November 15, 2021

Turning the Poem Over to the Poem

Sara M. Robinson

What is this, you say? I’m sure our novelist friends would agree that when they are in the thicket of their manuscript, they find that the book actually writes itself and the author is simply the tool who gets it down on paper. Sometimes the main character or characters take over and all we can do is let she or them do their thing.

This same thing can happen in poetry. Perhaps not so much in a short poem, but I can see it happening in a long narrative poem. Three modern poets who I follow have, I believe, provided poetry done this way: Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, and Lesley Wheeler. In fact, Lesley, also a personal friend, wrote a masterful book, The Receptionist, in terza rima (a rhyming verse form used by Dante). The reading community received a huge treat with brown girl dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. This marvelous example of brilliant narrative written as verse won the National Book Award. Using her childhood as inspiration, she let the poetry expand her story and draw us in.

So, how do we know when our poem is about to take us over? I’m not sure, but for me there is this kind of moment when I am writing that I realize I’ve put words down and was on some level not aware that I had done that. Maybe when we feel like our poetry is surprising us is when we know the poem has taken over. When I look back and re-read some pieces, and I ask myself, did I really write that, I must think that the poems had taken over.

When deeply engaged with a poem, I sit back and let my mind wander. In this state I may not be writing anything, but I’m letting go of my immediate ownership. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. When this does work, I sense the poem I’m working on has taken stock of me and what I am trying to say. Again, I stay tuned in to ensure my word choices work.

At last, we come to the fun part: The end or close. So, does the poem tell me when to stop or do I? In a previous Southern Writers’ Column, I discussed the close and how one knew when or how to close the poem. The decision, at this point, for me is take back the poem and decide how I want to end. The final contribution is bringing the poem to a natural and unforced conclusion.

The close may require several edits or revisions to get it right, for you.

With that, I’ll close for now. Until next time…

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).


  1. Thanks Sara. I can see where that could happen in poetry.

    1. Some writers would suggest that poetry is a way to "literally" disappear!!

  2. I love seeing how your mind works! Fiction is like that...when I'm in the flow. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Patricia! I always appreciate your comments. I like the word, "flow." That makes me think of "tempo" as a pace of the writing.

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