A poem, at its best - even a "prose poem" as was a popular technique when people like Wordsworth were writing - is not so much narrative as a collection of a writer's impressions of life. A poem, perhaps more than any other literary form, does not seek to state a truth directly, but to hint at it in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of something familiar - a truth shared with the author - a moment of realization that we all share the same struggles and joys. It is that glimpse of the familiar and the mutually identifiable that sends a thrilled chill up the reader's spine and makes the poem unforgettable.
Thinking about this characteristic of a good poem has led me to notice something about that art form and another: the music video. As is true with poetry, a great music video is made up of impressions, not of documentary-style statements. Often the meaning of a music video is vague until the end. The viewer glides through 3-5 minutes of visual images, one flitting by after another, hardly giving the mind time to ponder the meaning of any one image. But by the end of the video, the light-speed images taken as a whole suggest a theme, a message or truth conveyed by the video and by association the song. Consider two good examples.
First, the new music video by The Script, centering on their song Hall of Fame. It might be argued that a person would have to view this 4-5 times before understanding the mini-stories within, and yet the combination of the lyrical chorus and the dozens of images on the brain pounds in the message by the end.
Now take a look at Adam Lambert's Never Close Our Eyes. This video has taken some pretty straight-forward lyrics and offered an alternative interpretation/scenario/theme. Again, the images fly by quickly, each imprinting a brief impression on the viewer's mind; the use of color and symbolism is brilliant here to convey an overall thought by the end of the song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3dkVk3F57c
In the case of both of these videos, nothing is bluntly stated - all is given in fleeting visual impressions. The viewer is not condescended to, but challenged to participate in that he/she is forced to analyze a bit to make sense of the video.
When writing poems, a writer needs to understand basic and classical formats and techniques of the past. It is like gathering tools from which one may choose to best create something new. A painter who understands how to use oil, pastel, watercolor, tempura, acrylic, has a plethora of tools from which to choose, and has the advantage and joy of comfortably selecting and combining the best tools for a specific project. Likewise, a poet who understands basic tools can choose what works from a variety of tried and true techniques to create the most impact for the reader.
But the serious poet needs more than the experience of some education about poetry: he or she needs to understand how to tap his or her own subconscious. He or she needs to learn to convey impressions and feelings about, rather than explain the world he sees. This can be done in brief description, or in metaphor. When a poet fails to use these skills, you get a string of narrative masquerading as a poem. It looks cheap and amateurish:
I am sitting at my keyboard but the
Words wont come
I am lost in the fog of
Confusion and I don't know
When I can come out or
Lost in confusion.
Lost in fog.
Yes, it gets this bad. The above is simply not a poem, no matter how many line breaks the author sticks in there. Rather, it is a paragraph of narrative, with some line breaks. There are no impressions - save perhaps the comparison of confusion to a "fog", but that is so common a metaphor that it doesn't count. Now look at this one, which I came across today:
by John Lavan
turn and splash and fade,
without a plan or auto-cue
or credits rolling at the end.
No sleep is possible in this wind
- memories of camping rain
spatter and splatter and splat again
my rooftop tingling brain.
Memories! A tent flapping,
ghosts insistent for remembering
- calling but uncalled for.
Almost, they breathe, look,
aching for texture
as wind and rain let up.
Within the confines of this post, I don't want to go into the many metaphors, wonderful description, the skill of use of language in this poem, that betray the high skill level and experience of the writer. Suffice it to say that this is poetry at its best. The writer has chosen freeform mixed with some classic format - the 4 lines/4 lines/ 3 lines/ 3 lines is tried and true. Notice that the poet has chosen not to be confined within a box of having to rhyme. But the rhyming in the second stanza of rain, again and brain is not accidental: the poet has used this to emphasize the tap tap tap of rain pelting a roof. Brilliant use of language!
And consider the metaphors - language where one object is suggested by, or compared to, another - and plays on words. How many do you see? I love the idea of soft April showers described as "cruel"; as showers personified as not having a plan; memories as ghosts; ghosts calling but uncalled for; ghosts and memories "aching for texture". At the end this poem full of rain holds a surprise - the last line is "as wind and rain let up". The storm of memories ended.
Can you recognize how the poet here doesn't state anything outright, but simply fires a series of impressions - visual impressions if you will - into the reader's mind, inviting certain feelings? In this way the theme is conveyed more emotionally than intellectually. This is the way a great poem works!
Let's finally consider a poem where the language is more straightforward. This is Robert Frost's beloved poem "The Road Not Taken". I offer it in its entirely, out of respect for a great writer.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Frost comes from an era where narrative poetry and conventional rhyme was popular. His meter (the beat or rhythm you hear when reading the poem out loud) is a common classical one. Notice the regular rhyming - but his skill is such that his rhymes come easily: they never feel forced or like he put much thought into them (although of course he must have!).
But more importantly, notice the impressions: A path trodden lightly "and wanted wear", a bend beyond which one cannot see, scattered leaves on the ground. The thing is, this is not a poem about two paths in the woods, although Frost had a gift for evoking images of Nature. Rather, this is a poem about Life's paths, about the unforgiving permanence of decisions we all make: ...knowing how way leads onto way / I doubted if I should ever come back... one doesn't get a second chance. In the end, the narrator offers that he took the path that lacked wear, the one that few others had taken ... and that has made all the difference. Note that the title of the poem is not "The Road Less Traveled" but "The Road Not Taken". This is significant, and not an accidental choice.
The bigger point is that even though Frost offers straightforward sentence-like lines, and the images are less vague than in the previous poem, one would be mistaken to take this poem literally because in doing so one would miss the theme altogether. Frost is speaking in metaphors of the highest form: the road is a path in Life. Impressions, not statements. He asks the reader to see deeper meaning, to chew on his words, to do some mental gymnastics to get at the meaning.
A good poet must be adept at tapping into that odd state of mind that lies between conscious consideration of the world, and dreamlike impression. A poet must cultivate a relaxed state from which he or she can glean impressions that lie just above subconscious thought and pull them out and apply them to paper. (Many believe that poems are best written with pen and paper than on a computer, since the former taps more easily into subconscious thought.) A poet deals with emotion, feelings, in conveying the world. He/she doesn't deal in concrete thought.
Next time you sit down to write a poem, think about the last great music video you saw. Think about what is suggested, rather than stated outright. Think about how giving the reader some impressions from your subconscious thoughts is enough, and can speak louder than stating a narrative. Give your reader the respect and gift of having to work to find meaning. Give feelings more than thought. Then you will have a real poem!
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A few recommendations:
A. V. Barber writes deceptively light poetry: he understands the value of understatement and impression. Check out his new collection of thought-provoking and sometimes humorous poetry: Me, My World and I.
James Schwartz writes skilled verse based upon life experience; full of impression and emotion. His book The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish in America is a combination of narrative and poetry.
John Lavan's website: http://poemsfromreality.blogspot.com/