April / May 2018 - Vol. 97

writing a poem with pen and paper 
How Do You Write a Poem?

by Sean O'Neill

Sean O'Neill is a prolific writer and poet who has recently published his 8th book of poems. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of his book, How to Write A Poem: A Beginner's Guide. (NB. Any unattributed poems in this chapter and book are the work of the author.)

Choosing a Subject

How do you pick a subject for your poem? Some subjects seem to pick us. Sometimes we are so struck by the sadness or the delightfulness of a scene or an event that we want to write about it. Failing that, however, there are several main areas we can explore to come up with a theme.

Think of somewhere you have been that has had an effect on you. It might be an abandoned warehouse, or a room in the home in which you grew up, or a bridge over a river, or a city just before dawn. W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is an example of how a place can take on a character of its own through your poetry. It begins:  

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.  

A past experience:
Any kind of experience can be used. For example sitting an exam, going for a walk, losing your phone, running for a train, being told that someone you know has died. John Milton’s long poem “Lycidas” was written on the occasion of the poet, Edward King’s, death. It begins:  

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.  

A particular person:
This could be someone related to you, or a complete stranger you pass in the street. It might be someone famous, or a historical figure, or a traffic cop, a friend, or an enemy. A lot of poems that are directed at a specific person, for example love poems, can say a lot about the person writing them. John Donne’s love poem “Twickenham Gardens” has that quality, where the poet expresses, more than anything else, self-reproach. It begins:  

BLASTED with sighs, and surrounded with tears,
Hither I come to seek the spring,
And at mine eyes, and at mine ears,
Receive such balms as else cure every thing.
But O! self-traitor, I do bring
The spider Love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert manna to gall ;
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.  

An object:
This might be anything as varied as a cup of coffee or a child’s toy. It could be a car, the sun, a desk, a melon or a house porch. The poem, “The Day My Car Died,” whose subject is what it sounds like, begins:  

A point of gunmetal gray
tarnished by the workhorse years
a flange, a nipple, a block
enclose the miracle of movement
under the black hood.  
Ratchet, piston, valve, plug
plot out their kinetic wonder
beating out microscopic failure
in a matter of time
if only time were good.  

An emotion:
Often the reason someone might want to write a poem in the first place is because of an emotion, whether it be hate or love, embarrassment or contentment, excitement or sadness. Allen Ginsberg’s classic poem, “Howl” is a long rant full of anger, but is nevertheless very effective poetically. Here’s a short section from the beginning:  

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…  

An event:
You could write about a wedding of someone you know, a funeral you attended, a football game in which your team won or an election that had a surprise outcome. Here’s a snippet from a sonnet that is simply called “The Wedding.”  

The man stood, stolidly to attention
up front. There were, in the church’s narthex,
presentiments of crying or car wrecks
to account for the bride’s absence. Tension
stalked down the aisles like a collection plate.
Then murmurs, crushed silk, sighs, and they began.
The organ played the march, she almost ran,
and white married gray at long last, though late.  

A landscape or seascape scene:
This topic gives you a lot of scope to describe different types of trees, grass swaying in the wind, waves lapping on the shore, the horizon melting into the land, an angry sky, misty mountains and hills. The free-verse poem “Cairngarroch Beach,” describes the shoreline near a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland.

The wheedling of the great sea
bent down upon the nose of the shore,
clogged with rotting kelp and the clutter
of a thousand frantic visitors,
and spent the balance of days
breaking the rocks all to sand.
When I took the swoop of the road
down to the each, seagulls
were fighting over garbage
or a spill of shellfish on the pier,
and when I looked out under my hand
the breakers were rolling in to the birthplace.

