Poetry Writing Exercises Help (page 3)
Extending Metaphor: After Pablo Neruda
In "The Queen," the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda addresses his beloved saying "there are lovelier," "there are taller," and "there are purer" than she, but he says, no one else sees her crown and the carpet of gold at her feet when she walks by. When he sees her, the world is filled with hymns and bells. He ends his poem with three short lines: "Only you and I,/only you and I, my love,/ Listen to me."
Print a copy of Neruda's "The Queen" and think about the way the poet uses and extends his queen metaphor to describe his beloved and his love for her. Try this: Put the real name of your love or of someone you are close to in the center of a blank piece of paper. Think of metaphors for this person, things you might rename your love (newsstand, national park, spatula). Put those names around the person's name on the page. Think of more (pyrotechnical, beekeeper, baker, pole-vaulter). Come up with all kinds of terms: vacation, magician, maître d', silk scarf, Cracker Jacks, artist's palette, ocean crossing, take off, car chase, gardener.
Choose one metaphor that engages your attention and jot down the functions and actions of the thing or role you have selected: A gardener, for instance, tends plants, knows exactly what their soil requirements are, appreciates their colors and textures, among other things. Continue with this exercise using Neruda's strategy as a template: List as many things as you can that no one else notices that confirm your belief that your love is what you call him or her. Extend the metaphor you are making by branching into more images.
If I call my love a gardener, I may talk about how no one else sees his eyes taking in the blue of Himalayan poppies or the way he stakes the tallest stalks so they do not bend from the weight of the day's growth. After you have written the first part as far as you can take it, begin an ending stanza with the word "and" and follow it with the sensations that happen inside you when you are near your love or thinking about your love. Remember, what happens inside you is a consequence of what you've called your love. Neruda chose to name his love the queen because she set off bells in him, as the bells of churches would be set off when a queen visited. If my love is named a gardener, perhaps inside me a night-blooming lily opens. But I can't stop at one event that goes on inside of me. I must tell my love more about what nobody sees going on inside me when he is near. I must keep my thoughts in character with the name I've given my love: Not only does the night lily open inside me when I am in the presence of my love, but moonshine lights my way home, and I think of the way time prunes the weakest branches, allowing nutrients to foster thicker, stronger growth. When I awake near my love, all the cells in my body go tropic. I move from the dark to the light.
After you have described what happens inside you, end your poem with something you can share with your love. Neruda asks his love to listen with him. What do you want to tell your love to share with you? If I have chosen to call my love a gardener, perhaps I want to implore him to go out with me in noonday sun and see the top tips of manzanita leaves pointing directly to the sun, protecting the rest of the leaves' surfaces from dangerous heat: "We know how to protect the heart of love from all that attempts to bake it dry."
Put the words "After Neruda" under your title to show the debt you owe this brilliant poet. Invoking his name and thinking as he did will open you up to writing about love and its effects on you.
Start with Prose to Find the Poem—A Lesson in Compression
Here's an example of how to start with prose and then pluck poetry out of it. Kathy Lockwood wanted to write poems but was caught up in selling her house and moving. She wrote to me:
When we bought the house I was looking for more space for a growing family. The house provided this with its ample 2,080 square feet and four large bedrooms. Everyone had their own room and we still had a family room, living room and an office. The kitchen was small, a galley style but had freshly painted white cabinets with cute rose porcelain knobs. The counter top was a country rose colored Formica with oak trim. I thought the house was beautiful.
We moved into the home in February when snow was still building in the back yard. We weren't sure what we would find come spring under the white blanket that fit tight against the chain link fence. The yard looked so perfect in white with two sheds painted in country red to match the house's exterior. The yard had several birch trees with heavy limbs weighted down by the snow. It was like our own winter wonderland where I would often go late at night to pause from a long day, breathing in the joys of nature and homeownership.
When our first spring brought us yellow daffodils and lots of green surrounding the house we were so excited to work or play in the yard. The kids quickly filled the yard with friends, building friendships that are still strong fifteen years later. I planted more flowerbeds adding delphinium and bleeding hearts.
