Our ordinary speech is full of poetry: "She had eyes as deep as the ocean." "The kitchen looks like a cyclone hit it." "My mother's voice could wake the dead." Few of us write poetry, but many of us made up poems when we were children. I was no exception, and I expect that you, my readers, were not exceptions either. I'd like to tell you a little about how I came to write poems and then open the possibility to you.
I consider it great good fortune that I learned about poetry young. In a prophetic baby photograph, I'm holding Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. I couldn't read then; that came later, in church. I can still see the black letters making the words I followed across the white pages as we sang hymns, or as my father, who was a minister, read aloud lessons and psalms. It was from psalms I first learned that poetry is more than just rhyming words or lines that stop halfway across the page. In psalms, rock turns to water, mountains smoke with a fire of thorns and melt like wax. "All the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears," reads Psalm 6. I looked forward to church, and that spoken language, as a place free of the noisy chaos at home, where I was the oldest of a brood that eventually grew to nine.
When I was 15, my English teacher, Miss Wells, asked each of us to write a poem. I wrote about the shoot of a daffodil breaking from earth in early spring. I can still see bright green contrasting with the rich black soil. I forgot that poem when I wrote in college; there I imitated what I read, trying to rhyme like Shakespeare, using high-flown language like Keats, and dropping capital letters like e.e. cummings. It was not until my twenties that I learned poems could come out of my ordinary young female life.
The year I was 22, I dropped out of graduate school and moved to New York City. "I'm going to write," I told an older woman friend, a writer, when she asked about my plans. I had a job, a hotel, a promised sublet, I told her, and the dream of a novel in my head. Take some of home with you, she advised. She seemed old and wise, so I packed a few of what she called "transitional objects": two tiny antique Persian vases I had inherited and a tattered patchwork quilt from my grandmother, white with lime green circles and bright red stars.
The job was half-time and left hours for writing. I was hanging on to a boyfriend who lived in Chicago, and he had promised to join me. I set up my typewriter on a table in front of the tall French windows. When I sat down to write, nothing came to me but fear. I was 22. I had had an abortion I'd kept secret from my parents. The boyfriend was drunk or stoned whenever I called him; the hotel was filled with strange people. The day I was finally able to write, I kept getting up to make sure the door was locked. Silence, and then everything in the room seemed to vibrate. The chest of drawers hulked forward as if it were about to topple, the Persian vases seemed ominously lit from within, and when I looked at my grandmother's quilt I started to cry.
In the week that followed, no matter how late or early I called, the boyfriend was out. In the morning, alone in New York, I would wake up and look at the stained-glass flowers; because I had written about them, they were suddenly as much mine as the vases or the quilt. The few sections of blue and green that had fallen out of the wreath had been replaced, I noticed, not with color but with clear glass. One morning when I called, a sleepy woman's voice answered my boyfriend's phone. As I looked up at the windows, blank with grief and anger, the blue and red and green abruptly turned everything odd and scary. It was a relief, I decided, to see through plain glass, to see the actual color of the brick building across the street and, above it, the real blue of a cloudless sky. What I didn't know was that I had learned to think like a poet.
Wordsworth wrote that poetry comes from "emotion recollected in tranquillity." That recollection can become almost a trance in which one's imagination seems magically to gather what one sees and hears into language for what normally remains hidden, even from oneself. Had I not been thinking like a poet, the clear window would have been just a clear window. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," Emily Dickinson wrote. "The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs– / The stiff Heart questions...." There are moments like that in all our lives. At those times the imagination, if we let it, can loosen the stuff of life and we can think like poets, allowing ordinary pain to lessen, spirit and radiance to take over.
But how do we put that mystery into language? In a poem called "Personal Letter No. 2," Sonia Sanchez achieves it with the simple displacement of a word: "if i were young / i wd stretch you / with my wild words / while our nights / run soft with hands." We expect "soft hands," but not "soft with hands." What she does trips us up, making a night of love immediate, almost physical. Try that yourself. Write a sentence and move the words around, or substitute a surprising word for the expected one. In her poem "Young," Anne Sexton does something similar: "A thousand doors ago / when I was a lonely kid / in a big house with four / garages and it was summer / as long as I could remember...." It took me several readings to notice she'd written doors where I expected years.
There are many ways to gather material for poems. One of my friends collects fragments of language she hoards like jewelry; another takes road trips, jotting down phrases from billboards, overheard conversation, street signs, or gravestones; another wakes to scribble, transforming her dreams to poems. I carry a notebook everywhere, small enough for my purse. Once I swerved to the side of a road to catch a poem: "How blond winter / grass hides a blue pond," I wrote, "as I stop my car now / to speak a prayer for the dead." Last fall my friend Carolyn Forché and I were writing together. "Look!" she said, pointing at the sky, and later this turned up in a poem: "as all afternoon the clouds float west to east, leaf smoke and lake wind, pumice and plumbago grey...."
12 Ways to Write a Poem
1. Make a list of five things you did today, in the order of doing them.
2. Quickly write down three colors.
3. Write down a dream. If you can't remember one, make it up.
4. Take 15 minutes to write an early childhood memory, using language a child would use.
5. Write a forbidden thought, to someone who would understand.
6. Write a forbidden thought, to someone who would not.
7. Make a list of five of your favorite "transitional objects." Choose one and describe it in detail.
8. Write down three questions you'd ask as if they were the last questions you could ever ask.
9. Write down an aphorism (e.g., A stitch in time saves nine).
10. Write down three slant rhymes, pairs of words that share one or two consonants rather than vowels (moon/mine and long/thing are slant rhymes).
11. Write three things people have said to you in the past 48 hours. Quote them as closely as you can.
12. Write the last extreme pain you had, emotional or physical. If the pain were an animal, what animal would it be? Describe the animal.
What you have just done is generate a lot of material for a poem or several poems. You can stop and write the poem another time, or you can write it now. I suggest you use one of the questions as the first line, each of the colors more than once, the slant rhymes, and the aphorism with a word or two changed, as Sexton did in "a thousand doors ago." Otherwise, use any part of, or all of, the material in any way you want—a line from your dream might work well on its own or your description of the animal might better describe your great uncle. Let the poem be between 20 and 30 lines; let each line be 10 or more syllables long. Think of the poem as a dream or a psalm you are inventing, and don't force it. Write in your own speech, allowing its music and sense to speak through you.
In our group, after we make the poems, we read them aloud in the spirit of telling stores around a campfire. Always we find that in transforming bits of our lives into poems, we have somehow freed ourselves. We have turned the trouble at work into something funny, the startled look on the elderly parent's face into something beautiful, the joy of new love into something that will last. We end the day somehow changed and refreshed. We can go on. And what's more, we have made something that others can read. No human experience is unique, but each of us has a way of putting language together that is ours alone.
Keep Reading to Start Writing
- Novelist Michael Cunningham talks to O
- How to write your own memoir
- Junot Diaz talks about becoming a writer