A time of year:
Some of the most famous poems have been about endless summers, or harsh and brutal winters. But you could also write about someone’s birthday – and give the poem to them as a birthday gift, or about Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s Day. Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” commemorated the turn of the century over a hundred years ago. Here is stanza two, by way of example:  
The land's sharp features seemed to be      
     The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,      
     The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth      
     Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth      
     Seemed fervourless as I.  
A time of day:
This subject can include getting up in the morning full of life and energy, going to bed at night exhausted (or vice versa if you’re on night shift!); the regularity of the working day or the peace of leisure time; watching a glorious sunrise or sunset. Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” celebrates work at various times of day. Here are a few lines from the poem: 
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands…  
Deafening thunderstorms, sinister fog, a day under the scorching sun, a day of miserable drizzle, an overcast or cloudy day, heavy snow, pelting hail, lashing rain and wind: any one of these could play a part in your poem. T.S. Eliot has a much quoted image of fog as a dog from “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes             
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,             
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,             
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,             
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night,             
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.  
An animal:
This can be a domestic animal like a dog or cat, or something exotic like a gorilla or a snake. I often find it useful to do some background research on a particular animal to give me some material to work with. “Baby Tortoise,” by D.H. Lawrence is a good example of an animal poem. It begins:

You know what it is to be born alone,
Baby tortoise!
The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.
A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

An activity:
This can range from harvest time in the fields to filling out a tax form; from fixing a car to shaking someone by the hand; and from painting a wall to roller-skating down a hill. Here’s the first part of Wilfred Owen’s painfully poignant poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” about walking back to the barracks after a day fighting during the First World War:  

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.  

A piece of music or a work of art:
The poet William Carlos Williams wrote a poem based on Breughel’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and John Keats wrote his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Robert Pinsky wrote “Street Music” and John Dryden his “The Power of Music.” Music and art, therefore, are quite legitimate subject matter for a poem. Here’s part of a poem on the famous painting by Picasso depicting the massacre that took place in the Basque village of Guernica:

When Pablo has word about the raid,
his outrage blooms into twisted
bodies, tortured faces and limbs.

He takes one day to calmly sketch
and by evening all the elements
coalesce into finality.

His arm, like a conduit of rage,
describes the overarching doom
of the seventeen hundred dead.

Some ran. Others died where they
stood, in fractured shards of bone
and grayscale evisceration.

An anecdote or narrative:
Your memory holds an immense font of anecdotes or happenings from the past. In addition to that, we have stories that have been reported to us by other people. Any one of these could be the subject of a poem. In the following excerpt Alfred, Lord Tennyson describes “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which was a British light cavalry charge led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War.  

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.  

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

No doubt there are other categories and some subjects that span more than one category. However, it is important to have something to latch your words onto with a poem. Otherwise the poem can easily become vague and rambling and end up saying nothing much at all.

> See poems in Living Bulwark by Sean O'Neill
How to Write Poetry - A Practical Guide by
                        Sean O'Neill

Book available at Amazon.

I have been reading Sean O'Neills poems for several years now. He is a voracious reader of poets from the past and present, and he is a gifted writer as well. He has authored and published 8 books of his own poems - and I suspect he has many more volumes of poems waiting to come to life as well.

The sheer breadth of his varied subject matter, and the beauty of his cadence and rhythmic style, and the rich use of images, metaphors, and experiences from life and nature, give him an ever expanding breadth and depth to his work.
His book on How to Write a Poem: A Beginner's Guide (ten chapters) is a must read for anyone interested in learning how to write poetry of their own when the mood, subject, or occasion strikes them. This is a very practical and easy to read guide. If you are a beginner or someone who wants to improve your writing skills, this is a great guide that will give you all the tools you need to write to your heart's content.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) wrote more than 1,775 poems - most were penned on scraps of paper or backs of envelopes. Very few were published in her lifetime. Her strongest influences were the Bible and Shakespeare. But the sheer volume and practice of writing day after day and year after year must have been a very satisfying and rewarding experience for her. 

Give it a try yourself - and maybe you will be caught by wonderment, joy, and pleasant surprise.

Reviewed by Don Schwager

Top photo (c) by librakv at Bigstock.com

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