Just imagine you held light in your hands. A great, pulsing ball of light and when you opened your hands, light blew like a wind into every corner, revealing everything, unraveling shadows, turning night into day. That is the soul of poetry. It is light in your hands, and when you write, you open your hands and let the light shine everywhere, for everyone.
Poetry is not a story, it doesn’t tell you what it’s thinking or, what its message is. Poetry leads you through the wonder of words, images, line breaks, sensory connections, to a destination, not of the poet’s choosing, but of the readers.
I once read, at a University, a poem I had written, entitled “The Trouble with Sleeping” to a group of students and educators. At the end of the reading, a young man came up to me exclaiming how amazing my poem was, how it touched him, moved him, how it resonated with him. To him, he said, it meant frustration, disappointment, struggle and failure. To me it meant, I had a hell of a hard time falling and staying asleep.
I very often read “poems” about love. And, very often, these poems proclaim their love in words that simply don’t touch me, don’t reach me, don’t involve me. To say “She was beautiful and I loved her with all my heart and soul, wanted her beyond anything, needed her to survive” would make a lovely speech at a wedding or, would be a lovely note to include in a gift on an anniversary, but it’s not poetry. Because poetry doesn’t tell us what love is or, how one is supposed to feel when in love, it inspires us to discover our own version of love.
Is love the “sea seducing the shore” – “the wind exciting the willow” – “the moon melting over her face like the seeking hands of a lover?” In order for us to be touched by a poem, be moved by it, we must be invited to bring ourselves to the poem; the poet must let go and give us permission to make the poem our own. A poem, in fact, is only half a poem, until it is shared.
Some of the most obvious ways to create a poem, a true poem, is to use the poetic devises that poets have been using for centuries: imagery (metaphor and simile) – line break (enjambment) – sensory imagery (the five senses plus emotional connections) – hyperbole – alliteration – and simple, accessible language that doesn’t send the reader off to Google seeking a dictionary.
I often tell my students to think of the emotion they are trying to convey as a puzzle, a puzzle with many ways of coming together. Experiment with words – if it’s “love” you’re wanting to convey in your poem, list words/combinations of words that say “love” without actually using the word “love.” “He filled me like the cool, clear mountain air, until I felt lighter, freer than the falling autumn leaves.” “His eyes were liquid and filled with longing, I fell happily into their depths.”
As an exercise, try writing a poem about a feeling: anger, love, joy, sadness… using your five senses and how this feeling, makes you feel. What does anger smell like? What does sadness look like? What are the tastes and sounds and tactile feel of the emotion you are writing about? And ultimately, how (using imagery) does that feeling impact you, make you feel.
For most of us who write, we do so, because we must, because we are filled with a need to speak our truths, share our visions, connect with others who, like us, have known “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or the joy of simply being. Poetry is the exclamation, “I am!”