READING AND WRITING POEMS
Poems are written in lines. A line of prose ends at the edge of the page, but a line of poetry ends where the poet wants it to end. By choosing where to end your lines you can do things with poetry that you can't do with prose.
In Phil George's "Battle Won is Lost" the lines are in pairs, called couplets.
Write a poem on this model. The first of each pair of lines will begin with "They said," The second will give your response to what they said: what you did or what you said.
BATTLE WON IS LOST
They said, "You are no longer a lad."
They said, "Enter the council lodge."
They said, "Our lands are at stake."
They said, "We are at war."
They said, "Prepare red war symbols."
They said, "Count coups."
They said, "You'll see friends die."
They said, "Desperate warriors fight best."
They said, "Some will be wounded."
They said, "To die is glorious."
Poems have endings. The ending of Phil George's poem is "They lied." The ending tells a reader that the poem is over. The ending of this poem also tells us that the person talking has found out that people who were pretending to look out for him were really looking out for themselves.
Your poem may end with "They lied," but it may also end with something else, just so it lets a reader know that you have figured these people out.
Words and phrases in short lines receive an emphasis that the same words and phrases wouldn't get in longer lines. Look at what Olive Senior does with short lines in this poem.
Bobby Curren alias Festus alias Gre Gre
never come home last night
tie up tight
in crocus bag
and him eyelid gone
Bobby Curren wont
but who need that
when you dead?
In prose it wouldn't be natural for us to pause after "wont," so why did she want us to hesitate there for a split second? And why did she put "walk again without toes" into two lines? And why does "or head" get a line to itself?
In the following poem Nellie Wong could have put "How? you ask. Let me tell you the ways." into one line, but her question and her statement wouldn't get the emphasis that they do in separate lines.
Notice, in the next stanza how the word darkness is emphasized by being at the end of the line, and the effect of “in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.” having its own line.
When you write your own poems, try to write them so that the ends of the lines never seem arbitrary or accidental.
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP
I know now that once I longed to be white.
How? you ask.
Let me tell you the ways.
when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.
when I was growing up, my sisters
with fair skin got praised
for their beauty and I fell
further, crushed between high walls.
when I was growing up, I read magazines
and saw movies, blonde movie stars, white skin,
sensuous lips and to be elevated, to become
a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear
imaginary pale skin.
when I was growing up, I was proud
of my English, my grammar, my spelling,
fitting into the group of smart children,
smart Chinese children, fitting in,
belonging, getting in line.
when I was growing up and went to high school,
I discovered the rich white girls, a few yellow girls,
their imported cotton dresses, their cashmere sweaters,
their curly hair and I thought that I too should have
what these lucky girls had.
when I was growing up, I hungered
for American food, American styles
coded: white and even to me, a child
born of Chinese parents, being Chinese
was feeling foreign, was limiting,
when I was growing up and a white man wanted
to take me out, I thought I was special,
an exotic gardenia, anxious to fit
the stereotype of an oriental chick
when I was growing up, I felt ashamed
of some yellow men, their small bones,
their frail bodies, their spitting
on the streets, their coughing,
their lying in sunless rooms
shooting themselves in the arms.
when I was growing up, people would ask
If I were Filipino, Polynesian, Portuguese.
They named all colors except white, the shell
of my soul but not my rough dark skin.
when I was growing up, I felt
dirty. I thought that god
made white people clean
and no matter how much I bathed,
I could not change, I could not shed
my skin in the gray water.
when I was growing up, I swore
I would run away to purple mountains,
houses by the sea with nothing over
my head, with space to breathe,
uncongested with yellow people in an area
called Chinatown, in an area I later
learned was a ghetto, one of many hearts
of Asian America.
I know now that once I longed to be white.
How many more ways? you ask.
Haven't I told you enough?
This poem is written in stanzas. Each stanza begins with the line, "When I was growing up. . . ." Write a poem in stanzas. Each stanza will begin with the line, "When I was growing up. . . ." You might use the same ending as this poem or you might find your own.
WORLD SERIES, 1968
My mother's friend Angie from work
knew how much I liked baseball
and gave me the ticket she got
from Vic Wertz, the beer distributor
for the wedding hall her mother ran.
Angie gave me allergy shots every week--
she was beautiful in her white uniform.
I went with her fiancé, who didn't know much
about baseball. I was twelve, caught
between sports and the sexual wake-up call.
