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.



Writing Challenge Thoughts

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

I’ve been trying to expand the type of challenges that I give all of you to reflect a wider array of effective writing exercises and today I wanted to take a moment and gather some thoughts from all of you. So, if you would, take a moment and answer the following questions, then post a comment with your answers below:

Do you like the new variety of challenges?

Do you use them regularly (even if you don’t post responses)?

Are there any challenges that you distinctly dislike or don’t see the point of? If so, which ones?

Are there any types of writing exercises that you’d like to see reflected in the weekly challenges which aren’t currently reflected?

What do you think of the plot challenges? These are always the hardest for me to write, and I think they garner the least response.

Do the plot challenges help you think through your writing?

Are they too broad or too difficult to actually complete?

Do you have any comments or suggestions regarding the various challenge posts?

I’d like to get your feedback so that this blog can be a useful resource to increase your productivity as a writer.

Confessions of a Crazy Writer, Part 2: More than 3’s a Crowd

Imagine trying to thoroughly develop all these people in ONE post.

Last week, I talked about how much I dislike world building. This week, I’m going to talk about my problems with the dramatis personae of my writing, or, more specifically, why I have difficulty writing stories with a large cast of characters, and hence why I  hate writing more than about three characters.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times, I’m a psychological writer. 98% of what I write is in first-person narrative because of my obsession with exploring the thoughts and motivations of my characters. The problem with that, of course, is that my style of narrative tends to keep me tied to one character (usually the main character, but I have written a story or two from the perspective of a minor character), which often leads to trouble when it comes to fleshing out and defining the others in my cast list. As a result, I like to keep my character set (of characters that need a lot of fleshing out and explaining, anyway) for any particular story as small as possible. It also doesn’t help that I have voices in my head, and therefore having multiple characters can get very confusing for me very quickly. Three is the optimal number for me because I can get into all of their heads and develop them as characters without getting completely overwhelmed by all of them talking over each other and trying to put their own spin on things. Any more than three and I start having issues remembering which character said what and so on and so forth. The problem is, very few stories work well with so few characters, so I often find myself in the position of having to write more characters than I would like.

If you had to deal with this inside your head all the time, you'd only write 3 characters too.
If you had to deal with this inside your head all the time, you’d only write 3 characters too.

So, how do I overcome this particular problem? Well, unlike the whole worldbuilding thing, I actually don’t mind working on this issue. It’s a daunting task, but not as boring as the other one is. I try to work through one character at a time before actually writing the story – in other words, I let each character tell me the entire story from their point of view. After that, I know which character saw which events and who said what, which makes it a little less confusing for me. It also gives each character the chance to tell their side of the story without having to clamor for attention. This approach doesn’t work if I’m writing more than about eight characters, though, because then it just drags on and I get tired of hearing the same work over and over again before I even get around to writing it down. When that happens, I try to write the story from the point of view of whichever character is narrating, and then I go back and try to develop the personalities of all the other actors individually. It doesn’t always work, but it does most of the time. Both methods are long and arduous, which is why I try to avoid them whenever necessary. Sometimes, of course, it’s not possible to take evasive action, and so I have to resort to them.

Well, there you go. Anyone else have problems writing more than 3 characters? Anyone have trouble writing 3 characters or less? What do you do to overcome these issues? Until next week, happy writing!

I’m the Narrator

I am the narrator.

Does anyone else have a “signature” point of view that they write in? And do you have trouble writing from any other POV? I certainly do. I tend to write from first person limited POV, and it’s extremely difficult for me to write a story in anything other than that. I have written a grand total of ONE good story in a non-first person POV (it was 3rd person omniscient), and it was extremely difficult for me to write. So today, I’m going to talk about why I’m so in love with being the narrator of my stories through first person POV, as well as some of the problems I run into while using it.

First person point of view is perfect for me because I’m a psychological writer. I like to get inside the mind of my main character and see what makes them tick. I love writing from the perspective of just one particular character because they have a unique look at the people and events of the story. I like not knowing what other characters in the story are thinking…it leaves me in the dark as much as the narrator. For all intents and purposes, I AM the narrator. I’m inside the narrator’s head, I see what he/she sees, feel what they feel, think what they think. Aside from what they experience, I have no idea what’s going on elsewhere in the story. I’m usually as surprised by plot twists as the narrator is, actually, because I get so wrapped up inside that character that I have no way of reaching out to my other characters. I can speak to them but I can’t get inside their heads. It’s fascinating and makes my own work as new and exciting to me as it is to the characters in the story because like them, I have no idea what the hell is going on. From a writing perspective, I become the character who is narrating the story, at least in my head. It also makes everything feel more realistic. In real life we don’t see what everyone is thinking and we don’t have control over how others act. First person POV is great in my opinion because it is just that one character…one set of thoughts, one set of actions. It makes the writing process either, at least for me. Jumping to any other  POV is difficult because they tend to either overwhelm me with the thoughts of more characters than I can handle or just shut me out from their heads completely. It’s very disorienting, really.

Of course, first person POV can be extremely frustrating for me as a writer because I do have only that one perspective. If my

Seeing one set of toughts is quite enough for me, thanks.

narrator isn’t present at some event, I can’t talk about it in the story unless one of the other characters mentions it. I have to stay with the narrator through the whole work no matter how much I want to go see what’s happening with Rachel, Sam, or any other random cast members. It’s also a little annoying not being able to tell what everyone else is thinking at times. Character development can be really hard when you can’t see anything past what your narrator sees. Still, those quibbles are rather minor compared to the overall picture.

Simply put, first person point of view is AWESOME. I love it. I get to narrate all my own work in a more personal way than most writers get to. It’s a little more realistic, it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it keeps me on my toes, so to speak. It’s not for everyone, but it definitely works for me, and that’s what I tend to write in 99.9% of the time. I’m the narrator, and it’s a fantastic job.