Sometimes we want to write strongly about events or issues that particularly affect us.
I get it. I often feel the same way. But here is the thing: How do really great poets and writers get their words across without coming across as “preachy”? The answer to that lies probably in what can be described as “poetic finesse.” We can research about embracing the “great understanding” and how to write as a “witness,” but what about the real fire that one feels. How do we harness that successfully into words and lines without failing our task?
Poets have always been viewed as having a passion for their writing. We see something, a minor thing, and we can create transformative verse that elevates our mind and if we are so lucky, the mind of the reader. Take the transformative poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams. His first two lines: “so much depends / upon…” You must agree those four words are transformative. Everything in our lives depends upon something or someone else, no matter how isolated we may be. I can sense Williams’ “fire” in those few words because they speak to such large things out of his control.
Let’s take that premise even further as we look at these opening lines from Lester Speiser: “Your violin shattered stars; / call yourself a nice Jewish / boy?” As the poem progresses, I read Speiser getting more and more angry, but not at the boy (who ended up being a hero) but at the Nazis. The reading of this poem stirred in me an anger as well for the aftermath of the Holocaust.
This anger was that the Holocaust robbed so many of their lives and their futures. This poem certainly showed me his “fire in the belly.” That was certainly his idea, I’m sure.
So, how do you channel this passion, this torch, these flaring embers into remarkable writing?
First, look at word choices. Think of powerful words that can be chosen to make your points.
Think of your senses. Which one(s) do you want to focus on? How you feel? What do you see?
I often look to my surroundings to give me ideas/inspiration. A brightly-colored dolphin fish when in the water, and just hooked, is brilliant. But when it comes onto a boat, within seconds, it turns deathly grey. What an opportunity to use this as a metaphor. Elizabeth Bishop and others have used this same fish. Does “red” conjure up something deep within you?
Search for that fire, stoke it properly, with your creativity, then transform yourself while you transform others.
Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).