The seasons flowed into each other quickly those first few years, and the kids grew even faster. Our family room was filled each weekend night with the neighborhood kids, pizzas and movies. My early morning coffee was spent out on the deck listening to birds sing as the sun woke up or in the winter I sat at the bay window watching the neighborhood begin its day.
Over the years changes were made to accommodate the needs of the family. We added a larger second deck out back and as the kids became teens and were more interested in driving lessons or hanging out at the mall, I became more interested in gardening. I added whisky barrels full of annuals and made four more flowerbeds in the back yard. I felt like the yard was more my sanctuary than their playground. The deck was where I could be found most days and late into the night. I have even shoveled snow off the deck for me to sit outside wrapped in my coat and armed with a blanket and a good book.
We have given the house a well-deserved new look. After years of wear and tear on the carpets they have been replaced with laminate flooring in colors called Jefferson Oak and Sonoma Cherry. The walls have been painted a rejuvenating green with white colonial baseboards. The kitchen was remodeled, adding the double French doors that open onto the side deck. The new cabinets are oak and the counter top is a dark stone like Formica in a color called River Gemstone. My sink is an under countertop design, adding to the Tuscany style and feel. I love the kitchen for its colors, inviting atmosphere and its functionality. It is a smaller space in the house but the space is used very wisely.
Going through the house room to room cleaning out years of living has been like reading a book from chapter to chapter, you can see a story unfolding before your eyes. Lives have been lived in this house, children have grown up and moved on leaving behind devoted parents that are now called empty nesters.
As I cleaned out closets, I found toys like my son's old remote control car that he and his dad played with in the street out front. My husband was ever so patient teaching him how to work the controls and retrieving the car from underneath trees and shrubs in the neighbor's yard. Now my son drives his own truck and plays with a remote control car in front of his own house with his son.
I found a story my youngest daughter wrote in second grade about a bear and a moose becoming friends, she had named the bear after her brother and the moose after her uncle. Her words were written as they sounded to her and not always spelled correctly. I broke down and cried at how beautiful her innocence was and now she is all grown up spelling her words correctly.
I found an essay my oldest daughter wrote in seventh grade on the importance of a good work ethic. I also found a poem she wrote for me for mother's day that year. It spoke about the importance of a mother's job and the last line is " a mother's heart will let you in and show you the way." I sat down and cried again as I realized how proud I am of both of us. She has grown up into an incredible woman, built a great career and a good marriage and now has a baby of her own on the way. I am very proud of me for being the parent I am, especially since I had her while I was still just a kid at seventeen.
I have tried to reduce our lives lived for fifteen years down to fit into fifteen Rubbermaid totes. It hasn't been easy but I have been aggressive and determined. I gave the kids their toys, baby books, shot records, some photos, and some house wares. I have kept photographs, a small amount of knitting, half my clothes, dishes for two and my writing materials. I could not part with all my books—it was torture to decide who stayed and who had to be donated. I felt like a coach saying to her players "you made the team, but you did not." Parting with books is like parting with a member of the family. I honestly was heart-broken; I paused in the car before taking the boxes of books in to donate them. I sat there saying goodbye to my "friends" and wishing them well. How did I get so obsessed with books?
I look forward to the new experiences we will have in a new house and location but wonder if they will ever be as rewarding and challenging as the experiences we have shared in this home raising a family. I am ready to pass on this house's beneficence to the next family.
For some reason on Friday night when we talked on the phone and you told me to write about the move, the house, the things going on right now, I got it. I knew right then that I had been keeping my writing outside my lived life and that was why I struggle so to balance the two. It is funny how a person can go for years trying to get deeper into something but can't see that they are impeding the process themselves. I now see how important it is to write the life and live the writing. The two should be one, like in a marriage. There is no room for pushing one aside so that the other can be focused on; they need to work together in order to be more fulfilling.
I have started at what was happening in my life at the time, all the craziness with empting out a house we have lived in for fifteen years, and the feelings of changes that are happening in my life. I have written a rambling essay that needs work but got my feelings and thoughts out. I hope to build poems from the essay.
I thought some poems had started right there. By going back in and using the compression of poetry on the sentences, I saw this poem's beginnings:
- What I Love About the House I Am Moving From
- Its ample 2080 square feet and four large bedrooms
- meant one for each of us and still a family room, living
- room, office. The kitchen was small, galley style, but the freshly
- painted white cabinets with rose porcelain knobs above the rose
- Formica with oak trim made up for that.
