What’s in a Poem?

“Poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”

Magnetic poetry
Image taken from user zaraki.kenpachi on Flickr Creative Commons.

You’ll have to forgive me, because I am a bit uncertain about the original source of this quote. Originally I had thought it was C.S. Lewis, but upon further research I think that either 1) I was misremembering, or 2) I may have read it in a Lewis work some time ago, but even Lewis was quoting someone else and not attributing the quote to himself. (I want to say it was in An Experiment in Criticism, but I couldn’t find it after briefly re-skimming the chapter on Poetry; I’d have to read more thoroughly to do so). In any case, upon a quick internet search this morning, I’ve found a few different sources attributing this quote not to Lewis at all, but to French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé.

According to a literary magazine entitled The Paris Review: “Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, ‘But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.’ ‘But my dear Degas,’ the poet replied, ‘poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.'”

Now, after opening with an inspirational-sounding quote, I may surprise you. Because I’m actually not going to take the side of that quote. In the above exchange, I’d put myself in the shoes of Degas, knowing that my poems aren’t always the best or deepest ones in the world, but saying (despite the rebukes of the more deep, artistic poets), “Sure I can write poems. I’ve got a lot of great ideas. That’s what it takes to write a poem, right?”

Yes, obviously, poems contain words, and they shouldn’t be just any words haphazardly thrown together, but words arranged in a specific way based on sound, structure, etc. And I realize that. But for me, a poem still starts with an idea. Every writer is different, of course, and there’s no one correct way to do everything, but for me a poem starts with an idea, a feeling, etc.–and it’s not until later that I can translate that idea into the words which make up a poem.

When I posted one of my poems earlier in the week, I mentioned that some people are talented enough that they can write a beautiful and poignant poem about almost anything–something in nature, a tiny episode out of their day, something they see just walking down the street, etc. Personally, I am not one of those people. In order to make a halfway decent poem (at least, one that I think is halfway decent), in order to really be inspired and care about what I’m writing, I need to base it on something important to me–a feeling, a life experience, something I’ve been going through or thinking about already, etc. It starts with an idea, a strong and powerful and weighty idea that is close to my heart, and I translate it into words later as I go along (sometimes over the course of two or three or more revisions).

I vaguely remember one poem I wrote in a creative writing class in college. It was about nature–something about winter, and the snow melting as spring begins to come along. I may have called it “Waning Winter Wonderland” or something alliterative like that. But I didn’t write it because I was passionate about it and I really felt a deep sense of inspiration to write about the snow; I only wrote it in response to an assignment or writing prompt for class. My professor (who I’m quite certain is a better and more experienced poet than I) seemed to like it, and wrote in a comment that I should “please keep working on this one!” But I don’t think I did. I’m not sure if I even still have the poem anymore or could find it again at this point. While it may have been wise for me to at least take my professor’s advice and continue honing my craft, the poem wasn’t one of my favorite ones, because it wasn’t one that was important to me at the time. It wasn’t born of personal inspiration. It wasn’t about something I was passionate about, and it didn’t really come from my heart.

For me, poems that I write have a very close and personal inspiration. I think that’s why I’ve been told–and I agree with this–that my poems are often like stories. They’re about things that happen or things that people deal with rather than just about things that one might see in nature, for example. Each one contains a story, or at least is born of a story in my mind. When presenting them or reading them aloud to an audience, I may often say something like, “So I wrote this poem at a time when [X] was going on, and that was kind of what made me want to write about it…”

In fact, I do believe that prose and stories are my forte more than poetry is, which is part of why I don’t write poems super often. And when I do, my poems are born of personal experience and personal inspiration. I don’t just sit down and write a poem arbitrarily (unless a college class requires it). I write one every so often when I have a feeling or idea or inspiration that means a lot to me and that I think would be worthy of a poem. Admittedly, it may not seem like the most literary or artistic approach compared to Mallarmé’s lofty philosophy. But it’s what works for me, and as I said, I don’t think there’s any one right formula that works for all authors all the time.

So which way works best for you? If you’ve ever written a poem, do you make them out of words? Or out of ideas? Or out of stories?

Image taken from user Signore Aceto on Flickr Creative Commons.

