The Start: Writing Your Own Poem
Practice of an art is more salutary than talk about it.
There is nothing more composing than composition.
—Robert Frost, from his notebooks[Poetry and Prose,
edited by Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson
Leaving a Loop
Two thousand miles from home, I open a drawer
and—I’d have sworn it was mine,
the weaving lumpy, my fingers
still all thumbs but they loved the peaceful
push pull, pushpull
so much that one summer
on the boathouse porch with the tree growing
right up through the floor
I made thirty-two
pot holders on the square-jawed metal loom,
stretching colors soft as old rags
soft as this pale buttercup
this faded-eye blue, and the green
fresh as light on maple wings,
seedlight. I wasn’t making gifts,
it was the rhythm of the thing
and the small loom, square and safe,
like the four lines of a child’s house.
I was homesick,
this was spiderwork, nestwork, easy
till you reached the part where
you unhooked your web from the frame.
Here, see the braided corners, on the last one
somehow you pulled the right thing through
to leave a loop for hanging.
I didn’t know I was making gifts
but last winter when my mother died
she still had two, there were stains
and a burn mark, I never thought
of someone’s hand feeling
heat through the weave.
Here is a poem neither your students nor mine have ever seen before. I wrote it last night, so it’s about as contemporary as you can get, short of sitting down right now and writing your own. To me it’s a living, breathing organism—not set in stone; tomorrow I could change it. An organism made of words, that each reader will bring to life in her own way. Emily Dickinson says, “A word is dead / When it is said, / Some say. / I say it just / Begins to live / That day.” (1)
Whatever my poem means to me, I couldn’t possibly reduce this meaning to a prose paragraph. I don’t want to say, “It’s about making pot holders when I was young and homesick at summer camp,” or “It’s really about my loss of my mother,” or “Actually, it’s about applied art versus fine art.” Or “It’s about the nature of home and separation.” I didn’t set out, at least consciously, to make a poem about any of this; I wanted to find out why seeing the pot holder when I opened a drawer gave me a sudden, inexplicable urge to write. Now that the poem’s written, and I’ve discovered some answers, I suppose I can say it’s all about these things.
But I’m much more interested in asking, “What does it say to you?”—you who are reading it, remember, as if your life depended on it, letting in your beliefs, your dreamlife, your physical sensations—and, I’d add to Adrienne Rich’s list, your memories and the mood you happen to be in just now . . . ?
We don’t have to start off with a discussion of what poetry is, or with a list of figures of speech, or an argument about whether this is a great poem or a lesser poem. I offer it, you take it or leave it. One thing I try to remember to tell students when the first poem of the year surfaces is that they’ll like some poems better than others, regardless of alleged “greatness.” I tell them I’m really eager to see which poems each person chooses to talk about during the year ahead—or chooses to read aloud, copy into a notebook, go find more poems by the author of, write a poem back to, or steal words from.
These are all fine responses to a poem, just as good as writing a three-page critical analysis of it. Of course, many college professors won’t feel this way, but carpe diem. Right now it’s high school. Or junior high. And surely there is life after college—some sixty years of it.
There are certain advantages to starting off with a contemporary poem. Fewer footnotes, most likely, which means fewer opportunities for us to display our expertise: “In Shakespeare’s day the word ‘die’ also referred to the moment of sexual consummation. So that’s a pun right there. And there’s an allusion—an indirect reference to religiomythicopastoralhistorical.”
Fewer preliminaries, too. Before I hand out Shakespeare’s sonnet about envying this man’s art and that man’s scope, I may want to do some free-writing with my class on what they most envy in their friends and enemies, perhaps how envy feels, and what they themselves possess that others might envy. This helps create a familiar context for the poem, so that the unfamiliar language and inverted word order won’t bring fifteen-year-olds to a grinding halt. Then I’d read it aloud—again, before they see it on the page in all its footnoted and eternal greatness. I might even memorize the poem so I could present it with the conviction and urgency that eye contact can give.