- The yard looked perfect with two sheds
- painted in country red to match the house's exterior and birches
- heavy with snow. We weren't sure what we would find
- under the white blanket tight against the chain link fence,
- but I would go at night to pause after a long day,
- and dream of delphinium and bleeding hearts.
If the name of the last flower, bleeding hearts, was changed to one with happier connotations, or the poet used the Latin name for the flower, the poem might end on that last line and carry the connotation of all that was lovely there.
And here's another poem I saw shaping up:
- Today I Try to Fit Our Lives of Fifteen Years into Fifteen Rubbermaid Totes
- I gave the kids their toys, baby books, shot records, some photos
- and some housewares. I kept other photos, a small amount of knitting,
- half my clothes, dishes only for two and all my writing materials.
- I donated my books, saying goodbye to them like friends wishing them well.
I like the list of what's to be parted with and how the poet accomplishes her task and that there were 15 years boiled down to fill 15 Rubbermaid totes. I wanted to hear more detail. Maybe there's a poem called "Fifteen Years and Fifteen Totes." The poem could have a stanza for each tote—what's inside, how it was decided to keep what's in it, and a memory attached to the objects. I believe the daughter's essay would find a home in this poem.
Make a list of places, people, and events you want to write about. Choose one and write paragraphs about it, allowing whatever enters your mind on the topic to be expressed. After at least a few hours, if not days, pick up what you wrote and look into it for the places where specifics—sounds, rhythm, and energy—reach you. Then try your hand at compression and see if there is a poem there.
Write Thanks for True Wealth
In 1914 and 1915, Carl Sandburg was writing poems against the emotional backdrop of World War I, in which men were dying at a higher rate and on a larger scale than in any previous war because of the new war technology of machine guns, tanks, and barbed wire. Here is part of one of the poems (www.americanpoems.com/poets/carlsandburg/12757):
- Our Prayer of Thanks
- For the gladness here where the sun is shining at evening on the weeds at the river,
- Our prayer of thanks.
- For the laughter of children who tumble barefooted and bareheaded in the summer grass,
- Our prayer of thanks.
- For the sunset and the stars, the women and the white arms that hold us,
- Our prayer of thanks.
I think Sandburg was thinking about the gentleness of a mother's arms over the brawn of a father's arms tanned from fieldwork when he wrote, "the women and the white arms that hold us." Today, we might praise a father holding his baby and we would think twice about the word "white," which excludes people of color. Still, we can learn from Sandburg's poem that we don't have to look too far for the material that helps us evoke our sense of life and extract wealth from our experience.
If you want to capture the mood of a day, a day when you received a meaningful gift or felt loved, saw the beauty in the world or amazed yourself with an insight or good deed, you can go about finding the depth of your experience by imagining yourself led in a spiritual meditation by Carl Sandburg. What are the sounds, conversations, sights, textures, smells, and tastes you experienced on the day you are capturing? What opportunities, no matter how small, have you had to learn something new? To think from a perspective that is a little different than the one from which you normally think?
After rereading Sandburg, I wrote:
- The Secrets and the Signals and the System
- —from "Our Prayer of Thanks" by Carl Sandburg
- The temperatures are only a little above freezing
- well past the first day of spring
- in our usually temperate climate.
- We pray for the roots of the newly planted
- blueberries to stay warm in our garden's dark earth,
- though we are thankful for last night's snow
- brightening mountaintops we see from our window.
- We pray that snowmelt will mean higher rivers for salmon
- in late summer when they spawn, after our berries show
- their juicy blue and we gorge on thoughts of more in years to come.
Take a turn writing in response to Sandburg's poem by saying what you give thanks for. Then, select a line that particularly resonates with you and use it as your title. You can do something similar with any poem you find that you enjoy reading. Pay attention to repeated phrases or themes and write what you have to say on the topic by using specifics from one of your life situations.
Wake Up Cooing
Poetry relies on sound. Sometimes we forget that and use our academic language skills in a way that squelches the magic of one sound leading to another. The excitement and emotion of our insight vanishes under the heavy-handed exposition we have so much experience writing for school and at work.