“Secret Identity”

Here’s another new poem that I finalized just recently and debuted at an open mic night this week. I’m calling it “Secret Identity.”

Question for discussion: do you prefer poems with a definite rhyme or rhythm (like this one will be), or ones written in free verse (like the last one I posted)? I feel like free verse is more “in vogue” these days, and so for a while most of what I wrote was free verse. But personally, I find that when I write for spoken word or specifically for performance (as I have been doing lately), I like to go back to consistent rhyme and rhythm if I can. Having a rhythm and a pattern or beat helps me to keep my pace when the audible sounds are the focus more than the written word.

Anyway, here’s “Secret Identity.” I hope you enjoy it.


Shirt & tie
Image taken from user jopperbok on Flickr Creative Commons.

My shirt and tie may cover me.

These glasses hide my eyes.

But still this outer man you see

is merely a disguise.

By day I speak on words and books.

Your minds I try to fill.

I may give disapproving looks

or tell you to sit still.

But underneath there’s so much more

than what you could dream of:

a soldier fighting holy war,

a heart that’s full of love

and far-too-idealistic hopes

in my heroic quest

to talk of more than tomes and tropes

but make your life feel blessed.

Behind the desk, behind the beard,

behind the endless puns

lies something more than first appeared:

deep care for broken ones.

I see you there, alone and lost

like sheep, a shepherd needing.

You don’t know I’d pay any cost

to simply stop the bleeding.

You’ll never know how much I care

or how I long to hold you

or how I wish I could be there

though outwardly I scold you.

Oh, how I longed to draw you near

like a hen unto her chicks,

to chase off every hurt and fear—

to shield, to heal, to fix.

Of burdens I would bear the brunt—

but alas, I am unable,

for I stand up here at the front

while you sit at your table.

For after all, I’m only one

flawed, finite, mortal creature,

and when it all is said and done,

I’m just a high school teacher.

But I’ll always be here on your side.

I’ll always be your fan.

I couldn’t save you if I tried,

but I’ll do what I can.

Clark changing
Image taken from user Porta-john on Flickr Creative Commons. Originally published by DC Comics.

The Wanderer’s Lament

I haven’t written much fiction lately, but I’ve been working on some poetry. And as our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me this week, a poem can often be a form of telling a story. In my case, I certainly believe that that’s true. Some people are gifted enough that they can write beautiful poems about almost anything, but I can really only bring myself to write one when I have the right inspiration, usually when it has been influenced by something from my life—-a story, if you will.

Later in the week, I may write a post analyzing poems and storytelling a little more thoroughly. For now, I’d just like to share with you some of the latest ones I’ve written. The following is a work in progress born of an emotion inside me, but I didn’t really put it down in words until yesterday–so I reserve the right to edit and change it later on as I revisit it. (But I am planning to unveil it to the public at an open mic night tonight, so hopefully it’s ready enough for that at least!)

I have named this poem “The Wanderer’s Lament.”


Home is not the mattress I sleep on

in a brick building far too uptight

to be anything more than a temporary dwelling.

Home is no longer the four walls

where I talked and laughed with two best friends

right up until everything changed.

Home is not even where my parents live, or my brothers,

or the simpler, more idealistic version of myself

I can still glimpse within my mind,

reading a book or doing homework

in that familiar house ten years ago.

Home is not a past that can never be repeated–

but neither is it the ever-fleeting present

or some hopeful future still in flux.

Home is not a grand adventure

Image taken from user Ciscolo on Flickr Creative Commons.

where I crossed the river to chase my dreams

and learn how to grow up a little more

and just maybe begin laying down some roots.

Home is not the winding halls

of the university I still love,

or the classroom where I spend so many hours

to earn a living and hopefully make a difference.

Home isn’t found under a steeple, in a pew,

or even a friendly living room full of smiling faces

with a Bible in my lap.

Home is not my friends,

the ones who have stood by me for years,

or the ones who so graciously welcomed me

into a strange new land.

Home is not any loving community that I’ve found,

or any that I’m likely to find in a week,

or a month,

or a year.

If one day I find love

and build up a family in a house,

if I hold a wife close to me

or cherish the sweet laugh of a child,

even then the home I long for

will still be far from me.


If I Find in Myself a Desire
Image taken from QuotesVil.com. Quote from C.S. Lewis.

