing to the self? Is it a rant or an apology, a regret or a litany? Your poem could take a cue from this, too.
You can stop there or go further and use the content as a guide for your own poem too, especially if you are feeling low on ideas and the pump needs priming. What is the main emotion of the poem, how does it leave you feeling? Your poem can try to evoke that emotion in its own way. What complicates the poem? — hopefully something, because anything that’s a poem is pushing against something. Get an inkling of what your model poem is up against, what’s needling it, and you might try getting up against that or being needled by that, too. Or push against something else entirely, but use a strategy similar to the model poem’s.
It shouldn’t take much more than a few minutes to devise a set of rules based on your chosen poem du jour. When I use this exercise, I usually set 3 rules or so for writing — nothing too complicated. Go ahead and write. Don’t worry that your new poem will be derivative — ultimately, your voice will come through. And don’t forget that as you go back and revise, you can throw out any or all the rules that got you writing. If they got you writing, their job is done.
A poet must develop fluency in poetry through constant reading and practice. A poet must also maintain that fluency. As with any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Is poetry really a language unto itself? All I can say is that poetry is a different way of communicating than prose and everyday speech. For example, compression and ellipsis, figurative language, sound patterning, and non-linear movement of time are poetic devices that can distract in prose. And as a language undoubtedly influences the mindset of the speaker, so it is with poetry, which is as much a way of seeing the world as it is a way of talking about it.
Once gained, to maintain poetic fluency is ongoing work. One is neither born with it nor struck with it in lightning-bolt moments of inspiration. Knowing this, I try not to let too many days go by without making at least one poetic decision. Writing a poem is really a series of poetic decisions. But when I am not actively working on a poem, this can be as simple as writing one line or a single image. It can be copying out by hand in my notebook a poem I like written by someone else, and pondering the poetic decisions that poet made. It can be deep readings of poems, during which I ask questions: Where is the high point, the crisis, of the poem? Can I capture it and examine it like a firefly in a jar? How is the poem’s energy generated? Is there action and contrast? Does this poem move me? If I am unmoved, why? Can this poem or something in it become the jumping off point for another?
Image: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th c.
When writing an ekphrastic poem, it’s never enough to simply describe a scene; one must inhabit it. And to inhabit a scene is to be there as a living being who is a creature in and of time, not removed from time, not observing from the cool distance of timelessness.
It’s true, however, that a picture is time stopped, a moment removed from all the other moments flowing before and, especially, after it. The way scientists remove a core sample from the earth in order to run tests in the lab, the painter or photographer has taken a core sample of time, the better to meditate on a particular moment. In so doing, one hope is that from the particular we may experience some larger truth.
An engaged viewer returns a picture to time’s animation. The poet who uses a work of art as a starting point is doing just this. And what it means is the picture is allowed to live, allowed all the gifts of time: action and transformation chief among them. Shadows lengthen. Icarus disappears into the sea without a trace, and the water’s surface is seamless again. The girl making lace feels a sudden rush of rebellion in her fingers.
A strategy I’ve found helpful when working with a recalcitrant poem at any stage is to overwrite/underwrite. The idea is this: take the problem poem and pump up the volume—write in all the little details you left out because you didn’t think they were relevant, add plenty of descriptors, add the action that gets us from point A to point B that your better angels whispered to leave out, get more associations and images in there, go all out. Elaborate. Complicate. Give the poem a hefty dose of growth hormone. You can either take the frame of the existing poem and add to it, or start from scratch and just take the original idea and go baroque.
When you’re as done as you’re going to be, step back and take a look. It’ll seem unwieldy at first, but try to find the hotspots, the power points, the places of essential energy. Then—surprise—reduce the whole thing to a gesture drawing. Try to capture in as few strokes as possible the thing you need to say. Compress until your poem releases the essential oil contained in its petals.
In this process of elaborate and compress, best carried out over several sessions, you’ll learn something important about the poem you were trying to write. Now use that new knowledge, that new feeling, to write the poem as it was meant to be, neither overdone nor underdone, but this time, just right.