Imagine yourself cooing and shrieking like a happy infant, delighting yourself with your voice and the sounds you can make when you aren't trying for words. Write down a string of such sounds. Next, do a free write where you start with these sounds and free associate to images and memories:
- Na-Na-Na-Na, Mum, Mum, Mum
- Delicious morning. Sunlight streaming through the windows,
- yellow stripes on the carpet. I drive to Shilshoe Bay, watch
- cormorants on pilings spread their wings to dry,
- see a great blue heron cast its shadow over blue water
- then dive for a fish. In the silver glimmer of the fish's belly
- I catch my own life, so startled and slippery.
Give this kind of freewrite a try. By using different sounds on different mornings, you can create a variety of meditations.
Sometimes, at the start of a new season, you notice what is happening in nature and human life with exquisite delight. In spring, so much is beginning. In fall, we notice the trunks of trees more in view, gardens trimmed for winter, and flowerbeds dug under, perhaps mulched with straw.
One spring, I was visiting my parents' home. I lived then in Los Angeles. Walking their dog in a Seattle area neighborhood made me remember what I missed about the climate I'd moved from. What had been bare for several months now showed tender green, colorful pinks, yellows, and purples. The sight of buds and shoots filled me with a sense of the miraculous bounty in the world and created an awe of life's resiliency and quality of renewal. I wrote:
- In Early March
- I walk along Island Crest Way
- and see clusters of daffodils,
- scandalous pleasure of a parade
- on the meridian. The joggers are out
- in shorts after winter rains, their dogs
- beside them, tongues long like stamens.
- Scandalous pleasures of March:
- the daffodils' height after February's
- low beauty of crocus. No need
- for coats, okay with thin stockings,
- all the puddles shrunk to button-size.
Decide on a euphoric emotion or one of contentment. Give it a name: bliss, joy, satisfaction, completion, for instance. Now it will be your writing assignment to describe a specific place using details that will evoke the emotion you have chosen. In your writing, sprinkle in the word or phrase you are using to identify your emotion, as I did when I repeated "scandalous pleasure."
Whatever you are describing, use details, repeat the word or phrase you selected; insert it whenever you need help continuing. You can take out too much repetition later.
Create a Prose Poem
Let's look at two prose poems. Peggy Shumaker ends her prose poem "Moving Water, Tucson," about a boy riding a flooded arroyo on a piece of plywood, like this:
That kid on plywood, that kid waiting for the flood. He stood and the water lifted him. He stood, his eyes not seeing us. For a moment, we all wanted to be him, to be part of something so wet, so fast, so powerful, so much bigger than ourselves. That kid rode the flash flood inside us, the flash flood outside us. Artist unglued on a scrap of glued wood. For a few drenched seconds, he rode. The water took him, faster than you can believe. He kept his head up. Water you couldn't see through, water half dirt, water whirling hard. Heavy rain weighed down our clothes. We stepped closer to the crumbling shore, saw him downstream smash against the footbridge at the end of the block. Water held him there, rushing on.
Study Shumaker's work for its repetition and lists of images that enhance the lyric sound and movement of her prose poem. Notice the longer sentence at the end that brings the event she is describing to an end.
Under the influence of Charles Baudelaire's work, especially his poem "At One O'Clock in the Morning" (www.poemhunter.com/poem/at-one-o-clockin-the-morning/), I wrote about being fed up with not being able to say no:
With the rhythm and sounds of these two poems in your ears, take a stab at writing a prose poem of your own.
Think of a dramatic event you've experienced or watched. Start a paragraph about it with "that," for instance: that day, that father, that dog in the road, that time I. Or start with an exclamation like "Tantruming at last!" as I did modeling my words after Baudelaire's opening line, "Alone, at last!" in "At One O'Clock in the Morning."
As you write, use repetition as Shumaker does ("he stood" and all the repetitions of "so") and as I do ("yes and yes and yes" and "hug me, hug me, hug me"), and lists of images as we both do to enhance the lyric sound and movement of your prose poem. You might want to see what happens if you keep many of your sentences on the short side until a last sentence as Shumaker does—the longer ending sentence sings the event you are describing to an end.
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