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.



Accoutrements of the Real World

Have you ever been able to say exactly what you were trying to say, and later realized that it was exactly the wrong thing to say? I’ve had this experience a few times. It’s not entirely enjoyable. This has nothing to do with today’s post, which will be somewhat random. It’s just something that has come up a few times in the past couple of months and is thus on my mind, which tends to be equally random. The Fragged Empire kickstarter went into its final countdown today, it has less than three days left and at this point has reached almost double it’s initial goal, which is cool. I would love to see it actually reach double, but we’ll see if that happens. Oh, and if you haven’t been following the news, Donald Trump is now the only candidate left in the primary race for the Republican party, though Bernie Sanders has vowed to see his campaign through to the end.

All of these are rather small bits of trivia. The kind of thing that you find in the real world: little bits of news, hearsay, or facts that people care about, even if they aren’t always of significant importance to the overarching story of our lives. This is a sign that the world goes on without us. Even if you die tomorrow, people will continue to hurt each other by saying exactly what they think, Wade Dyer’s kickstarter campaign will successfully fund the next book in his role playing game, and Donald Trump will win the Republican Primary. So, how often does this kind of thing appear in your stories? One of the things that I love about a lot of recent video games is that they create an immersive world. That is, a world exists beyond what you see in the story. Kings die, regents are elected, businesses thrive or shut down, and reality television continues to make everyone’s lives miserable far into the future. None of these things matter to the story itself, but they do matter in creating a believable and immersive world that provides a foundation for the story.

Steven Erikson does this in many ways, but one of my favorites is by introducing his readers to the arts of his world. In his novels he regularly begins chapters with poems from famous writers or scholars from his fantasy world. Many of these you meet briefing at some point in the novels. So, I thought that I’d share a couple of these with you so you can have a sense of what I mean. For the record, all of these poems are present in Erikson’s novels, but were retrieved from the Malazan Wiki:

In The Kingdom of Meaning Well

The man who never smiles
Drags his nets through the deep
And we are gathered
To gape in the drowning air
Beneath the buffeting sound
Of his dreaded voice
Speaking of salvation
In the repast of justice done
And fed well on the laden table
Heaped with noble desires
He tells us all this to hone the edge
Of his eternal mercy
Slicing our bellies open
One by one.
―In the Kingdom of Meaning Well
Fisher kel Tath

Clothes Remain

Down past the wind-groomed grasses
In the sultry curl of the stream
There was a pool set aside
In calm interlude away from the rushes
Where not even the reeds waver
Nature takes no time to harbour our needs
For depthless contemplation
Every shelter is a shallow thing
The sly sand grips hard no manner
Of anchor or even footfall
Past the bend the currents run thin In wet chuckle where a faded tunic
Drapes the shoulders of a broken branch
These are the dangers I might see
Leaning forward if the effort did not prove
So taxing but that ragged collar
Covers no pale breast with tapping pulse
This shirt wears the river in birth foam
And languid streaming tatters
Soon I gave up the difficult rest
And floated down in search of boots
Filled with pebbles as every man needs
Somewhere to stand.
―Clothes Remain
Attributed to Fisher kel Tath


Coltaine rattles slow
across the burning land.
The wind howls through the bones
of his hate-ridden command.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.

Coltaine’s fist bleeds the journey home
along rivers of red-soaked sand.
His train howls through his bones
in spiteful reprimand.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.
A marching song of the Bonehunters

Artichokes on Hold

So, remember the last post I wrote (you know, two days ago 😉 ), when I said that everything would be awesome? Well, it seems like it might be a little longer before awesomeness strikes.

Lee Ann Roripaugh
Random fact: Roripaugh’s username on her blog is “heartichoke,” which could partly explain why she is currently holding an artichoke. Partly.

I was planning to bedazzle you all with an awesome discussion about two poems by an author named Lee Ann Roripaugh. Of course, to do this I would need the poetry books that I (in)conveniently left at my parents’ house three hours away. That’s what I get for being an English major with only one bookcase in my apartment.