Another reason to start off with some current poems is that the contemporary poet is less prone to view a poem as an opportunity to do some overt teaching: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” “The proper study of mankind is man.” Teenagers get enough of that from their parents and from us, so it’s not surprising if they prefer poems that give them a little more leeway—that let them burrow (or skim) to see what the poem has to offer them, not Mankind.
Finally, because a contemporary poem is most apt to be a free-verse personal lyric, expressed in familiar language and syntax, it offers the reader, student and teacher alike, an immediate invitation to “look in thy heart and write.” Most of us are not about to try to emulate Keats, Yeats, or Wallace Stevens, much as we may admire them. Sharon Olds, Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe? Maybe.
“Leaving a Loop” actually began with my discovery of a woven pot holder in the drawer of the studio where I’m now writing. There is a little shiver that I think most writers feel when we sense that a poem will happen soon—that a pebble has been cast into the pond. If I can, I sit down right away with a pencil and try to feel where the ripples want me to go. If it happens to me when I’ve gone for a run, I start trying out lines aloud and memorizing them one by one, as if coiling a rope with no visible end. Since I can’t see the end, I try to censor nothing—even if a line or image or word makes no logical sense to me at the time. I let past, present, and future run together, all parts of the braid. I try to leave room for the reader: See? Look here! Just trace this with your finger, feel how loose the weave is? And I try to be absolutely honest, no matter how embarrassing the detail is that’s suddenly appeared on the page or how uncomfortable the emotion that’s surfaced, or how unanswerable the question.
Later, as the shiver goes away—but never entirely, because revisiting the poem can revive it—I’ll listen to the tone and the music, and then rethink the line breaks, maybe consider whether to use stanzas. Where do the reader and I need more air, more pause to think and feel? Where does the emotional shift seem to require a rhythmic shift as well? It’s sometimes very hard to hear the tone of one’s own poem, especially in the first draft. Will the reader, that mysterious Other, hear what I do? Is this adjective misleading? Is it a false note in the poem’s imagery or music?
As I wrote, I was under the spell of the pot holder itself—its sudden appearance, the memories it evoked, the mysterious feel of the twilit studio where I’d be writing for three weeks and the accompanying mystery: why did finding this square of soft colors and rags feel so promising? Why was I so profoundly stirred? It was physical; my eyes were blurry with tears, my hands were shaking. Yet I felt hopeful—almost a spiritual faith that something was about to be revealed.
One kind of reading that I invite students to do, especially with a contemporary poem, is to make a list of questions they’d like to ask the author. If he or she is a fellow student or the teacher or a visiting poet, or if there’s a taped interview available, the students may get answers. But a class can also move deep into a poem simply by entertaining one another’s questions.
What might you ask about “Leaving a Loop”?
Writing and reading feed each other. When we start writing our own poems, we become much more aware of Dickinson’s or Blake’s miraculous compression of meaning through image, much more curious (accepting, even) of William Carlos Williams’s line breaks. As we read Whitman or Ginsberg, we may realize that our own poems are shutting out rather a lot of the known world. So, engaging with my poem may lead you to your poetry shelves or into writing a poem of your own.
Yes, the odd line break between “thirty-two” and “pot holders” was deliberate, because I wanted to convey the child’s pride (and obsession—she kept count) and also to dramatize the word “pot holder,” which I’d semi-consciously held off till this late in the poem. Yes, the line near the end, “I didn’t know I was making a gift,” was a conscious echo of the line up near the middle, “I wasn’t making gifts.” But I hadn’t planned the echo; I accepted the idea the moment it hit me—“Oh, yes, that feels right. It corrects, it expands, the earlier line. How interesting.” One advantage of having students write poetry is that they are then much less apt to commit the “intentional fallacy”—to assume, for instance, that Frost intended “sleep” to symbolize “death” in the line “miles to go before I sleep.” The possibility is there in the complex weave of the poet’s conscious and unconscious choices—for those readers whose predilections lead them into it. Student poets discover this weave for themselves if we ask them to talk or write about their own poetry-writing process.
