Hello, I’m Donn Taylor, here again to talk about poetry and ways to achieve the “higher voltage” that distinguishes poetry from most prose. In my last few posts, I spoke of several basic ways to organize a poem. Now we turn to several ways of making your poem different than many, perhaps most, that editors will see. The vast majority of new poems I’m seeing are written in the poet’s own voice, with the poet as the speaker (persona) of the poem and one or more aspects of the poet’s self as the subject. It’s safe to assume that editors will see more of that kind of poem than any other. So I will suggest several techniques of making your poems different.
The first of these is to MAKE THE SPEAKER OF THE POEM SOMEONE BESIDES THE POET. My colleague Susan Love Fitts wrote a poem (“I of the Storm”) in which the speaker is a thunderstorm, and a benevolent one at that! The only limits here are your imagination: biblical or other historical figures either in or out of historical settings, fictional characters, animals, space aliens, bacteria—whatever.
In one of my poems I chose an actual biblical character as speaker, but gave him thoughts to illustrate a theological point different from the one in the original text:
The Raven’s Complaint (© 1994)
I'm grateful, yes–he was a nice old guy–
The food and roost were fine, without a doubt
The best I'd known. And then he sent me out–
An honor: first bird back into the sky–
A chance to show my stuff–you bet I'd try
My best–I was grateful to him. –What lout
Would do less? I flew my tailfeathers out,
Thought nothing of it, flew two weeks, kept dry
Above the flood, alone. But where's the credit
Good works and self-reliance ought to bring?
The dove flopped twice, came slinking back and took
The old guy's charity and then forsook
Him, yet he's made symbol of everything
Graceful, I of gloom–I just don't get it.
These well-known poems use the same technique: A.E. Housman: “Here Dead We Lie”; Thomas Hardy: “Channel Firing”; Christopher Marlowe: “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Ulysses”; Robert Browning: “My Last Duchess” (and other dramatic monologues); John Donne: “Break of Day” and “The Flea.” Donne’s “Break of Day” is a particularly good example because the male poet presents a female speaker of the poem.
Here are some suggestions for getting started on this kind of poem:
1. Write a soliloquy for a Biblical character at a critical time in his or her life.
2. Write a soliloquy for a historical character at a critical point in history (e.g., Caesar at the Rubicon).
3. Imagine a fictional character in a critical situation. Write his or her self-instruction on how to proceed.
4. Write a poem in which two people are talking, but only one is heard. Let the other’s words and actions be inferred from the speaker’s words (cf. Donne: “The Flea”).
5. Write a poem in which a historical or fictional character reflects on a past action (a battle, a quarrel, a moral or philosophical choice).
In my next post we’ll continue with techniques to make your poems different.