Anyway, sorry for (maybe?) getting everyone’s hopes up about that awesome discussion, but if anyone’s interested, check out a poetry anthology called Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. In particular, take a look at “Octopus in the Freezer” and “The Woman Who Loves Insects.” (I know, the titles are a little strange, but Roripaugh is quirky and awesome. Trust me.)

Now that I’ve spent a sufficient amount of time rambling about Roripaugh, I think I’ll leave you all with a writing exercise from the creative writing class that I took in undergrad.

I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with the popular saying “show, don’t tell.” (If you’re not familiar with it, count yourself lucky. There are only so many times I can hear that phrase before I want to strangle the person who says it.)

Writing Fiction
Buy it. Read it. Trust me.

Fiction is made more realistic through “[s]pecific, definite, concrete, particular details” (Burroway and Stuckey-French 22). Such details often add to the overall credibility of a piece and allow readers to suspend their disbelief. When readers can glimpse the world of the characters, they experience the action along with them. Stories don’t happen in a vacuum, so description helps you paint a picture for your readers.

That phrase “show, don’t tell” is definitely valuable, but it may be a little misleading. When we think of the word “show,” we automatically connect it with the sense of sight—which causes our descriptions to be mostly sight-based.

But what about hearing, tasting, smelling, touching? There’s a whole range of senses to choose from to help deepen your work and give it that added layer of believability.

Let’s take a look at an exercise based on one of those other senses:

Touch. We sometimes neglect to use tactile descriptions in our writing, but we do touch—all the time. Shopping for clothes, shaking hands, playing with pets, shuffling cards, scrubbing pots, shooting baskets. Think of what it means to touch an odd, rare, or even holy object. Consider temperature (tepid, frigid), moisture content (arid, greasy, sticky, crisp), texture (crinkled, gritty, silky), and weight (ponderous, buoyant). All of these sensations provide us with great descriptive words. Use some of them and find others.

Describe the way an action or event feels—putting on a piece of clothing, engaging in exercise, eating a tough or squishy item of food, dancing, moving across a crowded room, carrying groceries in from the car, kissing, waking up, washing the car, whatever. What impression does your description give? Does it prompt a scene? Can you make some characters talk while they’re doing one of these activities? (Burroway and Stuckey-French 71)

Feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂

A Brief Works Cited

  • Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Boston: Longman-Pearson, 2011. Print.
  • Roripaugh, Lee Ann. “Octopus in the Freezer.” 2001. Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. Comp. Ryan Van Cleave. New York: Longman, 2003. 234-36. Print.
  • – – – . “The Woman Who Loves Insects.” 1999. Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. Comp. Ryan Van Cleave. New York: Longman, 2003. 232-34. Print.

Everything (Will Be) Awesome!

Hello, everyone! So, good news: I’ve got an awesome two-part post planned that’s about this awesome poet that should be pretty awesome. Bad news: end-of-term papers have sneaked up on me and I haven’t been able to finish the first post.

Everything is Awesome
Apparently I belong in the LEGO movie, because everything is awesome.

So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have decided to bestow upon you even more of my poetry! Like the poem from my last post, this one is also a little personal. It’s loosely based on my memories of my great-aunt.




I don’t remember if it was sunny or gray
the day my great aunt’s coffin was sealed away.

“Beth was so kind,
Beth was so sincere,
Beth always drew others near.”

Each repetition, a nail straight to the heart—
It was my name they were calling out.

I met relatives I hardly knew:
“Hello, Elizabeth,” they’d say.
“It’s Beth, actually,” I’d like to relay,
but I didn’t have the energy that day.

A coarse gray pillow sitting in our back seat
used to smell like her:

An old, lonely widow, waiting for death—
an eternal, spoiling aunt celebrating young life’s breadth.

Her smiling face is something I can’t quite recall,
just a cloud of gray
and brown-spotted hands
pressing little treasures into my palms.

Starbucks and Pizzelles

Hello, everyone! School (and work) is unfortunately in full swing right now, so I’m afraid today’s post will be a little on the short side.

