Writing A Meaningful Poem
The most difficult thing about writing a poem is putting down the first word. Once you have the first word, you can riff off of it, finding things that relate tangentially to it in some way. So how do you get the first word? Sometimes it’s helpful to read a book before writing, and that will give me ideas when I think, “Why didn’t the writer write about this in this way?” In other words, in the way I would have written it.
Other times, to get my first word, I look around me. I often write in the morning. As a consequence, I have a lot of poems that originally began, “I have a cup of coffee on my desk….” But the beginnings get chopped off in the editing process. But that’s the easy part. That’s where the true creativity and polishing happen. We’re not talking about that now, though it is also a good topic.
What we’re talking about now is dredging up the raw material. The first draft. The first words of the first draft that set the tone and base of the first stanzas, and then the rest of the work. There is a theory I find useful, which poet Donald Hall outlines in his book on craft, “Breakfast Served Anytime, All Day,” and that is that all poems revolve around a room of silence. An empty room. There is something true that needs to go unsaid, in other words, and this unspoken thing—this unspeakability—is the empty room. The empty room has a deep truth to it. This truth need not even have words. It can be a feeling. A gravitational silence, a mood, a metaphysics that has yet to be discovered. When you write—when I write, too—I know it is really happening when I feel that center of silence, and my words turning around it. So how do you get that feeling while writing? It’s a question of picking up the vibration in the air, for me. A matter of being attuned to myself and the world. A sort of sixth sense. You want to tremble with ghosts, yours and History’s.
But once you have this magic silent center in place—which is difficult because it’s always shifting—you need stuff to write about, objects to place in your poem, concrete imagery (as they call it in creative writing programs). The problem with the silent room is that it is just that: silent, empty. But poems are made of words, sounds, breath. You need to have your crap, your mud, your coffee mug’s tactility in there. The kitchen sink’s gleam and ping as you throw silverware in might work well, too. You need stuff in your poem.
Getting “things” into your poems is easier than finding the magic center of the meaningful unspoken silence of the universe—and the good news is that it also helps to practice. Also, listening to music helps with the flow of thoughts, and words that make the thoughts, and you can always steal a word here and there from the random stream of lyrics being sung into your ear, if carefully chosen and woven into the fabric of your own work. It’s not plagiarism if it’s just a word—complete phrases need crediting. But the best source of finding concrete imagery for your own work is your own experience—your memories, your hopes, and simply looking at what’s around you.
I once had an exercise in an undergraduate workshop to write a poem using things in this room. That didn’t work out well for me except as practice, but it was good practice. There were cardboard boxes, perfume bottles, coffee mugs (again), chairs—and the trick was to get the emotion into them (on top of it all, this professor had banned the use of the word “heart,” “love,” and “soul,” saying we would automatically fail the course if we used any of them—they were overly used, so we should try to be original). I think my poem went something like this,
You are my cardboard box, my bubble pack
After midnight while the star’s light
Light years away still reaches the dirty window on Earth,
And illuminates the subtle ether of the things on my floor,
And then there you are, bubble pack
Left from unwrapping the coffee machine,
So delectable I want to pop every bubble of you.
The professor said, “Who is the ‘you’ in this poem? It is unclear.” She was right.
You want clarity in a poem. You want it to be unmistakable, what you mean.
All in all, writing poetry is difficult, but if you are writing it and you feel like you’re flying as you try to sense the music of the universe while also getting a good deal of tactile imagery in there, you’re off to a good start.
Jessica Harman is an author living in the Boston area. She has published poems in “Bellevue Literary Review,” “Spillway,” “Arion,” “Nimrod,” and “Stand.” Her full-length collection of poems, “Dream Catcher,” is forthcoming from Aldrich Press in April 2013.