Yes, the long, run-on opening sentence of the poem was intentional—in the sense that as I wrote it I was beginning to realize this was a blurry, dreamy, pushpull kind of poem that was pursuing an unknown end and therefore shouldn’t have much punctuation. And the last sentence—even though by then the web has been unhooked from the loom—is also a deliberate run-on because I’m still feeling my way to the discovery about heat, which in the actual writing didn’t occur till the very last line; in the previous two lines I was still rippling outward, or inward, noticing, remembering, wondering.
As a teenager I used to wait patiently for the muse to descend. But I don’t have time now—and neither do you. I try to engage her (him?) early in the morning when I’m still barely awake and the night’s images—visual and verbal—are surfacing. Or at night when I’m drowsy but not yet comatose. Poets, like athletes or musicians, need to practice regularly, so that when the inspiration and opportunity present themselves to make a perfect pass or give a memorable performance, they’ll be ready. I try to write and/or read poetry every day.
Students can be told, firmly, that yes, there will be moments of inspiration, but for now—there are assignments. Which they may twist somewhat to their own urgencies, and which may or may not turn out be poems they love and want to keep forever. I always add that I’ll be happy—even eager—to read any poems they write on their own. But tonight their assignment is to try writing rhythmic phrases and vivid images to whatever music they especially love.
Next day, after we listen to these phrases and talk about what it was like to write to music, I’ll give them their first actual poetry-writing assignment: “Write a poem about getting into someone else’s dream. Put us in that dream. And contrast it in very specific images to your own dreams or nightmares.”
Here’s my own “wrong dream” poem, which I recently used as a jumping off point for this assignment. In creating and trying out the exercise, I discovered that it’s important to give students time in class to jot down at least one dream of their own—in prose, maybe a stream-of-consciousness prose—and let them read a couple of classmates’ dreams, before they start writing the poem. (Watch out! If you once let them start retelling dreams aloud, it’s impossible to stem the tide!)
'It also helps to get them thinking about words. As a warm-up, ask them to list words they love the sound of. Words they hate the sounds of. And some colorful variations on a neutral verb like run or a common noun like house (cave, hacienda, cocoon, airport, chateau, igloo, garbage bin, temple, row house, cell, tarpaper shack, Sheol, plantation, cabin, adobe, camp, ant hill, monastery, soddie, burrow, nest, pond, tent, heart, mind, vein, shoe, trailer, etc.). Do make time for them to share these words aloud. We all need to be reminded that poems are made of words, and that language, with its mix of indigenous words, colonialisms, immigrant additions, regional dialects, coinages, slang or argot, and jargon of all kinds, is a remarkably gorgeous hodgepodge. Dreams may be blurry, but it takes rich and precise language to convey your own unique, blur.
It’s tawdry, and there’s way too much
noise. I never dream of freaks,
midways, junk food,
and who’s the skin-tight mother, jumbo
rollers, she’s squealing and flaps
a damp condom at me from the bumper cars
I don’t want to meet
this dream’s owner, some overgrown
boy I never would have dated
but here he comes singing to me across a crowded
room and I’m soulful, in white,
eyes dilating, he and my mother
the squealer take a shine to each other
she shows him my baby
pictures, oh God not
that one, get me back into
trees and ponds and nocturnes or at least
the one where I can’t find my
room and end up teaching math
in a foreign tongue to the whole
football team and it’s business
school and nobody but me knows
stream of consciousness
and anyway they’re all
I had a lot of fun writing this—though I admit to censoring the condoms when I read it to freshmen.
