poetry ideas

5 posts

Ars Poetica Hunting: An Inexact Science

I’ve written before about that rite of passage for poets, Ars Poetica, by sharing this Archibald MacLeish entry by that same Latin name.

“The art of poetry,” it means, and lucky for us, there are as many definitions of this “art” as there are mosquitoes running blood banks.

Today we start with an exchange between a teacher of poetry and her students in Elizabeth’s Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe.”  Right out of the gate, Alexander lays it on the line: “Poetry… is idiosyncratic.” (Gee, do you think?)

Let’s listen in on her class:


Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”)
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?


First of all, I haven’t a clue who the opinionated Sterling Brown is. I DuckDuckGo’d him and found an actor. Could be the right one, as actors make their “I’s” dramatic for a living (giving their “you’s” a rest).

The way this poem “finds” poetry in mundane places is a well-worn trope by now. Some editors love poems about poetry. Others steer clear. I once read, in the writer’s guidelines of a poetry journal something to the effect of “please, no poems about poems.” Elizabeth would have been left at the gate at that journal.

Still, I endorse the sentiment designed to break beginners’ hearts: “Poetry (and now my voice is rising) / is not all love, love, love / and I’m sorry the dog died.”

As for the last line, it brings us back to the oft-mentioned tree falling in the wilderness. “Poetry… / is the human voice, / and are we not of interest to each other?”

Man, that finish is just asking for trouble, because, truth be told, the answer is more often than not “no.” You need “voice lessons” to be interesting to others, especially in a world of poetry-phobic readers.

It’s the gist of the creative battle. It’s the eye of the beholding reader / editor skimming a tsunami of submissions. The pool of possibly-interested eyes, in other words, is dazed with distraction known as the competition and already-established poets eating up an already-thin publishing bandwidth. And that’s not even getting into the distractions of the internet and social media where everyone’s creative spirit becomes passive. (“What? Hunt for poetry? Me?”)

For similar “ars poetica” action, consider Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” the second and fourth stanzas in particular:


Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.


See a trend here?

If you are inspired to write an ars poetica by looking in all the wrong places, you must also contend with the fact that the “wrong places” have been written up in the press and have now been overrun by tourists (read: a large posse of poets) as well.

So, yeah. The beauty of writing an ars poetica lies in going where no man or woman has gone before—even those obscure places which have been made famous by poets who preceded you.

Solutions? That’s your Rubik’s Cube assignment for the day. Devilishly enough, the answer might even be hiding in a blanket of love or a box of my-dog-just-died. It’s the Muse’s trickster spirit (where Loki reigns over Odin).

Known or unknown, clichéd or unique, the places for a brilliant ars poeticas are everywhere and nowhere at once.

Confused? Good. Now you can get cracking and start looking. Once you find poetry in quirky places unique to YOU yet relatable to US, you can take up the pen and begin. Good luck!

Exploring Your Inner Ignorance


Advice givers (and their numbers are legion) often say, “Write what you know,” as if that would never occur to us. Of course we write what we know! What they don’t say is that it is also good practice to wander out of your comfort zone, to “go deep” into those dark areas we previously considered “ignorance” by writing what we “don’t” know.

One interesting way to explore your inner ignorance is to check out poetry journal calls for thematic issues. It used to be, when I saw guidelines with rigid thematic guidelines, I’d quickly take a pass and move on to the next “general submissions” market.

Mistake, turns out.

For example, let’s say you come across a magazine that wants to publish an issue devoted to the theme of monsters. “Monsters,” you say? “What is this, Marvel Comics? I’m a poet, for heaven’s sake!”

Calm yourself, Mr. Poet Laureate. Remember that your lack of interest in and knowledge of monsters might actually be the kick in the creative pants you need. You might tackle something you don’t know and, out of the blue (or any available color), have a eureka moment.

Poetry editors love expansive interpretations of thematic topics, so pull that poetic license out of your wallet and write about monsters that don’t have green skin or one eye: the monster called rush-hour traffic among horn-blowers, the monster called pain in your body (its cave), the monster called your mother-in-law in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Why so literal, in other words?

Sometimes your ignorance is more informed than you think, too. Recently, I found a market that focused on the environment but lamented it had been receiving too many poems about birds and beaches and magnolia bushes. It was interested in more urban environmental poetry, for a change.

My knee-jerk reaction? I’ve never lived in a city (well, not since I was two) and have no experience with urban living, so why would I abandon the security blanket of “write what you know” and write about cities?