Basically, this is me right now.
Basically, this is me right now.

So, I thought I’d leave you all with another work that I wrote for my graduate-level poetry class. This one is a little personal, loosely based on a question my mother once asked me about if I had any memories of my late grandmother.

Anyway, here it is!

“You Remember my Mother?”

I remember Grandmother’s slow smile, her wavy yellow hair—

The way her eyes crinkled at the corners, like yours.

But mostly I remember you—your face at the funeral.

The way it lit up when fifteen-year friends

Showed their respects—an isolated ring of happiness.

Your stricken expression when you discover

The wickedness of two others:

A sister, brushing back hair from the necklace she stole,

A belle-sœur, leaning in, sweet-talking the widower.

I think I’ve learned the lessons passed from your mother to you:

The value of hard work,

The warmth of fresh-baked pizzelles,

Drifting smells drawing lost souls in.

Scene Challenge of the Week

de-rerum-natura-latin-text-lucretius-stanley-barney-smith-paperback-cover-artSo, lately I’ve been reading Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things which is a bit of Roman metaphysics. Lucretius was a late Epicurean who presented one of the earlier ideas of development through progressive change (i.e. evolution, but very different from Darwinian evolution). On top of this, Lucretius was a poet by trade, so he writes his metaphysics in a highly florid poetic style, which makes him a very interesting mix. He’s writing a philosophical essay, but writing it in a style reminiscent of some of the better Roman poets (Virgil comes to mind) such that On The Nature of Things becomes something fairly different than either. It’s worth a read if you have the time and interest, and its not particularly long. Further, it makes for a interesting twist on this week’s scene challenge. Instead of using a novel, as normal, I want you to see if you can find something that is somewhere between a novel and a work of history or philosophy (Voltaire’s Candide or Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra come to mind for me, as does More’s Utopia). Anyway, I have a scene challenge for you and you all should know the rules, but just in case: 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: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

More Poetry!

So, I was planning on continuing my series on Discourse Grammar in The Name of the Wind for this post…but unfortunately, work, school, and a very complicated fantasy novel have all conspired against me. That post sadly remains unfinished for tonight.

However, I do have a couple more poems of mine to share with you in the meantime! 😀


My name never rings back at me

Thoughts never slip past my lips

The only way to climb outside myself

Is to stop your questioning words with a kiss.

seashells on seashore sanibel
Silly Sally Sells Seashells by the Seashore


Lie broken by the waxing, waning shore.

She gathers them in a red sack wet with sand and salt.


One more.

Splintered, patchwork beauty—ribbed shards coalescing,

Makeshift whole.

A Murder of Snows

Snow! (Photo credit: me.)
Snow! (Photo credit: me.)

I just wanted to let you know it’s snowing right now where I am. Snowing. And it’s awesome.

This post was supposed to be a very long and interesting continuation of my last post on the discourse grammar in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, but sadly, the snow murdered any chance I had of writing it tonight.

The textbook that I used as a reference for my last post (and the book that was essentially my lifeline during the class I took on Advanced Grammar) is currently at work…while I’m currently trapped at home.

So, I’m going to take Selayna’s advice and post a few of my poems. Feel free to let me know what you think about them in the comments section!

This first poem is just a fun little one written from the perspective of a character in one of the books I’m currently writing (a fantasy novel):

The Seer

Insanity lingers like a friend at my door.

I’ve entertained the thought of letting her in,

But then I thought—well—she could stand outside

A day or two more.

This second poem is very strange and was inspired by a card from some board game that I can’t quite remember:

Picture this on a playing card: the image of this mirror, in place of a woman's head. It was rather disturbing.
Picture this on a playing card: the image of this mirror, in place of a woman’s head. It was rather disturbing.

My Face is a Mirror

hard, reflecting all

that is around me nothing

soft like the warmth

of another’s flesh beside

me. sometimes I wish for the heat

that would melt me until there was nothing

left but glassy puddles that glisten

softly in the shifting sunlight

before breaking.