Now, try to write your own “wrong dream” poem. Find a space and a chair where you’re comfortable. Near a window? In a corner? Outdoors? Do you have a favorite notebook? One where you can copy down lines of poems you like, songs, graffiti, the odd fact, the catchy, overheard turn of phrase, the ambivalent headline, bits of news, jokes, dreams, and recipes? Where you can stash snapshots, leaves, clippings? If it’s a brand new notebook, don’t be afraid of sullying that first white page with a first effort. My own notebooks are full of first drafts that nobody is going to see. Fill the first page with doodles, if that feels better, and go on to the second. Do you find inspiration at the computer? I need the physical connection of pencil to hand to the rest of me; the computer suits me fine for revising. But some poets start right off on the screen.
Leave yourself at least an hour. The kids will have had class time as well as homework time, remember. Do the warm-ups they’re doing. Read your dream and your word lists aloud. Yes, aloud. This is important to tell the class as well. Some of your rhythms and mouthmusings may start spinning a poem before you even know what’s happening. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Drift . . .
All right, time’s up. Tomorrow when you go around the circle or up and down the rows, asking each student to read a couple of favorite lines or to write them up on the wall on the colored mural paper with a magic marker, you’ll have some lines to share, too. You may be very proud of them, or you may feel that they pale beside those of your promising student poets. I find the latter discovery both humbling and inspiring, though which sensation dominates depends on how the day’s been going! You’ll be curious to compare notes with them about the experience of writing the poem. And because you aren’t the expert now but the students’ professional colleague, you’ll probably pick up a lot of interesting insights into the nature of writing poetry during this discussion.
You may also gain some insights into your students. Here’s a “wrong dream” poem by one of the girls in my freshman class. More than anything she’d said or written all first term, this poem helped me understand the brusque, sardonic, boastful person I’d been trying to like. When she read it to the class, it left them totally silent—a real achievement with this group! I took the opportunity to point out that silence can be a tribute, an indication to a writer that she’s moved or challenged her listeners in a really significant way. Several students nodded. “Not every poem has to be discussed, either,” I said. “Some just percolate through your mind for the rest of the day.”
this isn’t my dream
i don’t move like this
i don’t walk this way
and these aren’t my clothes
this is my body, but i’m not in control here
i’m saying something to this boy who
suddenly i can see myself
as if reflected in the water,
under a dock
whosever dream this is
has idealized me
i’m not this pretty
i don’t stand with this grace
my hair is more frizzy
and never stays in beautiful ringlets
whosever dream this is
has certainly never seen MY hands
too long and perfect
with clean even nails
and most of all this isn’t me because
whosever dream this is
loves me for myself
My own dreams are odd
i’m not allowed to see myself
because i already know what i’ll see
some dreadful caricature
weighing a hundred pounds more
than even I do
with short staticky hair
no this isn’t my dream
i’m beautiful here.
As a result of this assignment, you and your fellow poets may decide to start keeping dream journals. Or you may decide to go in search of other dream poems. Maybe you’ll turn up Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Or Blake’s “Chimney Sweep,” with the boys locked up in coffins of black and the angel who unlocks them with a golden key. Or my all-time favorite love poem, Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word Sleep”—“I would like to give you the silver / branch, the small white flower, the one / word that will protect you / from the grief at the center / of your dream . . . .” (2)
Or maybe that most haunting of villanelles, Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.” (3)
- Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1960) 534-535.
- Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987) 77. Both volumes contain poems in a wide range of voices, including mythological women, animals, and a Canadian pioneer woman, and so offer fine examples for students writing persona poems. The poems are also inspiring for young feminists and serious young women writers. Students who already know Atwood as a novelist or know the movie of The Handmaid’s Tale may be curious about her poems.
- Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems (New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1975) 104. Roethke’s memorable music, his close, tender, witty observations of plants and animals and his haunting poems about the father/son relationship are important to share with students. And with a little help, the sexiness of “I Knew a Woman” can become dazzlingly accessible.
Dr. Judy Rowe Michaels is poet in residence and English teacher at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as a poet in the schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.The author of two books on teaching poetry and writing, both published by NCTE (Risking Intensity and Dancing...