Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Writing the Idea Poem

The Idea Poem

As we discussed in class today, the idea poem has two major considerations for the writer.  The first is that the idea poem - as a poem - has a poetic advantage in regards to philosophical argument.  Unlike expository essays or journalistic reports, the idea poem can present indelible images which the reader may find more convincing than mere facts and figures.  The second consideration is the corollary to the first - the poem must provide a cogent argument.  The idea poem is centered less around situation or character and more around conveying an intellectual idea to the reader.  This second consideration leads to a major potential weakness for the idea poem as an art - if the reader doesn't believe the poem's argument, the reader may not accept the poem...
Today's discussion is centered around readings from three poems: "They Feed They Lion" by Philip Larkin, "The Purse Seine" by Robinson Jeffers, and "Warming Her Pearls" by Carol Ann Duffy.
Our Examples
This requirement that the reader "buy in" to our idea should not, however, discourage us as writers.  As you probably noted from reading "They Feed They Lion," an idea poem can convey a great deal of meaning and imagery even if we don't know the genesis of the poem or its ultimate argument (remember that the poem was written as a response to the Detroit Race Riots of 1967).  One of the strengths of Levine's poem in particular is the sense of universality conveyed.  When I first read it, images of "bearing butter" and "creosote" and the other mechanical images of the first stanza immediately reminded me of the army - the olive-drab steel trucks we would ride in came to mind alongside the smell of diesel fumes in the motor pool.  The poem doesn't directly evoke either of these images, but the solidity of the written images is so strong that you can't help but imagine the place as being real.  We may feel confusion regarding the "goal" of the poem, but it still speaks to us of waste and greed and loss.

"The Purse Seine," in contrast, provides a very clear idea - that humans are essentially wrapping themselves into a fish net of interdependence.  In fact, the final third of poem reiterates this point to such a degree that it seems less poem and more bombast.  And also, unlike the litany of seemingly-unrelated details in Levine's poem, Jeffers provides a very close narrative, enumerating the capture of the fish step-by-step as the net closes around them.  This allows less freedom for the reader's interpretation - we know what he's showing, and he tells us why he is showing it.

Finally, we reach Duffy's poem - a very subtle departure.  The details are narrative in the same way as Jeffers's poem, and yet the ultimate meaning is unclear - does the narrator burn out of socioeconomic envy, or is it a kind of romantic desire?

Lessons for Your Own Work

Although I hate the idea of ranking the pieces we read for class, I feel that Duffy's piece is the most effective of the three.  And I'd like to discuss the reasons for this so you can apply these same lessons to your own work.

The first area where Duffy is very successful is the sense of presenting  a situation rather than an argument.  Although Jeffers's "Purse Seine" had wonderful - and more intricate - imagery compared with "Warming her Pearls," the effect of this imagery is weakened by the reinforced logical discussion.  Our minds are naturally attuned to focus on whichever part of a poem seems the most important - Jeffers washes out some of the artistry of his work with the exposition of opnion.

Duffy's second strength comes in developing an idea without resorting to polemic.  At the end, we aren't entirely certain why the narrator feels such pain, or even the exact nature of the pain.  Levine also succeeds in this regard, though Duffy does leave us with the feeling that we know her narrator, that we can relate to her, whereas Levine's narrator is far more distant.

For your own poems, focus first on the character and situation, as Duffy does.  Select a character you'd like to write about, or a situation that genuinely interests you.  Tease out the details which make the person or the place interesting.  As you're doing this, consider which point of view will reveal the situation best, which perspective will be the most able to explicate the central theme to others.

Finally, remember that an idea poem is, of course, still a poem,  It may end up spending more lines on narrative or voice or setting than it ever does on character.  And that's all right.  Every poem has many, many componetnts - in order to succed, you'll want to take advantage of each one.

If you have any questions, please let me know.



  1. I think my poem is most like an idea poem, rather than a narrative poem or a setting poem, because I am attempting to describe the absurdity of conspiracy theories. I simply did not know idea poems existed. I have been informed and will be able to tighten my poem because of your efforts. Thanks so much.

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