The Blog of John Hewitt

Write an Elegy – 31p31d

Day 8 of 31 Poems in 31 Days

Because of the sores in his mouth,   
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.   
His work has enlarged the world   
but the world is about to stop including him.   
He is the tower the world runs out of.  
– From Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano

Writing an Elegy

Poetry has, from its beginning days onward, been a tool of remembrance. From Homer’s Iliad through Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to Pinsky’s 9/11, poetry has been used to remember people and events, both heroic and tragic. Poems of this type are called elegies.

Taken at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery  on Memorial Day 2014

Taken at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Memorial Day 2014

As a form, the elegy is very flexible. The term elegy should not be confused with the similar term, eulogy, which is a speech given at a funeral. An elegy is a poem of mourning and reflection. The original elegies were written in elegiac meter. Elegiac meter consists of couplets composed of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. That traditional meter (we will discuss meter in greater depth soon) is no longer required for a poem to be an elegy. All that is required is that it remembers a person’s death or other tragic event such as a battle or a natural disaster.

Poems of this type tend to carry a lot of emotion. The feelings one has about a significant event, especially a tragic one, can be complex and even contradictory. You might mourn a friend or relative but still be angered by the choices they made. You might admire the heroism of battle but recognize its flaws. Poetry is one way to work through those emotions.

When approaching material of this sort, it can be emotionally draining but also cathartic. Many people carry around these emotions and thoughts without ever being able to express them or consciously deal with them. As a poet, you can at least put your thoughts on paper, which allows you to process those thoughts and come to some sort of emotional closure.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write an elegy about a person or event that is meaningful to you. You don’t necessarily have to approach the most tragic event in your life. Don’t try to take on an event that is still too difficult for you to deal with. Look for something that you can handle.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Dean Young is a poet whose influence seems to increase with each new work. His poetry tends toward the surreal, but is always insightful and often genuinely funny. His poem Elegy on a Toy Piano is written for fellow poet Kenneth Koch, one of the Twentieth Century’s true greats.

Poems on the web

Books by Dean Young

Write a list poem that uses a single line for each item on the list – 31p31d

Day 7 of 31 Poems in 31 Days.

About Forms

When I decided to write this series, I gave some thought to just how much time I wanted to spend writing about poetry forms. Forms are an interesting exercise for poets. Forms such as sonnet, villanelle, sestina, and ghazal are challenging and can really help beginning poet develop skills such as learning to work with meter, rhythm, rhyme and word choice. The downside is that forms rarely produce great poems, and the more constraints a form puts onto the poet, the less the poet gets to focus on themes and ideas and the more they have to focus on following rules.

I think there is a lot of benefit to be had from learning to work within forms, but I think that they can frustrate people needlessly. Also, if the market for poetry as a whole is tiny, than the market for poetry in forms is microscopic. There just aren’t very many people who are interested in reading them.

The primary goal of this project is to write 31 poems in 31 days. The secondary goal is to produce thirty-one poems that you would feel comfortable putting into a book. While it is possible to write a good villanelle, the odds are stacked against you. So, while I will be getting to such squirrely topics as line, meter and stanzas, I am not going to push a lot of difficult forms on people.

The List Poem

Grocery listThat said, here is a form for you to try. It is actually a relatively easy and fun form that starts us down the path of thinking about the use of the line in poetry. A list poem is exactly what it sounds like. It is poem that takes the form of a list. Every line of the poem (or alternately every stanza) should be a different item on the list. The poem can be about anything that can be listed. Here, in unpoetic form, is a list of lists:

A grocery list
A list of rules
A list of childhood games
A list of reasons you hate mornings
A list of foods you love or hate
A list of everyone who has ever made you angry
A list of everyone you love
A to do list
A list of goals
A list of failures
A list of names for your baby
A list of insults
A list of the best body parts
A list of places you would like to go
A list of features you look for in a new house
A list of the cars you have owned
A list of things that scare you
A list of things you want to do before you get too old
A list of reasons you love your spouse
A list of the things attached to your refrigerator
A list of books you’d read again

The list can go on and on.

The difference between an ordinary list (like the one above) and a list poem is a poem needs themes and structure. It should evoke a feeling from the reader. Each item of the list should have a relationship to or a contrast with the items around it. Each item on the list should be written in the same general style, setting up a rhythm that propels the poem forward. There should be a beginning, a middle and an end so that the reader feels there has been a progression towards a point or a goal.

Today’s Assignment

Write a list poem that uses a single line for each item on the list. Feel free to choose one of the topics above, or use anything else that comes to mind. As always, post the poem in the comments section or in our Facebook group if you would like to share it.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Tony Hoagland is one of my favorite poets. He can be playful, but he can also be bitter and sarcastic at times, which is a selling point for me but might turn some people off. More importantly, he can turn a phrase on a dime. One line plays off the next with beauty and precision. You never know where he is heading until he is finished.

You can read a few of his poems in the web:

Grammar
Jet
Lucky

Here are his books:

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty: Poems 2010
Little Oceans 2009
Hard Rain 2005
What Narcissism Means to Me 2003
Donkey Gospel 1998
Sweet Ruin 1993

Meditate and then write a poem

Poetic Voice

As you can see from the previous topics, there are many poetic styles to choose from. We have already covered poetry of place, personal poetry, issues oriented poetry and persona poetry. These are all unique approaches to poetry. They have nothing to do with meter, diction, rhythm or form. Once you combine all of those poetic concepts, you can see that there are many diverse approaches to the writing of poetry. Some people write well using very specific styles while others jump from style to style easily.

