(Photo Courtesy of Bob Fiorellino)
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
— Mary Oliver (“The Summer Day,” House of Light, 1990)
I love the above quote from Mary Oliver, and it was the inspiration for this prompt. For me, it calls to mind all the possibilities for a life well-lived, as well as the power of intention.
Mary Oliver is a master of deceptive simplicity. She’s a poet who flawlessly and seamlessly moves from the immediate world into something much more profound. Read on one level, Oliver’s poems are easily understood, but underneath, between the lines, and inherent in her language choices is an insistent voice, which never fails to remind me that no good poem can be fully comprehended on a first reading—clarity with a hint of being on the edge of understanding always invites contemplation.
For this prompt, think about your life. What does your life mean to you? How is your life “wild and precious?” What do you hope for, dream about, think about, and work toward in your life?
1. Free write for a while about your life; focus on what you hope your life will be like.
2. Think about the words “wild” and “precious” and think about the ways in which your life has been, or you would like it to be, wild and precious. Look those words up, explore the synonyms for the them. Work with the words “wild” and “precious.”
3. Even if you are of advanced years, what would you like your remaining “wild and precious” life to hold for you? No matter how old you are, your life is always wild and precious. That said, if you’d prefer to write about how you looked at life when you were younger, go for it!
4. Your poem make you see the world in a way in which you have never seen it before. Hopefully, you will gain some insight into your own life.
5. Begin composing your poem. Try to keep it within the 15-25 line range.
6. After you’ve written a draft or two, put the poem away for a couple of days. When you come back to it, look for “leads” into other ideas and ways to expand the levels of meaning in your poem.
7. During drafting and revising, find the “lifeless” parts of your poem and give them some strength through more effective language (and imagery). If that doesn’t work, remember that sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice a line or phrase that you love to save a poem's life. One of the best approaches to editing is to remove rather than to add.
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. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.
7. Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”
8. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.
9. 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.
10. 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.)
“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
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