Saturday, May 26, 2012

Prompt #102 – What's YOUR Story?

This week our prompt deals with narrative poetry (poetry that tells a story). The goal is to write a poem in which you tell the story behind a special memory. Sounds easy, right? NOT!!! For this poem, I’d like you to stay very focused on not simply telling a story but, rather (and here’s the challenge), on what the story means.

A lot of people who write poetry work from a prose impulse and a prose logic that they arrange in lines and stanzas. This is especially prevalent in “memory” and memoir poems. It’s way too easy to tell a story in a format that looks like a poem. Often, we see memoir and confessional “writings” that tell something of someone’s story, include a couple of good images, throw in few similes or metaphors, come up with a clever ending, appear in lines and stanzas, and masquerade as poems.  Sure, that kind of writing may generate applause from readers or listeners who have had similar experiences (especially in open readings where there isn’t enough time to “know” the poem well), but it’s not truly poetry because it never reaches beyond the poet’s impulse to “tell.” The poem has to be more than the story – it has to be about what happened because of the story; thus, the story becomes subordinate to its telling.

Beware of writing/telling too much in your poem. Remember that a poem should contain an element of mystery or surprise – first to the poet and then to the reader or listener. A lot of the poems being read and published today are so cluttered with superfluous detail (and way too many adjectives) that the poems become claustrophobic experiences (I call it TMW – too many words). A poet, beyond competence, has to trust readers to fill in some of the blanks.

Some people who write poetry become so occupied with telling their stories that they (the writers) are indelibly superimposed over their poems. There is definitely a finding and loss of the self in poetry writing – that sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. The poet enters the poem to learn something; once written, the poet necessarily exits. The poem shouldn’t carry the poet along with it – all that bulk and bone will cast shadows.

Be careful about abstractions, generalizations, and sentimentality. There is a big difference between image and abstraction. The best lesson a poet can learn is to write little – to go to the minute on the way to the large, and that means avoiding abstractions and generalizations. A good poem does take risks – artistic and emotional – but never through concepts and notions or simplifications. Every poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment. A poem should be about poetic sentiment without schmaltziness. Subtlety is good, overstatement and the obvious must be avoided. Think of your poem in terms of what your personal story means in the larger, more universal perception of human experience.

Poems to Read Before Writing:

Note: What's the story behind the story in Cat Doty's poem? How does this poem touch you? Why? How does Cat draw you in emotionally? Notice the subtlety and nuance in this poem, and the way Cat skillfully uses imagery and action to convey deep meaning. How does this poem take you back to your own childhood?

Note: What is Stafford really “telling” readers in this poem? The sense of what was and how good it was, and how we sometimes only recognize that much later?

Note: Gerald Stern has said, “It’s the poet’s job to remember.” In this poem he remembers what it was like in Pittsburg, 1945. This poem is very specific to Stern’s experience (as memory poems should be). How does it speak to you? What, specifically, strikes a chord when you read this poem? What is Stern telling us?

"Linguini" by Diane Lockward
Note: In this poem Diane Lockward skillfully uses food and a deliberate lightness to draw the reader into the "story." The reader can almost feel the wild abandon of the "linguini moments" Diane writes about. Note that this poem isn't about a single moment; rather, Diane incorporates related "threads" (or should I say "strings of linguini?") to provide insights into a relationship.

Now ... what’s your story? Write a poem about a special memory – tell your memory's story!


  1. Here is a poem I wrote from a recent memory that unexpectedly moved me. I'm going to work more on this idea of memory poetry. I like the way you describe the prompt and the pitfalls. Any suggestions for improvement on the following are always appreciated.

    1. Thanks so much, Annette and welcome back! Thanks, too, for sharing your poem. I really like the memory!

  2. This is fantastic! Something that a lot of writers should read. How many times have I attended an open reading and then sat through what felt like hours of long, rambling poems that were more like prose than poetry. I'm definitely going to share this with my students when the college starts it's autumn semester. Thanks, Adele!


    1. Thanks, Jamie!

      I'm so glad you like this and that you plan to share it with your students. I hope they find it helpful.

  3. Ciao, Adele
    I have the story but it is in Italian, alas!
    Just few verse in English:

    "nearby, /just outside the ghetto /in a clearing between the low houses /a woman lives /that each day taught me to not love you /she suffered much for love /she knows the mysterious keys, to exit /from the labyrinth / where I was locked up by you..."

    I thought to be out of this / maze. I thought to be out of this/
    That I am now writing. You look/ at me. You smile. "You get closer ,we should not..." We know/ what to expect , a fine rain , we are in hurrying, La Regola..
    It's raining hardly, the wind has/ ceased,The storm/ is far away...You cry, you smile/you cry.We /walk embraced under the tall plane trees / on the riverside.


    "La Regola" is a quarter, very old, of Rome, close to the "Isola Tiberina", the "Ghetto", "Campo de' Fiori"

    1. Jago! This has such a wonderful mystical/mysterious quality! It's also very visual. I'd love to see the Italian version for the musical sound of the language.

      Would "fine rain" be "acquerugiola" in Italian?

      Thank you so much for posting this!

  4. Thanks, Adele.
    You are incredible! ( or I am really a good writer): you have the capacity to understand the focal point of a text, in this case "the mystical/mysterious quality", in so few verse.
    "Acquerugiola" is literally correct, but my text in italian is " una pioggia fine", I mean something like delicate/small, may be thin?

  5. Thank you for your kind words, Jago! The world of translation is a new one for me, and I'm so grateful that you introduced me to it. "Thin rain" is a beautiful way to express the "fine rain" - does it add to the mystical quality?

  6. So many interesting things happening here! Another great prompt and much to enjoy in the various comments and poems posted by readers.

  7. (for Adele)

    Là vicino, appena fuori del Ghetto, in uno slargo tra le casette basse, vive la donna che mi insegna ogni giorno a non amarti , una donna che ha sofferto molto per amore e conosce le misteriose chiavi per uscire dal labirinto in cui mi avevi rinchiuso.

    Ho pensato di essere fuori da questo labirinto. ho pensato di essere fuori da questo che ora scrivo.
    Mi guardi. Sorridi." Ti avvicini,non dovremmo..."
    Sappiamo cosa aspettarci , una pioggia sottile( fine or thin rain?), abbiamo fretta, La Regola. Piove appena, il vento è cessato, la tempesta è lontana ...
    Tu piangi, mi sorridi, piangi.Camminiamo abbracciati sotto i platani alti. Sul lungofiume.

  8. Ah, Ales/Jago!

    Beautiful! I wish I had a command of the language! Even reading the words without knowing all the vocabulary, there is so much music and resonance. Thank you!

  9. I See Them

    There was a rabbit
    Loose in the grove.
    She taught me how to enter
    The silence of its fear
    So it would know
    My innocence.

    There was an old clock
    Whose tic and toc
    Was heard by those
    Who could only imagine me.
    She taught me how to travel
    Through the sound
    Into their hearts.

    In spring her orchard was full
    Of birds and butterflies.
    She pressed her warm fingers
    Over my eyes and said:
    See from where
    All pretty things come.

    Her old Siamese
    Loved his pie-pan milk
    Steaming on the back porch.
    One winter he was gone.
    I remembered how still he sat
    With folded paws
    And cloud-blue eyes.

    Looking into heaven
    He finally found his way,
    She whispered,
    Close your eyes
    And see him.

    I see them.

  10. Thanks for posting your poem, Russ! It's always great to hear from you!

  11. What's My Story?

    Where I came from?
    Where I'm going?
    I don't know
    today is great
    The sky is a soft eggshell blue
    grass dramatically chromed
    birds twee tweet tweeting
    Who cares about my small personal history?
    It's past.
    It's done.
    It's brought me to
    this beautiful place
    of inner peace and happiness
    a stillness and security
    in ever changing life

    1. Such a positive and uplifting poem, Risa! Interesting, too, the "smallness" of the personal "story" in the bigger picture. Thanks for sharing!

  12. This was such a good prompt that I wrote another... I tried to meet the goal of showing, not telling or explaining.

  13. Hi Annette! I'm delighted to hear that the prompt worked well for you not once but twice! Bouquets to you! Thanks so much for sharing it with us via the link you posted.

    Showing, not telling or explaining, is really key to effective poetry. I think it's natural for most of us to want to tell -- the craftsmanship comes into play when we avoid that.

  14. The darkness of night

    He listened her in silence /while a fine rain began to fall / She was so terrible and desiderable / a woman predicting storms / he called her once / and now the storm was comin' from the sea / carrying an hint / of seaweed / and bitter loneliness / the darkness of night on the / emptiness of their lives...

    1. Wonderful, Jago! Thanks for posting and sharing!