“Gear and Tackle and Trim,” New Era, Aug. 1981, 41
Gear and Tackle and Trim
Whenever my school teacher announced, “Okay, students, we’re going to start the unit on poetry,” immediately groans, protests, frightened looks, and a chorus of “I can’t write poetry” filled the once-quiet room. The boys thought poetry was only for sentimental girls, and the girls thought they couldn’t write it. It might be called a case of unjust prejudice against poetry. Why the prejudice? Why all the groans and disinterested stares when the word poetry is sounded? Because people don’t read or write enough poetry. They’re afraid that their feelings will sound dumb. They are unfamiliar with the art.
Well, throw away all the stereotypes and prejudices because we’re going to learn how to write a poem. Now don’t shut the magazine because you’ve heard the word again! Just like climbing mountains, playing the piano, and living the commandments, poetry is a challenge that ought to be met. Meet the challenge!
When you sing you begin with Do, Re, Mi.
When you write you begin with … with … with what?
Perhaps you, too, feel like the author of this haiku:
Thoughts inside are real
but I am not a poet!
Feelings become lost.
Perhaps you feel that your thoughts and feelings are important but whenever you have a pen in hand and a clean sheet of paper before you, your thoughts flee or become so jumbled that anything written only ends up in the garbage can, overflowing from other attempts. Or maybe you haven’t tried to write a poem since the “roses are red, violets are blue” days. In any case, we’re going to learn a few techniques that might make writing a poem an enjoyable experience. And then you’ll realize that (1) poetry and basketball don’t clash, (2) poetry isn’t just for sentimental girls, and (3) (brace yourself) poetry is exciting!
First, do you know what a poem is? A poem is not just a few descriptive lines thrown together with words rhyming. What is poetry? Poetry is a language that is more condensed and intense than ordinary language. It might take you five minutes to describe your old clubhouse in ordinary language, but in poetry, ten lines, or even five, could say everything. Every word counts in poetry.
The biggest hint I could give to a poet in embryo is to recreate the experience. It was a grand awakening, and too long overdue, when I finally discovered that my poems were unsuccessful because I was telling my readers how to feel instead of letting them feel the experience for themselves. Create an experience for the reader. In order to create an experience your images must be exact. Your descriptions don’t have to be long to paint the picture, but they have to be accurate.
If your images are accurate, your reader will not be sitting at a desk staring disinterestedly into a dusty poetry book reading about tree huts. Rather, he’ll be once again sitting high on a crooked limb in his favorite apple tree on a warm summer afternoon. Make him see the boards nailed crudely together, make him feel the slight breeze, make him taste the just-picked apples, and make him smell the sweetness. I repeat: recreate the experience.
So, how do you recreate an experience?
When you sing you begin with Do, Re, Mi.
When you write you ask, “What’s happened to me?”
Ask yourself that question. What experiences have you had? How can you recreate an experience that you haven’t had? Write about places you’ve been, people you’ve met, feelings you’ve felt—the list goes on—so that the pictures you create can be exact. The poem could be describing a moment, a spider web, or a favorite place. Decide quickly, for you, the poet, are about to be born.
Now that you’ve decided on an experience, grab a pencil and write. What? The words don’t come! So you think that a poem comes from a burst of inspiration. Sometimes it does, but more often it doesn’t. One time a teacher asked me in class, “How long did it take for you to write that poem?” The class gasped when I replied, “About fifteen minutes of actual writing.” But then I went on to explain that the poem dealt with an experience that I had been thinking about intermittently for days, possibly even weeks. The ideas had been mulling around in my mind for countless hours. Isaac Newton, when asked how he made his discoveries, said, “I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings open little by little into the full light.” Poetry usually comes that way.
I took a poetry class where a poem was due every Friday. Several times I was so busy, or I procrastinated, and I didn’t even think about the poem all week. So come Thursday night I sat down at my desk and waited—nothing came. There was no burst of inspiration, no sudden enlightenment, and the poem had to be written! The ideas couldn’t mull around in my head for days. In frantic desperation I got out the dictionary and began to work. I scribbled, crossed out, scribbled some more, and searched the dictionary and thesaurus for the exact word. The lines didn’t come easily; every word came from tediously toiling and sweating and worrying. My pencil was half-chewed and rejects lay scattered over the floor a foot high. Yet, those poems were some of the best poems I’ve ever written. If you don’t feel inspired—write anyway.
Begin by writing down words and phrases you like; jot down ideas. Don’t think about writing a poem, think about recreating an experience.
Now is the time for making your thoughts and scribbles into an experience. You won’t create an experience, at least a pleasant or worthwhile one, if your expressions are trite, overly emotional, didactic, or wordy. You have within you limitless possibilities for creating something fresh and exciting. Linae Bacik Wall once began a poem about a storm in the following manner:
A grey-coated sky,
bulging low and deep,
Can’t you begin to feel the storm coming? She doesn’t tell us that it is cloudy and about to rain. Instead, she describes the oncoming storm so that we can feel it.
An exciting experience can be created if the images and descriptions are accurate and fresh. e. e. cummings describes spring as “Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious.” Robert Frost describes a sunset:
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
(“The Death of the Hired Man,” lines 103–104.)
Far from being trite, both of these men have created exciting images.
Below are parts of two poems. Read both and decide which poem best recreates an experience.
Just to be tender, just to be true,
Just to be glad the whole day through,
Just to be merciful, just to be mild,
Just to be trustful as a child,
Just to be gentle and kind and sweet,
Just to be helpful with willing feet …
Just to let love be our daily key,
That is God’s will for you and me.
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plow;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim …
Praise Him. (“Pied Beauty,” Modern American Poetry and Modern British Poetry, ed. Louis Untermeyer, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1958, p. 39)
The second poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins lets the reader see and feel the creations of God. The expressions are accurate and new. Consequently, the grandeur of God is better expressed than in the first poem.
Whether you choose to write a haiku, a sonnet, or free verse, write with discipline, making every word count. Choose your words carefully. One confession: I used to avoid rhyming like the plague. I thought it was stiff. However, when given an assignment in class to write a sonnet, I decided to forget free verse and give the sonnet the “old college try.” I was amazed. Because I was forced to work for the correct rhyme, I came up with some of the best lines of poetry that I’ve written, lines I would not have written had I not racked my brain to find the perfect phrase to rhyme with green. Since then, I have taken some of my free verse and revised it. I found that much of my free verse was sloppy. There were many unnecessary words and phrases. Be disciplined. Remember, every word is important.
The work is almost complete. Study your poem. Unnecessary words? Take them out. Trite expressions? Revise them. Have you created an experience for your readers? Do they feel what you want to convey? Great!
Now that you’ve written your poem, don’t you feel as if you understand yourself better? Don’t you feel as if you’ve had a “sudden enlightenment” and come to a full dawning?
This discussion hasn’t been a step-by-step, detailed process of how to write a poem. We haven’t talked about rhyme scheme and meter and a-b-b-a’s. No, this discussion has been an attempt to broaden your understanding and erase some prejudices. We’ve talked about a way of thinking, a way of reaching down deep and creating a part of you. We’ve let you feel that language and words are beautiful. A poet learns to see life and experience it more fully, for in order to describe life, one must understand it. Look at your life. Look at those ordinary trees outside your window, the ones you see every day. What color are they really? Study your grandmother for a moment. What feelings does she portray? Take a look at yourself. How do you feel when you’ve been touched by the Spirit? Oh, all the infinite experiences that a poet can capture! Capture them!