Poetry (by Marianne Moore)
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one dis-
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
As you write, you will discover your own priorities in poetry. Let what I say inform you as you develop your approach to writing a poem, but don’t let what I say be the “be-all-end-all”. I hope that in this course you will get to experience many new poets and get your hands dirty by writing poems—and that you’ll be able to walk away, forming your own perspective on how to create a poem.
So before we get started, we should probably discuss: what exactly is a poem? This isn’t a simple question to answer—as someone who writes both poetry and prose, I find myself often writing a poem that should be a story, or a story that should be a poem. With a cultural turn away from formal structure, it can be challenging to differentiate between the two forms objectively.
“Poetry is one of the three major genres of imaginative literature, which has its origins in music and oral performance and is characterized by controlled patterns of rhythm and syntax (often using meter and rhyme); compression and compactness and an allowance for ambiguity; a particularly concentrated emphasis on the sensual, especially visual and aural, qualities and effects of words and word order; and especially vivid, often figurative language.” (The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Literary Terms)
For the sake of this course, we’ll break down four components of a poem:
- Content: a poem is an act in response to some experience: whether that be a memory, an object, a sound, an abstract concept. Poetry is what we need when a mere description of the content is inadequate. It’s a reaction to an experience that seems to go “beyond words”.
- Realization: since a poem is an act of exploration, there is some sort of surprise or discovery made as a result. A poem should have an “aha” moment that surprises not only the reader, but the writer.
- Form: a poem need a form that either works together or juxtaposes the content. While not all poems are in meter or traditional “form”, they each take on a body and structure. A form not only helps us as writers “reign in” the content, but it also gives the poem a personality beyond the words themselves.
- Musicality: unlike prose, poems are sound-based creatures. The definition of poetry we see above has a focus on language and rhythm being the vehicles for expressing an “interpretation of the subject”. Through sound, we capture a unique property of an experience. Even more so, sound is what helps us remember a poem.
Someone I know argues that the biblical first act of human speech was poetry: Adam calling Eve “bone of my bone/flesh of my flesh.” This experience of woman’s creation was so spectacular to Adam that couldn’t respond with a simple narrative. There was something supernatural, seemingly inexpressible about his experience that made poetry the only adequate response.
Likewise for us as poets, we turn to the form of poetry when other forms have failed us. A poem should be a natural outpour from an inward experience. There is something about the form of poetry that invites complexity, and the inexpressible. But that means then that we have to have some idea or sensation that first compels us to write a poem.
Maybe because of my background in prose, I find myself most inspired to create poems when I have a gripping physical moment: this is often a memory, but can also be an object, a place, an image, a person I meet, or a sensation. It can’t be just any memory or place though—there has to be something about it that dissatisfies me when I try to explain it, something that seems inexpressible or that needs to be explored.
For example, I find myself mentally going to ruins for inspiration: their original state can’t be resurrected. They’re uninhabited, and in disrepair. So there’s something inadequate about the sight of an abandoned house. I want something as a poet: I want to describe the sensation in a ruined object, I want to resurrect a living place that no longer exists, and reach some inarticulatable feeling inside me that reacts when I see a ruin. So in short, I find that ruins inspire poems because they are something I need to in some way, shape or form explore.
If you look at Anne Carsen’s “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan”, you’ll see that the physical object of the cardigan is what launches Anne into writing a poem. She doesn’t merely describe what the cardigan looks like, but uses that object to delve into her father’s health, and her relationship with her father. The cardigan is a vehicle for Carsen to explore a relationship that can’t be explicitly explained.
Another example is Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”. If you ask me what I remember about this poem, it’s the image of the ears being poured on the table, “like dried peach halves”. That image does so much work—it is so much more powerful than an explanation from the colonel, or an abstract monologue from the speaker.
Ezra Pound is quoted for saying “the natural object is always the adequate symbol”. That is to say, an image can do more work for us than “poetic” language. Through the use of an image that exists in a shared reality, we can more effectively express abstractions and complicated ideas. That isn’t to say that we are limited to writing about the concrete world, or that we can’t be inspired by abstractions or sounds. But in whatever world we’re writing in, the writing is most powerful when it creates an image, something the reader can see and relate to. Perhaps why I have narrative tendencies, and find inspiration from my own experience, is that the images are much easier to take hold of. I can remember what I’ve seen if I’m writing from a memory. Whatever gives you inspiration, remember: a poem takes work and it needs to grab your attention. What will interest you, and keep you invested in a poem? What will keep your reader invested?
The object, the image—whatever is the catalyst for starting the poem—is not something that you as the poet need to feel compelled to stick alongside for the entireity of the poem per ce. You can see through this week’s reading samples that the poems never remain stagnant: they might have an image that binds the whole poem together, but they start in one place and travel. A poem should move. There should be exploration. There should be discoveries and newness.
These weekly packets are for your edification and inspiration. I’d love them to spark conversations and create inspiration for poems. Feel free to discuss your thoughts about the readings below, or in the forum.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words”. My professor always told me that you should be able to take a picture of a poem. One way I’ve found inspiration for my poems then is to work the other way around: start with the picture, and make the poem!
For this prompt, I’ve provided an assortment of vintage photos. You may use these, but you may also search “vintage photos” on pintrest or google. Even better, go to a local antique store and dig through the vintage photo bin. Wherever you search, search until you find a picture you’re drawn to, and write a poem. This poem can respond to the picture, describe the picture, take place inside the picture—whatever excites and interests you! Also include a one paragraph reflection on this experience—why were you drawn to the photo you chose? How did you approach responding to/using the picture in your poem?
Prompt 2 (Optional): Write a poem about a memory. Try to pick a memory from at least ten years ago. Why does this memory stick out to you? What haunts you about it? Try to remember about the scene of the memory: find a specific object in the memory and describe it—where does that object lead you?
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com.
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