Naming the Unnameable: An Exercise in Poetry

I recall the first poem I ever wrote, I believe I was 12 at the time, and how I thought it was incredibly hard, the hardest enterprise I had ever undertaken up to that point. And I guess it was, trying to craft words into some semblance of order on a page that didn’t seem able to hold them all adequately. Add to that trying to put some sort of elementary rhyme scheme together, and it was quite an arduous task, especially for a 12-year old, especially under the type of pressure I was in to just get it done. You see, I was in charge of writing the eighth grade class poem to be recited at our eighth grade graduation, which was only a month away at the time.

I also remember the most recent poem I wrote (one I haven’t shared in this blog — I know. I’m so mean), and it was highlighted by a lack of rhyme scheme, but with a definite rhythm, and a sense of purpose I didn’t know I possessed. In fact, these days poetry is relatively fluid for me. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s easy. Far from it. But when it comes to me like it has lately (I have to be in a certain “place”) it becomes almost an extension of my soul that I tap into. I’m sure other poets out there can understand where I’m coming from with that assessment.

A poem is a series of words, emotions, and ideas, tightly crafted and put together in an order that complements those words, emotions, and ideas, but also leaves room for multiple interpretations, all of which are correct. That’s the glory of poetry (and most writing, actually), that it lends itself to many interpretations depending on the history of each and every reader. I love to read reactions to my poetry, and plumb the depths of the myriad definitions that surround each one from each individual reader. In fact, poetry writing to me becomes a dance between me and each person who reads my poems. I can almost hear the conversation as I’m writing, and that makes me smile.

Throughout my 24 years of writing poetry, I’ve developed a certain code that each of my poems fit, without even realizing it. So, recently, I decided to break down the code, which is kind of a blueprint for writing something a genre that really doesn’t have a blueprint. And I wanted to share it with you, whether you’re an aspiring poet, a poet now, or you just appreciate the poetic form…

** Poems have to convey emotion. If they’re just telling a story, plain and dry, that’s what they end up being, plain and dry. They aren’t just stories, even though many of them do tell stories in their construction.

** Poems do not require a rhyme scheme. Of course, there are so many poets out there who labor over words, rhyming couplets, classic poetry formats, and beats per line, but you don’t have to be Shakespeare. In fact, confining your poetry to those forms constricts the emotion that you’re trying to convey.

** The words you choose are important. This is paramount, and what I spend the most time focusing on when I’m writing my poems. You don’t have to be a wordsmith, or a virtuoso, but you have to convey exactly what you mean, so don’t use vague words. Be spot-on with your word choice because you don’t have unlimited words in a poem, and even if you did, why waste time on words that don’t mean what you’re trying to say?

** A poem decides when it is finished. Some poems I have written are two lines in length. They told their story, they bled their emotion, and they were finished. Other poems have been 30+ lines, but when they were done, I knew it. Trying to stretch a poem to reach epic status when it’s not an epic poem, or trying to cut a poem down to fit onto a page when it fights against you to remain wild is a detriment to both you and to the poem.

** Titles are important, but save them until last. I always do this with everything I write. The poem itself will tell you what it should be called when you’re done. The act of naming the poem first constricts it just as much as trying to force it into a rhyme scheme. Either you will try to maneuver the poem into the constraints of its title, or you will spend forever coming up with the perfect title and not have anything left to actually write the poem.

** If you’re not in the mood to write a poem, don’t do it. Sometimes our minds need to stretch, and while I consider myself a poet, I am not just a poet, and neither are you. Journaling is a good way to get out thoughts and emotions without feeling like you have to make too many decisions that you might have to make if you were writing poetry, or if you were writing for an audience. I, of course, do my journaling here, in the public eye, but you don’t have to do that. You can get a small book and journal privately, even if your journal entries are scattered. That’s the point. Some of my best poems have sprung forth from the ashes of journal bits and bobs.

** If you don’t like it, save it anyway. Never throw out anything you’ve written. You never know when inspiration might strike based on something you thought was worthless before. Even if you take just one thing from it, it was worth it to keep.

Just remember that poetry is as much an art form as painting or sculpture, so treat it as such. Embrace your words, emotions, and ideas. And remember, you only need share if you feel the urge. It’s okay to be a closet poet. It’s all about you anyway.

Sam

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