But before I moved on, I thought again. Deep in the darkest alleys of my urban ignorance, there was a light. When I was a kid, my mother would take me to Hartford to visit my great-grandparents in an apartment building that was so different from my suburban home that I found it fascinating.

I wound up writing the first draft of that poem in a burst. I was amazed at the number of memories I had boxed up in the basement of my so-called ignorance and lack of experience. Details about that cluttered apartment, inside and out, came rushing to the fore, ready for service.

Presently I am revising this poem and hoping to gussy it up for market. It serves as a lesson, too: The narrow confines of themes can often liberate a writer, whether it is to look at a topic in new ways (the monster of only writing what you know, for example) or to find that perceived ignorance (of city living, for example) is just that–mere perception.

Stop. Think. Go deep using themes as inspiration. It might just shake things up and lead to new, productive places.

The Sheer Poetry of Dullness


Quotidian. Mundane. For most of us, it’s the relentless repetition and ordinariness of the sun also rising and setting. But make no mistake, it once started in the fertile soil of dreams. And, somehow, a tendril of hope remains in the ground beneath our feet, no matter how scorched it has become by the cycling sun.

I think of this each time I feel empty of ideas and inspiration. I think of it when I hear students say the same upon being assigned memoir writing: “I can’t write because nothing ever happens in my life.”

Dull. Life is dull. The assignment changes on the fly. The assignment, then, is to write about dull. Find beauty in dull. Find heartache in dull. Sniff out hope and acknowledge despair–odd but constant bedfellows–in dull.

I think of this because we all have such ample material when it comes to making music from such ordinary chords. I think of this when I read about Gwendolyn Brooks’ bean eaters in their rented back room full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths and tobacco crumbs and vases and fringes. A polysyndeton of purposefulness, day in and day out, putting on their clothes and putting things away because life demands it of them.

Consider it, next time you’re feeling down. Consider it, too, next time you think you and you alone are denied of ideas–ideas which humbly lie all around you, hidden by a cloak woven of ordinariness.

“The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood, 
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
          is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
          tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Living on the Writer’s Block


The crutch. It’s a mighty symbol, one I see frequently in the lives around me as well as in my own. But when it comes to writing, the crutch must be reckoned with.

Let’s start with Tiny Tim. The little guy needs his crutch. For him, it is a powerful symbol generating sympathy and tears, especially after he’s gone and only the crutch remains for Christmas dinner. But Tiny Tim wasn’t a writer. He was a God-Bless-Us-Everyone-er. Writers write. So why are they so fond of the crutch called “writer’s block”?

Living on the writer’s block is a choice. You don’t crash there like a plane that has lost its engine. I learned that by staring at my share of paper (once upon a time) and Word doc screens (once upon a more recent time) over the years. It was nice blaming the Muse-jamming equivalent of white noise, but who’s kidding whom? I was kidding me, that’s what.

Truth be told, writing something, writing ANYthing, is better than limping along on crutches feeling sorry for yourself. If you have mastered the pencil and / or the keyboard, voilá. Writer’s block has gone the way of the dodo bird (South, my friends… DEEP South).

Writing garbage (read: a first draft) is the ticket. Because in every dump the writer in you will find some treasure. Some shiny bauble. Something calling out to your eye. And how much easier is it to write from something as opposed to nothing? Rhetorical question.

So, yeah. I gave up writer’s block once I saw it for what it is. A fraud. No, I won’t lecture fellow writers who play that well-worn card. I won’t cry “Crutch!” like some know-it-all. But inside I’ll wonder. I’ll wonder, “Why doesn’t he just write?” Revision is where writing is at, and if you haven’t written something than you’ve got nothing to revise.

Nothing but a crutch, that is.

Waiting for Ideas (vs. Godot)


Sometimes waiting for an idea for a poem is like waiting for Godot–some kind of existential joke. You can see Camus laughing in the barn. Or Sartre’s mirthful eyes through his thick glasses. Or angst from the corner of your wary eye. But after a while, you grow impatient.

So I flipped open good old Ted Kooser’s good old The Poetry Home Repair Manual to the section titled “But How Do You Come Up With Ideas?”  A reading, then, chapter and verse:

“The poet Jane Hirshfield wrote: ‘A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline-narrow crack opens in the self, and there it is.’ She goes on to quote Kafka: ‘You do not even have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, remain still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.'”

A lovely image, that. The world rolling at your feet like a submissive spaniel. An idea bringing you a stick called “brilliant poem.” And all because you waited, because you said to the Muse, “Heel!”

See how easy? You may now begin writing….