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!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Prompt #101 – High Five

In symbolism, the number five is the number of harmony and balance. It is also the number of the divine grace. It was a symbol of perfection for the Mayas. Greek philosophers gave five principles in man: body, animal soul, psyche, intelligence, and divine spirit. There are five fundamental virtues: wisdom, love, truth, goodness, and justice. There are five books in the Torah. Jesus Christ had five wounds.  There are five commandments of Buddha Gautama. Astrologically, the number five is associated with Leo, the fifth sign of the Zodiac. Yes, you guessed it – this week we’re going to work with the number five.

1. Take yourself to place in which you can relax (your den, your front porch, your backyard, near a lake or stream, the woods, a park).

2. Once you’re settled and comfortable, look around carefully. Notice things (objects, trees, plants, water, stones, etc.) around you and write down five things that capture your attention (and, hopefully, your imagination). Like the image above (five trees in a row), you might select five things that are similar or the same (five flowers, five pens or pencils, five windows, five pieces of paper, five books, five people walking by).

3. Now notice the details of those “things.” Jot down some notes.

4. Then write a poem that’s based on, about, or that includes the five things you selected. Look for connections among the five "things" you've chosen and yourself. How do they "speak" to you? What story might they tell?

5. Let your environment become the “landscape” of the poem. Write in the present tense – here and now.  Let the objects direct the content of your poem. Describe them, define them, contextualize them, analyze them, repurpose them, recreate them. Play on the number “five.” Let your poem take you where it wants to go, but don’t let your five “things” get lost.

Here’s are examples that are not exactly what we’re working on with this prompt (they don’t focus on five things), but they’re close and may inspire you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Prompt #100 – One Hundred

This week marks an exciting milestone in The Music In It’s blog journey – the 100th prompt!  Accordingly, the prompt for this week deals with the number 100.

1. Write a one hundred word poem – yep, a poem that contains exactly 100 words (no more, no less).
2. Write a poem in which you use the number 100 in the title, text, or both.
3. Write a poem in which you use the words a hundred or one hundred.
4. Write a poem in which you use the word century.
5. Write a poem with this title: “100 ways to _____________” (you fill in the blank).
6. Write a poem that begins “One hundred years ago…”
7. Write a poem that describes life one hundred years from now.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Prompt #99 – Imagery

For those of you who don’t subscribe to Diane Lockward’s excellent poetry newsletter, I thought you might enjoy working with the craft tip I wrote for the May issue (see below if you'd like to receive the newsletter).
                                               In a Station of the Metro
                                                                            by Ezra Pound

                                              The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
                                              Petals on a wet, black bough.

What is it about the above poem that captures the imagination? It’s a short poem, only two lines, and it “says” little. There are only two images in this poem – the apparition of the faces and the tree petals to which those faces are compared. However, Pound evokes thoughts about attraction, human beauty, and springtime; we feel his surprise and awe. He might have written “I stepped into the metro and saw faces in the crowd that looked like tree blossoms.” The haunting quality and the heart of Pound’s words are powered by a fundamental component of poetry – imagery.

Imagery is best explained as vivid description or figures of speech used to recreate things seen (or otherwise perceived) through written language. Imagery is often explained as the process of creating “mind pictures” with words but, while image is synonymous with picture, effective imagery is not exclusively visual and may spark any of the senses. Imagery enhances meaning, develops tone, enriches context, creates tension, and establishes voice. It can also be a means through which a poet reveals a poem’s emotional center. 

In my work with poets in workshops and critiquing sessions, I offer a the following suggestions for creating successful images. 

1. Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements. Images aren’t about abstractions or philosophical musings. Rather, they evoke the meaning and truth of human experiences in perceptible and “actual” terms.                                                                                                                                                  
2. Avoid lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions lend themselves well to effective imagery. The imagery “wow factor” lies in language that is unexpected and deceptively simple. 

3. Watch out for clichéd images. Examine your poems carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. Work to create images that are striking and fresh – distinctive and different. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language, and how you can use these to enhance your images. I love this related quote from W. H. Auden: [A poem] “must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.” That unique perspective can be articulated through imagery. 

4. Don’t merely “ornament” your poems with images. Good imagery isn’t a pair of Louboutin shoes or a Rolex watch. Imagery doesn’t “dress up” a poem and should be only be used to present your subject exactly as you perceive it. Imagery that’s too deliberate or self-consciously “poetical” can ruin an otherwise good poem. Don’t be clever or cutesy. Let your images evolve organically with just the right amount of tweaking.

5. Be wary of “imagery overkill.” Too many or over-written images can be tedious if not mind-numbing. When asked how many images a mid-sized poem should contain, my answer is always the same: if you look at poem you’re writing and only find five great lines, then the poem should only be five lines long; in the same way, if you look at a poem you’re working on and only find a single brilliant image, then the poem should only contain a single image. And this in closing: sometimes we write images we love but which aren’t quite “right” for the poem in which we’ve placed them. When this happens, be prepared to sacrifice an image you love for the sake of the poem. The poem (and your readers) will be grateful.

This week, try writing a poem in which you include some striking imagery. One way to begin is to simply make a list of images. Focus on details and originality of expression. The choose one image give it image its head – let it lead you into a poem.

Examples of Imagery


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