It’s amazing how quickly an old photograph, a song from the past, the shape of a hand, or the curve of a smile can take us back to times and places that only exist in our memories. In our post-modern culture, the phrase “back in the day” has become a catch-phrase for “remember when,” and we all long for little bits of the past. We see it in the popularity of older collectibles and the ways in which objects from the past are valued. Each of us has experienced wistful memories of childhood, and the emotions that arise from our reflections on the past have an inherent meaning that’s unique to each of us.
Trivia: Did you know that the phrase “back in the day” has been noted as far back as in The Blood Remembers, a 1941 novel by Helen Hedricks (publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s wife): “I was back in the day when his father was buried, and the bright sun was killing the purple asters in Sam’s bent hands.”
The past is often a rich source for our poems, and I thought that this week we might spend some time in reflection about the past with a few pre-writing questions:
1. What is it about the past that’s so compelling?
2. How were things better in the past?
3. How were things worse?
4. What do you miss most about the past?
5. Is there something in the past that you dwell on?
6. Nostalgia derives from two Greek words: nostos meaning “homecoming,” and algos meaning “pain.” How does nostalgia figure into your feelings about the past?
7. In a culture of fast-paced and rapidly changing technologies, how can nostalgia help us feel more grounded and stable?
8. What’s one thing about the past that you’re glad has changed?
9. If you could bring back one thing from your past, what would it be?
10. Sometimes, we remember the past as better than it really was. How are some memories more about “the way we never were” than they are about “the way we were.”
Now, begin drafting a “back in the day” poem. Focus on one specific memory/event.
Be sure to avoid the pitfall of sentimentality.
A straight narrative poem may be a good place to start, but work toward making this poem one that will have universal meaning along with the personal.
How do the details of your specific memory touch or “have meaning” for readers?
What is it in your memory that might make the reader think, “Oh, that reminds me of ….”?
How does your memory connect you to a larger memory pool, i.e., experiences to which others can relate?
Is there anything you can think of from back in the day that’s back in style? Can you work that into a poem.
And here’s something to try: I read that poet Stanley Kunitz often directs his students to end a poem on an image without explaining it. Try for a “punchy” ending by concluding your poem with an evocative image that’s left unexplained.