Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summer Rerun – Memoir Poem

This week, I've gone all the way back to June 27, 2010 and Prompt #11. (You'll notice ow the prompt format has changed over the years).  Memoir poems are perennial favorites with many options for new work.

For this prompt, try writing a memoir poem about an experience that haunts you. This is not to suggest a bad experience but, rather, a memory that continues to inform the present.

Memoir poems are narrative because they tell stories. However, we often see memoir "poems" that "narrate" in what is essentially prose (with a couple of good images, a few similes or metaphors, and stanzaic arrangements). Most of these poems don't succeed because they never reach 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.

Watch out for abstractions and generalizations that equal sentimentality – there's a big difference between image and abstraction. A memoir poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment or read like a diary entry.

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 that are read and published today are so cluttered with superfluous detail (and adjectives) that there are no mysteries or surprises, and the poems become claustrophobic experiences (I call it TMW – too many words). Write short for this one as a discipline against writing too much. Leave a few blanks for the reader to fill in. In other words, tell, but don't "tell it all." Your memoir poem should lead readers to something more than the memory.

A perfect example is John Ashbery's "This Room."

In this poem Ashbery remembers a room, a person, a relationship. He incorporates a few precise details, but not many – he leaves much to the reader and still achieves a startling sense of loss and remembrance.

Other great examples (and these, too, are short poems) are William Stafford's "Once in the 40s" and Gerald Stern's "The Dancing."

William Stafford: "Once in the 40's"
Gerald Stern: "The Dancing"


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    1. Following the rules is much less important than enjoying the writing and the poem!

      So good to see you back on the blog, Lewis! Thanks for sharing your poem with us!

    2. So great to see you back, Lewis! I've missed reading your poems and comments.

      Wonderful poem above! Keep them coming, please!

    3. I second that! Nice to see you back, Lewis. What a poem!

    4. Thank you, ladies, it's good to be back. :)

  2. satisfied
    home made spaghetti sauce
    tempted the air
    across cotton fields
    that end of the day feeling
    onion perfume
    the alarm went off
    shocking me back
    to New Jersey

    1. Wonderful, Risa! I really like the way you incorporate smell and sound. Thanks for sharing with us.

    2. I love the poem, Risa, especially— "the air across cotton fields."