We’ve addressed the subject of memoir or memory poems a few times over the years, and this week we revisit the idea with a challenge to write a poem about a special memory (good or bad). 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), to stay focused on what the story means.
1. Remember that there’s a big difference between writing a poem and creating art. 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. Be careful when you write. It’s good to start with a free-write, but then work especially hard to tweak and hone.
2. 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, arrange the whole thing 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, and that’s precisely what too many writers don’t achieve.
3. Beware of writing/telling too much in your poem – beware the dreaded Prose-o-saurus! 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 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 on the poem’s light.
4. A lot of people who write poems (memory-type in particular) are inclined toward abstractions and generalizations, which often equal sentimentality. These are majorly risky. 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.
1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).
2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).
3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)
4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).
5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.
6. Remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains, and that really good poems have layers of meaning.
7. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.
8. Bring your poem to closure with a dazzling dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.)
Once in the 40's by William Stafford
We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold – but
brave – we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we'd come back some time
when we got rich. We'd leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.
Porch Sitting by Deborah LaVeglia
This dark night holds promise.
Each lightening bug produces
its own shimmer of hope.
Sitting on my stoop
on New York Avenue in Newark,
I watch the cars pass by.
I laugh with neighbors,
smile at the children playing freeze-tag
and TV-tag, their knees powdered with
dirt, faces made-up with the crust of
forgotten ice cream.
This dark night holds promise,
I see the light shining in my kitchen
window, my mother passing by
for the hundredth time.
Louie’s mother leans from the fire escape
and joins in the conversation below,
Michelle’s mother calls from half-way
down the block, musical notes:
This dark night holds promise
and I am grateful.
Note: Notice the subtlety and nuance in this poem, and the way Deborah skillfully uses imagery to convey deep meaning. Notice how Deborah challenges the ordinary, how she connects, reveals, and surprises. The deceptive simplicity of the poem is intensely profound and means much more than the words it contains. What is Deborah grateful for? How does this have meaning for you?
The Dancing by Gerald Stern
In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop – in 1945 –
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing – in Poland and Germany –
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
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?