Hello, I’m Donn Taylor, back again after several months of alligators up to the ears. I’m still talking about ways to achieve the “higher voltage” that distinguishes poetry from most prose. We’re still looking at ways to make your poems different from many 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. Previously we illustrated making your poem different by MAKING THE SPEAKER OF THE POEM SOMEONE BESIDES THE POET and WRITING ABOUT A SUBJECT OTHER THAN THE SELF.
My basic idea in both is that I doubt that many readers would be interested in me, so the safest procedure is to write about something else.
However, there’s a way to mention one’s self without letting that become the focus of the poem. Thus this method: BEGIN WITH THE SELF BUT EXPAND THE SUBJECT INTO A GENERAL APPLICATION. The more generally that the principle applies, the more readers should be interested.
My poem “Reptiles” is one that works that way. It begins with a very personal experience: Several years ago a blocked artery in one of my eyes gave me a small blind spot, fortunately below the focal point. When I close the other eye and look at a white wall, the blind spot shows as purple, and it’s shaped like a lizard. Here is the resultant poem:
REPTILES (© 1995, Donn Taylor)
This purple lizard-shadow in my eye,
Where vision used to be
Till some intruder blocked an artery,
Implants a ragged scar to vilify
Each perfect pattern with its roughly fret
Thus, once, another alien came to bate
Or mar our inner sight–
To blend, with all that's beautiful, a blight.
To canker every good we contemplate,
He left a loathsome gift, with hue of coal:
His cobra in our soul.
In this usage the intensely personal blind spot becomes a symbol of mankind’s state since original sin, and thus applicable to everyone.
The self of the poem can also be a fictional self, as in this poem by Robert Southwell (1561-95), which is also rich in allegory. Fair warning, though: Southwell uses mannerisms that are no longer used in contemporary poetry. We’ll look at these after the poem.
The Burning Babe
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchéd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas,” quoth he, “but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiléd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them for their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.
–Robert Southwell (published 1602)
The poem begins with a fictitious personal experience, but the focus quickly shifts to the allegory of salvation. The mannerisms no longer used are these: 1. Deviation from natural sentence order solely for the purpose of maintaining meter or rhyme (“Surprised I was” vs. “I was surprised). 2. The use of “did” to form past tenses, solely to maintain meter or rhyme (“did in the air appear” vs. “appeared in the air”). And 3. Marking of accents to force pronunciation of syllables not normally pronounced (scorchéd, defiléd, calléd).
1. Select an event you experienced and present it as an example of a general principle.
2. Choose a sight you have seen and expand it into a principle of interest to everyone.
Caution: General principles can be clichéd or prosaic. The poem’s manner of treatment must prevent this.
In my next several posts we’ll continue with techniques to make your poems different.