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?

Poetry
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

6788260659_52e0a97b0d_n
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.

 

 

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

107279-fullSo, last night Alayna and I watched the movie Inside Out, which is an excellent addition to the Pixar collection if you haven’t seen it. The movie had me thinking about emotions, and specifically the way the emotions impact our reasoning and moral outlook. One of the things that the movie showed well is that our emotions grow as we grow, and balancing them effectively can be very difficult. There have been various approaches to emotion ranging from some modern ethical outlooks that glorify emotion and set it over against reason, essentially arguing that man’s reason is cold, stilted, and draconian while his emotions bring light and life to an otherwise dark world. Contrast this with an Aristotelian outlook that essentially argues that the emotions are childish obstacles to achieving true fulfillment and satisfaction in life and you will have a fair sense of the range of views in modern moral thought. However, there have been several attempts in the history of moral thought to develop a more balanced understanding of the interplay between emotion and reason, and Thomism presents, in my opinion, one of the best of these. In the thought of Thomas Aquinas emotions are fundamental to life. They do form, in many ways, the core of who we are. The passions express our innate desires and aversions, likes and dislikes, fears, hopes, dreams, and ambitions. However, they are also generally wild, reckless, often at odds with one another, and always vying for control. On one reading Thomistic virtue ethics is simply a method for training the emotions to interact in a balanced and effective way: to get angry when one should and to the degree that one should, and the same with sorrow, desire, disgust, hope, etc. Aquinas pairs the emotions and show how they can stand at odds with one another, anger against fear, joy against sorrow, hope against despair, etc. Then he presents his virtues, each keyed to control one side of these paired emotions. For instance, Fortitude  is the virtue of the irascible part as it stands against depressive emotions, and thus Fortitude is rightly aligned to control fear, sorrow, despair, etc. On the other had, temperance is the virtue of that stands against the opposite side of these emotions with relation to our inner world, and thus keeps anger, hope, etc from overreaching their hand and leading the individual into destruction. Similarly, Justice balances the emotions in the social sphere, and Prudence is the virtue of knowing just how far is far enough in any given situation. So, here is your question for the day: what are the emotions and how do they interact with one another well and/or poorly? Pixar’s Inside Out is an example of one answer to this question that was turned into a two hour movie. So, give it some thought and share your answer with us.

Remember, you should answer this question in the form of a 1000 word story.

Tom’s Not Here

Well, Tom would normally be posting today, but he’s traveling right now, and unfortunately the person who was supposed to be covering his spot had to bow out as well. Have you ever had one of those days when you just wanted to beat the living shit out of someone? I have. Actually, I used to have a lot of them (like… every day… I used to be a very angry person). Or one of those days when you just wanted to hide under the covers until the whole world went away? I’ve had a lot of those as well (amazingly enough, very angry people are often very frightened people as well). Let me tell you how to deal with them. It’s simple… …not easy, but simple (I’ve often found that those two don’t go together as often as you’d think).

  1. Acknowledge how you feel. Give it a name. The more you try to deny your anger, fear, envy, hate, etc the more control you give it. As long as it is something that you hide, cover up, or try to ignore the less you actually do to control it and the more it does to control you. At this point it can help to think of the feeling as a blackmailer trying to hold you hostage. You can pay up, repeatedly, or you can just come clean and take away the blackmailer’s power.
  2. Accept that this is who you are. Again, the more you deny it, the less you can actually do that will help it. You are an angry person, a cowardly person, a jealous person, a hateful person, etc. It’s a part of your character, and until you acknowledge that as well, your just going to keep being that angry, cowardly, jealous, hateful person because you can’t admit to yourself that something is wrong.
  3. Recognize that who you are is not who you should be. There’s a difference between being authentic and being good. I can be a very authentic douchebag and still be a douchebag. My authenticity doesn’t change that at all, though some people might think it will for a short time. So, while authenticity is important, you also need to recognize the need for change. I am not who I should be, nor am I who I want to be, and until I’m willing to recognize both who I am, and who I should/want to be, and see the difference between the two, I’m still stuck.
  4. Face your emotions and think about how you should feel in those situations. If you’re dealing with fear, think about a time that you’ve felt confident in a difficult situation, and then imagine that confidence bleeding over into the situation that you are afraid of. Something that also helps here is taking steps to alleviate actual reasons to feel a certain way. If you’re afraid of being mugged, start taking self-defense clashes. This isn’t going to simply solve the problem, but it will help you deal with the legitimate fear, and to recognize the difference between legitimate fear and illegitimate fear.
  5. Meditate on the way that you should feel. Take the time to not only reflect and identify how you should feel, but to repeatedly build in yourself a mental habit of feeling that way in the situations that would normally trigger your anger, fear, envy, etc. This is not a one time step. This is something to do on a regular basis, perhaps even a daily basis, and to spend time on (i.e. give this 20 or 30 minutes a day, not 2 or 3).
  6. Expose yourself to small, controlled aspects of the events that would normally trigger the emotions that you want to deal with. For instance, have someone you trust start a personal debate with you, or put you in a situation that would normally cause you to panic. Go slowly, separate your mind from the situation, try to look at yourself in the third person, and identify when the feeling begins. In that moment, practice the extension that you’ve been training at. Stop yourself, focus on a time when you did feel the way you should be feeling, and let that feeling bleed over into the current situation. Again, this is something that takes time and effort. It is not a one time or one day event.

This isn’t easy, but it can help overtime. Of course, other things can help as well. Consistent spiritual practices, a relationship with God, and close friends who are willing to point out areas in which you need to work are all huge benefits when dealing with these kinds of overwhelming emotions. That being said, don’t give up! There is hope.

Story Challenge of the Week

wallcoo.com_christmas_66-550x412Alright! Well, Alayna and I finished all the Star Wars movies :). I love this woman, she’s pretty awesome. You know… I think I might marry her… …in a couple of weeks. Seriously, it’s coming up pretty fast now, and the details are (mostly) out of the way, which makes it even more exciting! So, this is the topic of your story challenge today! No, not weddings… anticipation. So, you know the rules. Take your subject and run with it. Write me a story of 1000 words or less and stay on topic. As before, if it’s in any way applicable, you should use this to try to develop your world a little more :).

Your Challenge: Write me a story about anticipation. This could be a story that seeks to express the struggle of waiting, or it could be a story about something that you’re actually looking forward to, something that you did spend time anticipating, or about how anticipation can actually make things better in the long run. You could focus on the actual experience of anticipation, or you could try to explain what its like finally get the thing you’ve been longing for. In some way though, your story needs to have a strong focus on anticipation.