As you know, I like to offer you prompts and poetry-related posts written by poets other than me. Back on August 2, 2014, poet Penny Harter wrote a guest prompt that dealt with haibun and the spiral image. I’m very happy to post, with my sincerest thanks, another prompt, "From Here to There," that Penny recently wrote for us.
Earlier, at Adele’s invitation, I sent her the following paragraph for her blog about the various ways we poets end our poems. I’d like to expand on that with some suggestions and sample poems:
"How I end a poem is not usually a conscious decision. However, I do know that I want my poems to take a turn toward (or at) the end, similar to the turn in a good haiku. At the heart of haiku is the juxtaposition of two images or ideas across a kind of "spark gap". And these images connect in a way that both startles and seems inevitable. When I look back at poems I wrote some years ago—or even at occasional recent work—I find myself saying, "Well, I like the imagery, or the sound, rhythm, theme, etc., but if I reach the poem's end and it hasn't gone anywhere, hasn't taken me from here to there (wherever here and there are), it doesn't satisfy me." For me, writing a nice representational poem doesn't feel like enough anymore."
As poets, we know that all things are connected, one way or another. But sometimes those “connections” within our poem are like quantum leaps—the path of our writing suddenly taking an unexpected turn. For this to happen, we have to be open to where the words may be leading us.
Speaking of connections reminds me of a time in my life when I didn’t know what I was going to do about a difficult relationship. I wasn’t even writing about it; perhaps, I was afraid to do so. After a poetry reading when I told a poet friend about my dilemma, she asked me, “Where is your life in your writing? Your poems will know what you are going to do before you do!” And the shock of her question gave me permission to begin writing about it. Once that door was open, I wrote so many that the poems became a book—and discovered my solution in the process.
Just as what we write often reveals to us aspects of ourselves we didn’t know were surfacing, so, too, the turn in a poem can reveal to us an aspect of our poem it didn’t know it had. We won’t know where it’s going until it gets there.
Here’s one of mine that leaps toward the end:
When I Taught Her to Tie Her Shoes
A revelation, this student
already in high school who didn’t know
how to tie her shoes.
I took her into the book-room, knowing
what I needed to teach was perhaps more
important than Shakespeare or grammar,
guided her hands through the looping,
the pulling of the ends. After several
tries, she got it, walked out of there
empowered. How many things are like
that—skills never mastered in childhood,
simple tasks ignored, let go for years?
In the Zen tradition, When the student is ready,
the teacher appears. Perhaps that is why this
morning, my head bald from chemotherapy,
my feet somewhat farther away than they
used to be as I bend to my own shoes, that
student returns to teach me the meaning
of life: not to peel my potato, though that,
too, counts, but to simply tie my shoes and
walk out of myself into this sunny winter day.
Copyright © 2016, Hospital Drive, http://hospitaldrive.org/2016/12/when-i-taught-her-how-to-tie-her-shoes/
This poem was triggered by my reminiscing about years of teaching high school English. I suddenly remembered the surprise (and irony) of the sophomore girl whose shoelaces were dragging, and how when I suggested she tie her shoes before she tripped, she said she didn’t know how.
I started writing about that, and suddenly, my being in the midst of a course of chemotherapy after a cancer diagnosis, which I hadn’t wanted to write about...yet...thrust itself into the poem. I named it right then and there with, “Perhaps that is why...” , and the connection fell into place. In the process, I found myself affirming that I was going to "walk out of myself" into a sunny day" (versus a dark night of despair).
1. Think of a memory that has stayed with you. It need not be a "big moment". Sometimes the most simple and ordinary moments are redolent with meaning for us. On the other hand, you may recall a challenging or sorrowful memory, or a very happy one.
2. Jot down as many images and feelings associated with that memory as you can. Make sure to list both nouns and verbs, as well as short phrases. Try to avoid tried and true emotional judgmental words like "beautiful, exciting, sad, scary," etc. Be as specific as you are able, and your reader will "get it" without being told.
3. Start free-writing your poem. It may come out in verse or prose format. That doesn't matter in the beginning.
4. At various points throughout your draft, ask yourself, "What else does this remind me of?" Or, "How does this connect with my present life?" If you can answer either or both of those, your poem can make a turn right there. A poem can make more than one turn, sometimes earlier within it as well as at the end.
5. Decide whether you want to break up lines from a prose format into verse, or leave your piece a prose poem.
6. Look at your stanzas or prose blocks and see what you can do without. I often find I delete the first verse, or even more. Sometimes the engine of a poem has to rev a bit before you find the real poem several lines or verses into it. Also see whether you might want to rearrange your stanzas or blocks of prose. Sometimes a middle or final verse can work as a powerful beginning.
7. When you think you have finished your draft ask yourself whether you have ended up somewhere different, found an unexpected destination or revelation. Assess whether your poem goes beyond merely painting a pretty word-picture, taking both you and the reader somewhere new.
8. Keep writing :)!
About Penny Harter:
Penny Harter's poetry and prose has been published widely in journals and anthologies, and her literary autobiography appears as an extended essay in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 28, as well as in Contemporary Authors, Volume 172. Her essays and poems also appear in the writing guides Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, The Crafty Poet I: A Portable Workshop, and The Crafty Poet II.
Penny’s most recent books include The Resonance Around Us (Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013); One Bowl (prizewinning e-chapbook, 2011); Recycling Starlight (2010); and The Night Marsh (2008). A Dodge poet, Penny was a featured reader at the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She has won three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Arts Council, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award, and two fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).
Be sure to visit Penny online at the follow websites:
To order Penny's books: