Friday, April 1, 2011

Mining Poetry from Emotions, Memory, and Sensation

What is the source of poetry?  How do we develop the carefully measured lines of poetry from the nebulous memories and emotions of our lives?  In these exercises, we look at what makes a poem "good," and then practice using these concepts in developing our own poetry.

Before our exercises, we'll do sign-ups for presentations and poetry workshops.

Revealing the Abstract through the Concrete

Poetry endures because it reveals the subtle social truths of our lives.  Fiction, too, is centered around revealing "the truth" about life, but poetry tends to take a far more direct path.  While stories and novels carry on the drawn-out process of revealing an entire story, poems usually center on making a statement, and then revealing only so many words and images as are necessary to make that statement.

To succeed, though, a poem must very quickly reveal what the abstract concept is and - more importantly - make that concept visible to the readers.  The phrases "hope is ephemeral" or "sadness lasts forever" convey abstract opinions, but they add little to our understanding of these perspectives.  To say "hope lasts no longer than a candle in the wind on a cold night" or "sadness is the mountain too high to climb" gives a tangible image to define these abstract concepts.

Exercise 1 - Find Your Concepts
Quickly write five emotions you're feeling right now.  If you prefer, you may imagine a fictional character or choose to write about your feelings from a past time.  Beside each emotion, write down a reason for feeling this way (note: the reasons do not need to be true - any justification will work.  This is just to provide material as you pass the sheet to your classmates.)

Exercise 2 - Choose Your Images

Pass your paper to the next member of your group.  When you receive the five emotions and causes, circle two or three causes which you find particularly compelling.  Beside each of these, write down five specific images that come to mind.  (You should have 10-15 specific images in mind by the end.)

Make Your Images Real through a Full Sensory Experience
It isn't quite enough to have a solid image.  To make an image truly memorable, we need to embed it in the reader's mind by describing appearance, texture, smell, taste, and sounds.  For example, we could strengthen the candle image by describing the tang of sweet smoke as the flame flickers out, or we could describe the hard wax of the cold candle as we hold it, and then the reassuring warmth within our palms as we shield the flame from the wind.

Exercise 3 - Choose Your Senses
Rotate your pages to the next group member.  When you receive your new page, take a look at the list of concrete images.  Select 2-5 images which you like best.  Beside each of these, write down 1-5 specific sensations you associate with that image.  Again, be specific, and try to reference the places on the body where these sensations are felt.  For example, "apple pie" could get "cinnamon smell, crumbling crust between my teeth, mooshy filling under my fork."  "Ocean" might have "salt taste, cold lap of waves against my ankles, endless blue/gray."

Time to Be Poetic: Choose Your Rhyming Words
You can share a photo on Facebook.  You can bring a sample of Grandma's pie to class.  (I would never discourage this...)  And you can even tell people about how you spent your weekend rock climbing.

Poetry, however, allows us to add a layer of language which sharpens the tone of the work.  Through rhyme and careful verb choice, we can guide our readers as they experience the emotions and sensations in our poems.

Exercise 4 - Wanna make a dime?  Tell it all in rhyme.
Pass your papers again.  Now look at the emotions, images, and sensations which have been circled - chances are, you'll have one or two emotions with two or three images and five to ten sensations.

As quickly as you can, write down all the words you can think of that rhyme with these emotions, images, and sensations.

Wrapping Up: Write Your Poem
Should you write all your poems this way?  No.  Each poem will come out in its own way, and you should find out which writing habits work best for you.  The purpose of these exercises has simply been to illustrate the steps our minds take as we translate the internal language of feeling to the externally shared language of words.

If you haven't already, pass each paper back to the original writer.  For extra credit, you may complete a poem using the words on your paper and then post it to today's forum.


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