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.

 

 

The Need to Let Things Fester

This isn’t nearly as gross as the picture that I wanted to use, but that one was licensed.

Sometimes writing takes time.  Actually, one of the most important parts of the writing process is giving stories/poems/whatever the time they need to form.  I’m sure that we all have a different way of expressing this, but in me… stories fester.  Many of my friends find this incredibly hilarious, which I’ve honestly never understood.  I think that the word fester perfectly sums up the writing process.  I know other authors who use words like ‘percolate’ or ‘ruminate’ to describe their writing, but these words cannot bring across the shear frustration that an unformed story can cause.

For instance, I am currently writing a story that is very late… almost two weeks late now, and it simply refuses to be written.  I’ve tried everything and the story still stymies progress.  It needs time to fester (of course, I don’t have that time at the moment… …).  A festering story is just what it sounds like.  It gets under your skin, into your brain, and just sits there, building like a pussy sore, taking up more and more space.  If you poke and prod it too hard it hurts, a lot sometimes, and trying to force it out can be excruciating.  However, when that story finally pops, and all the built up pussy fluids come bubbling out to leave only healthy flesh… well, that feels pretty amazing!

I promise you, there is nothing quite like finishing a work, especially one that’s been giving you trouble.  It’s an amazing feeling, to finally have everything out! Especially if it’s a story that’s been festering for a while.  A story that won’t right is like an infection, it’s painful, frustrating, and you just want to keep poking and picking at it until something breaks.  A finished story, well – that like finally being healthy again.  It’s a wonderful thing.  Anyway, I wrote this post at a friends request, and I think I’m going to leave off now.  I’m sure I’ve disgusted everyone enough… especially with that photo.  Smiles! Hopefully next weekend I’ll be back to world building tips.

A Poem for Hard Times

When you tell yourself that things can't possibly get any worse, they usually do. As the British say, 'Keep buggering on.'

I’m not gonna lie.  I’ve had a pretty crappy week.  There are times in all of our lives when we just want to sit down a cry.  There are times when we want to rage and fight.  And then there are times when we just want to give up and walk away.  Not doing these things when we most want to is a sign of maturity, but not acting on these desires doesn’t mean not feeling them.  This poem is about hope in the midst of hopelessness, about perseverance in the midst of pain, and it’s about the inevitability that the truly mature man will keep on going, even when there doesn’t seem to be any point at all.  So, for anyone reading this who feels the same way: I’ve been there, more than once.  Keep going, keep pushing, keep hoping, even though you can’t see any reason or way.  That’s what it means to be a man.

Unrelenting

In pain, I rage

Beating my anger against a rock

My fury spent, the rock remains unmoved

My broken hands are not so

In pain, I grieve

Sorrow floods my soul, washing against my pain

My grief spent, my pain remains unmoved

My broken heart is not healed

In pain, I work

Fruitful labor tires me, rendering my insensate

My labor spent, I rest, and my pain returns

My torn pride is not resewn

In pain, I believe

Faith enlightens me, fills my soul with hope

My faith spent, my pain abides unchanged

My broken soul is not renewed

I have no answer

And so I wait for one to be revealed