Hello, I’m Donn Taylor, here again to talk about poetry and ways to achieve the “higher voltage” that distinguishes poetry from most prose. This month and for several more we’ll be talking about ways to make your poems different from many, perhaps most, that editors will see. Most of the new poems I’m seeing are written in the poet’s own voice, with the poet as speaker (persona) of the poem and 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. Last month we illustrated making your poem different by MAKING THE SPEAKER OF THE POEM SOMEONE BESIDES THE POET.
A second method is to WRITE ABOUT A SUBJECT OTHER THAN THE SELF. Again the only limits to this approach are those of the imagination: choose an object, a person, a myth, an event, an idea…. My colleague Beth Ayers wrote a poem about an elderly couple she saw holding hands at a poetry reading. Another colleague, Susan Love Fitts, wrote about her husband, an accomplished composer, as he studied a musical score. We’re all familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” written for the 1837 completion of a monument commemorating the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord.
The subject can also be a myth, as it is in this delightful lyric from the seventeenth century:
The Silver Swan
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
“Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”
–Anonymous, published 1612
Sometimes it’s possible to combine a person, a situation, and a value system into one poem. I tried this with my poem “Cosmos in Wartime.” I believe that, in wartime, the wives of the nation’s defenders are guardians of the values their husbands are defending. These wives are guardians of things more valuable than all the gold in Ft. Knox. The poem honors my own wife but, by extension, all the wives of the nation’s defenders.
COSMOS IN WARTIME © 1996, Donn Taylor
There at the center of the universe,
An ocean and a continent away
From where I labor, calm at end of day
Descends, drawn down by likeness, to immerse
Her house in tender truths till she rehearse
For children deep assurances that say,
"This spirit-night, no strife nor storm shall sway
These quiet cradles, nor the world amerce
Souls of these innocents for ancient wrong
As price for human essence wrenched awry."
She speaks in trust that only grace allows,
Modestly unaware her softness, strong—
Stronger than stone or steel—holds up this house
In love, to let the house hold up the sky.
These well-known poems use the same or similar techniques: Emily Dickinson: #185 “Faith is a fine invention”; Thomas Hardy: “The Convergence of the Twain”; Christina Rossetti: “In Studio”; Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Ozymandias”; Thomas Gray: “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drown’d in a Tub of Goldfishes.”
Here are some suggestions for getting started on this kind of poem:
1. Look closely at a painting, then represent it in poetry.
2. From #1, write a poem in which a fictional character talks to the painter. (What questions does the painting leave unanswered?)
3. Study several paintings, then generalize them into a poem (as did W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Artes”).
4. Write a poem about a person you know well (or a public figure you admire or dislike).
5. Write a poem about a public event. (It’s best to avoid subjects with which the editors will be flooded [e.g., 9/11] unless you can give them a very original interpretation.)
In my next several posts we’ll continue with techniques to make your poems different.