Home will finally quench my deep desire

which nothing in this world can satisfy,

because, most probably,

I was made for another.

I don’t know what home will look like,

but I’ll see it when I go.



Scene Challenge of the Week

Roberts_Rules_1stRight now, I’m not honestly sure how to introduce this post. I’m a little bit exhausted at the moment (that’s what working out and reading for a good chunk of the day will do to you I suppose) and I’m not sure that my brain is quite working the way its supposed to (I did get a ton of studying done though). Alayna and I have been looking for good books on the philosophy and theology of parenting, especially at the level of general approach and fundamental basis. We haven’t had the chance to make any real decisions yet, but we should soon so that we have some time to read them. Anyway, I’ve got a scene challenge for you. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your Challenge: I want you to write a proper scene. I don’t mean a scene that is appropriate (as in contextually appropriate to a story), but instead a scene that evokes the overall feeling of high propriety. I want a scene that makes me feel like you’ve spent a lot of time with Robert’s Rules of OrderEmily Post’s Etiquette, or spent a lot of time in very traditional martial arts classes. This is going to be similar to a rewriting challenge, and thus I want you to find something that evokes this kind of feeling (something out of Jane Austin might be appropriate) that can inspire you. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a scene of your own that evokes the same feeling. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in a similar way, but that is still completely your own work.



Be sure to destroy hope

My masochistic post, but I swear there is a writing lesson at the end.

One of those posts. Bored-now (c) 2008
One of those posts.
Bored-now (c) 2008

There’s that ex. She dumped you for good reason, you became a changed man, and liking what she sees, she starts saying things like, “We should get back together…after I dump my boyfriend.” Those with wisdom get on a train and flee with the vigor of a halfling from a troll. Then there are the other ones. The guys like me.

The line is baited and we bite, fat and stupid fish ready for harvest. Hook after hook sinks into our flesh, but instead of saying, “Gee golly this hurts,” we say, “It must mean she’s interested.”

Then one of two things happen. She says just kidding and goes off with the boyfriend. Option two is your testicles finally drop and you snap. Hopefully not kill them snap, but I’m sure that’s far more fulfilling. You go off, you ask what’s the hold up. Startled by your sudden assertion, they walk away.

Either way, the result is the same. You are kneeling on the ground with your heart in your hands, bloody and ruined. The responses are countless, but generally severe. Some come out with depression, disorders, and other internal issues of general self-loathing. Others become jaded, steeling their heart against any fresh invaders. I went Hulk.

This pulls on something we experienced, and it is something we understand. We can pour emotion into it, and give the character authenticity. You got passed up for a promotion? Have a promising warrior passed up for knighthood. There are countless responses to any dashed hope, but they’re almost always severe. They almost always lead to poor decision making.

Set up something for your character to hope for, preferably something similar to what you hoped for. Let it play out. Make us think he will get it, since we are wired to think our novel characters will get what they want. Using Song of Ice and Fire, the series is based on dashing our hopes. We see Bran as a capable climber, and athlete at a young age. Crippled. Ned Stark could be the greatest and most honorable man ever in King’s Landing. Decapitated. Samwell Tarley is sent to the Night’s Watch to die. Survives. Remember, the success of one person’s hopes can dash another’s.

There are also a number of ways people respond to despair. Sometimes they crumble like paper in a strong wind. Other times they soar like birds through zephyrs. Play with it. Even pick a path you did not take. Perhaps you overcame and grew into a better person. What if you became jaded instead?

Go create some despair and pull some heartstrings. Purchase stock in Kleenex and get moving.