Art was his name, and as we sat
in left field box seats, upper deck,
I wished Angie were with me instead.
I bought ginger ale and shivered.
He drank beer and shivered.
The Tigers lost 10-1. Lou Brock's stolen bases.
Bob Gibson's strikeouts. The wind blasted
our faces. He wanted to leave early
but I wouldn't budge. I kept whispering
The World Series, The World Series. . .
but I was still cold.
Write a poem about something you looked forward to, something that was supposed to be great but turned out to be a disappointment. Don't explain or generalize about the disappointment. Just tell what happened.
Poems are made of pictures and actions and words and sounds, and all are put together to make a song. Read John Rice’s poem about a day at the beach. Look at the pictures, feel the actions, hear the sounds.
It was a
sunboiled brightlight friedegg hotskin suntanned
sizzler of a day
It was a
popsong dingdong candyfloss dodgemcar spaceinvader
smashing seaside town
We had a
swelltime a welltime a realpellmelltime
a finetime a rhymetime a superdoubledimetime
We beachswam ate ham gobbledup a chicken leg
climbed trees chased bees
got stuck in mud up to our knees
played chase flew in space
beat a seagull in a skating race
rowed boats quenched throats
spent a load of £5 notes
sang songs hummed tunes
played hide-and-seek in sandy dunes
did all these things, too much by far,
that we fell asleep going back in the car . . .
Make a list of all the things you did and collected, good and bad, on an exhausting childhood day. See the pictures; re-live the actions; play with the names of scenes and actions; play with rhymes and combining words. Put it all together and find an ending, and you may have made a poem.
BIOGRAPHY OF SOUTHERN RAIN
Rain's all right. The boys who physic
through town on freights won't kick
if it comes; they often laugh then, talking
about the girl who lived down the block,
and how her hair was corn-yellow gold
that God could use for money. But rain,
like memory, can come in filthy clothes too.
The whole upstairs of space caved in that night;
as though a drunken giant had stumbled over the sky--
and all the tears in the world came through.
It was that. Like everyone hurt crying at once.
Trees bent to it, their arms a gallows for all
who had ever died in pain, or were hungry, since
the first thief turned to Christ, cursing. . .
Then, out of the rain, a girl's voice--her hand
on my arm. "Buddy, help me get this train."
Her voice was soft. . . a cigarette after coffee.
I could hear the clickdamnitclick of the wheels;
saw the headlight writng something on the rain.
Then I saw her face--its bleeding sores--I didn't
ask her if she had ever been in love
or had ever heard of Magdalen and Mary
or why she wanted to leave that town.
Do you see what I mean about the rain?
Poets use similes: "Like everyone hurt crying at once," and metaphors: "their arms a gallows" and "the headlight writing something on the rain." But without images there is little poetry--visual images: "her face--its bleeding sores," images of touch, "her hand on my arm," and sound: "the clickdamnitclick of the wheels." Vivid, concrete images are necessary in order to control what goes on in the imagination of the reader; otherwise, the reader will substitute a picture of her own for the one you had in mind.
Write a poem beginning with "Rain's all right." You don't need to end it with "Do you see what I mean about the rain?" but, in between the beginning and the end, use concrete images to tell what happened in the rain (like the girl catching the freight) so that the reader will know why you think rain is all right.
You want your poem to make someone experience, feel and understand something that has happened to you. You can't make them be there, but you want to make them come as close to being there as you can. Usually you want them to see something, sometimes hear, touch, smell, or even taste something. For example, the bleeding sores. If Kenneth Patchen had simply said face, the reader would think of a face from his own memory. And if he had chosen some other detail about the face, the reader would have had different feelings about it. He chose the sores for us to see because it was the sores that gave him the feelings he had and that would give us similar feelings.
* * * * *
We use poetry to assess the value of things that have happened to us: to separate what is significant and valuable in our lives from what is trivial. It can happen either way: We can find something that is valuable and try to make a poem out of it, or we can try to make a poem of something and discover from working on it whether the experience is valuable or trivial. And, always, if we are to succeed, we have to be honest about our experiences.
The poet Robert J. Conley has written:
Language is sacred a gift from God and it’s misuse is sinful.
A poem should be honest.
A man or a woman who tries to write a poem should be humble.
My poem might be a prayer an offering or a joke
and it is sacred only insofar as it is honest—and no more—no less.
We read poems about the valuable experiences of others in order to compare their experiences with our own and determine what is valuable in our lives.