Poetic voice is something that exists outside of all of these concepts. Poetic voice is, quite literally and broadly the way that you write. It is your choice of words, the order of your words, the length of your sentences, the length of your poems, your use of description, your choice of subjects, your attitude and everything else that goes into the writing of a poem. While any of these aspects of your writing can change from one poem to the next, general patters will emerge over time. It is sort of like the difference between climate and weather. Weather can change daily or even hourly, but the climate rarely changes. It is the guiding force behind the weather.

Developing your poetic voice is a process that continues as long as you write poetry, but in general your voice will become more specific and pronounced over time. When people first start to write poetry, they tend to mimic the poets (or even musicians) they have heard in the past. They have an idea of what poetry should sound like, and they try to force their natural voice into the styles they imagine. As writers grow more comfortable with their writing, their own unique voice comes to the forefront. This doesn’t mean that they put all of their past influences aside, it merely means that those influences serve less as a conscious guide and more as a subconscious inspiration.

It is only natural, even for an experienced poet, to adapt aspects of a new poet or style that they find interesting or inspiring, just as they may react against a style or poet that they find distasteful. As a poet grows more confident in their voice, those influences will have less and less impact.

So, how do you develop your poetic voice? You write. You write and write and write. You also read other poets, not to copy their style but to learn from them. As you continue to write and to read, you will keep the influences you like and discard the ones you don’t, all as a natural part of your development. You will also find that your voice will begin to win out.

Other things to remember:

  • Listen to the way you speak.
  • Don’t try to write in a style that is dramatically different from the way you speak.
  • Don’t use words in your poetry that you wouldn’t use in conversation.
  • Incorporate influences from other media such as television, movies, news, talk radio, fiction, non-fiction, music and the people around you.
  • The greater the number of influences you have, the less dominant any one influence will be.
  • Accept that you don’t have to sound like other writers to be successful. Your own voice and experience will be better than anything you try to simulate.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Take at least five minutes to meditate in a quite room free of outside influences before you write today’s poem. Try to clear your head of stray thoughts. Once you feel like you are clear and calm, write your poem. Let the topic be about whatever comes to mind after your meditation. If you have never meditated before, simply sit in a chair with your eyes closed and try to relax.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Leslie Adrienne Miller deftly combines three of the writing styles we have been discussing. She writes poems from a deeply personal place, but uses that to address wider issues, and she incorporates her travels into her writing, giving her poems a distinct sense of place. She also incorporates today’s concept, the persona poem, as she stretches to capture other women’s lives (and deaths). I highly recommend The Resurrection Trade. It is one of the most accomplished books of poetry I have read in recent years.

Books by Leslie Adrienne Miller

The Resurrection Trade 2007

Eat Quite Everything You See 2002

Ungodliness 1994

Write a Persona Poem – 31p31d

Day 5 of 31 poems in 31 days.

A New Perspective

The Toad chases Thumbelina through the Valley of the Moon.

Toad chases Thumbelina through the Valley of the Moon.

As we continue to explore different approaches to poetry, today we are going to look at the persona poem. Persona poems are poems written from a perspective other than your own. You use your imagination to enter the world of another character. You can write a persona poem from the perspective of a friend, an enemy, a relative, a pet, a celebrity, a historical figure, a character from literature or you can make up a character of your own.

The basis or a persona poem is a change in point-of-view. You aren’t just writing about another character, you are writing as if you were that other character. You try to think like that character. You imagine that character’s thoughts, actions, skills and limitations. You try to capture the world in which that character lives and you portray it as if you were that character.

This is a style of poetry that is heavily influenced by fiction. You leave behind your point of view and take on another. You try to bring a character to life and make that character interesting to your readers. It can be challenging, but also freeing. You are given the chance to change your style, tone and perspective, at least for the length of one poem.

Adding a fictional layer to your poetry allows you to address issues you can’t comfortably express as yourself. Persona poems can be an excellent method for dealing with personal issues that are too close for you to write about from your own perspective. Persona poems also can be a great way to explore your feelings about an social or personal issue by looking at it from the other side. What would the person on the other side of the issue say to you?

Poetry Assignment

Write a persona poem that incorporates one of the past two concepts. It should either address a social issue or it should provide a strong sense of place. One great way to do the latter is to write a poem in a public place, and to observe the people around you until you find someone interesting that you can imagine a back-story for.

Write in a new place – 31p31d

This is day 4 of 31 poems in 31 days.

Poetry of Place

Bowling for Poets

Bowling for Poets

Now that we have moved from personal poems into poems about the world around us, it is time to explore poetry of place. Poets have memorialized places in verse for about as long as there have been poems. In a place poem, the poet attempts to capture the spirit of a particular place, and perhaps use that place to reflect upon either the events in their life or the events that have taken place at that location.

Things to remember when writing a poem about a place:

  • The more vividly and distinctly you describe the place you are writing about, the easier it will be to draw your reader into any other themes that you have in mind.
  • Themes that arise out of the description will be the most likely to take root. Look for details that blend well with your thoughts.
  • The more meaningful a place is to you, the more likely it is that you will write about it with passion.
  • Sometimes it is more interesting to look for a location you don’t know so well and imagine a history for it.
  • You are a poet, not a reporter. Don’t feel as if can’t change details. Just be aware that if someone with knowledge of the place reads it and catches the differences, it might annoy them. Barbara Kingsolver writes books that are set in my hometown of Tucson, but she often makes up details. This can sometimes take me out of her stories.
  • When you can, it is a good idea to actually be at the location you are writing about when you write about it. Plenty of poems have been written after the fact, however. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey was written five years later, and it may be the most famous place poem in all of literature.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Get out of the house and write in a new place. Write about the place you choose to go to. Don’t just rely on what you see. Describe the smells, the tastes and the sounds if you can. Try to give your readers a full picture of the place you choose.