Oversentimentality: Don’t Manipulate Your Audience

book thiefA few weeks ago, I went to see The Book Thief at the local Dollar Theater. [NOTE: vague spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, skip this introduction]. The movie was well-written, and I enjoyed it…mostly. Near the end, there’s a bomb strike and multiple characters die. Their death scenes were very powerful and poignant because the entire scene was understated. It was narrated by Death himself, and he spoke a few words about each character that reminded you just why you cared about them. I’m not ashamed to admit that this particular scene made me tear up; it was that well-written. It all fell apart in the next scene, however. A young girl holds her dying friend in her arms and he chokes out “I love…” just before he expires. At that point, the girl starts screaming and passes out. A soldier picks her up and starts slow-mo running towards the camera while dramatic, emotional music plays in the background. It was at this point that I got very angry with the directors. That entire scene was specifically designed to elicit a particular emotion from the audience. It practically begs you to cry, and it pulls out every stop to ensure that you do. I really hate it when movie directors or writers obviously try to force me to have a specific reaction…I don’t react well to manipulation, particularly when it’s so blatant. In this case, the sin was particularly egregious because the scene before it was so well done. At any rate, this entire long introduction serves to say that I want to spend today’s post talking about how to identify oversentimentality in your writing (and why it’s a bad thing) and how to avoid it.

So what exactly is oversentimentality? In this case, it’s manipulating your audience into experiencing a certain emotion, often sadness or martin 2nostalgia. Before everyone gets all up in arms here, let me say that I know we want people to feel certain things through our writings, particularly when it comes to poetry. We want people to empathize or react a certain way based on the circumstances we portray. What I’m talking about is doing so in a kitschy way that is forcibly created by you, the author, and doesn’t arise out of the text naturally. It’s easier to spot in movies because of music choice, camera angles, slow-mo movement, and so on, but it can be just as devastating in literature as it is in film. An author usually slides into oversentimentality when he or she drags out an emotional scene so that the reader is hit with every possible little detail that could cause a specific reaction. This frequently happens in death scenes when the author wants the reader to upset at the loss of a character. Often, this takes the form of an unnecessarily vivid or visceral description of the death itself (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin), or an in-depth depiction of everyone else’s response to the loss (some of Brian Jacques’ later novels have scenes that stray into this category). When an author forces a certain response from the reader, he or she divorces the emotion from the text. It detracts from the story because it’s not true to the story or the characters you’ve created. When I saw that particular scene in The Book Thief, it completely pulled me out of the story and made me angry because it was so blatantly manipulative. It was forced and not real, and it completely ruined the ending of the film for me. I’ve read books that cause me to have the same reaction – I respond to the word choice and technique, not to the actual event or because of the character(s), which is a problem. Not just that, but it often makes the reader feel talked-down to. It’s as if the author/film director believes the audience is incapable of experiencing the sadness/nostalgia/whatever of the scene without being prompted along. So if the manipulation weren’t enough, the condescension makes everything worse. It’s annoying, and few people respond well to it.

sadHow do you identify and avoid emotional manipulation in your writing? Well, there is no clear cut “do this and you’ll avoid the problem” formula, but I can offer some tips. Whenever you write an emotional scene, put it aside for a while and then come back to it. Examine it thoroughly. Does each description need to be there? Are the characters reacting the way they really would in that situation, or are they overdramatic? Do you have too many descriptions? (Also: if it’s a death scene, is it raining? If there’s rain involved in the scene, you may have a problem). Have someone else read the passage for you. How do they respond to it? I usually have a list of questions ready for my peer editor for when he or she is done reading, so that I can judge the responses and tweak my work accordingly. Above all, don’t set out trying to make your reader experience a certain emotion. Let the text go where it will, tweaking as needed, but don’t set about trying to force it. Audiences don’t respond well to manipulation, and it won’t help you at all with your writing. Emotion is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.

Philosophical Challenge Post

The Hebrew word 'Nephesh'.
The Hebrew word ‘Nephesh’.

The concept that the soul is simply the memories and emotions of the person is often presented in fiction. When we talk about the soul, the spirit, or someone’s ghost we generally think about the thoughts and feelings that make up the person that we know. However, the theology of the soul presents it as much more than just the memories and emotions (both of which exist in chemical form in the brain and can be manipulated to a limited extent by drug therapies or surgery). The Hebrew word Nephesh stands at the center of the theology of the soul, and it is a very complicated word. Nephesh can be used to mean soul, spirit, body, the dead, dead bodies, life, or being among other things. It’s most basic meaning is ‘living being’, ‘living soul’, or ‘living creature’, and refers to the basic nature and fact of a creatures existence. In the Christian scriptures the Nephesh is also presented as the core of a being that is eternal. So, this is your challenge for this week: What is the soul? Remember that the only rule in this challenge post is that you must write a story that presents and defends your answer to the question.