Genesis of a Poem

I can remember my high school English teacher casually instructing the class to write a poem in the spirit of Autumn.  It was late September, and the leaves were changing.  I’m sure that’s what inspired the assignment in the first place.  The poem was due the following day.

I didn’t know much about writing poetry, but I suspected the likes of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman didn’t just sit down and fill pages with beautiful verse on command.  I supposed there was a process – something introspective and meditative that had to happen organically.  Well, I didn’t really have time to wait for my muse to show up, so I forced myself to get something down on paper.  It was about how the baseball playoffs were shaping up in the Major Leagues, and the magic of playing the game in October when the World Series is on the line.  I thought it was a bad poem, but I got a B on the assignment. I was okay with that.

Looking back, I can say my instincts were sound.  There is a certain mind state I have to achieve before I can write a decent poem.  I’d like to share a few tricks I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful to your creative process.

There is poetry all around you.

Be observant throughout the day.  Appreciate small details, because the small details are the seeds of poetry.  For example, notice how weeds come up through the cracks in sidewalks.  On the surface, it seems like a trivial detail.  In reality, it’s a reminder that nature is a powerful force that wants to reclaim the urban landscapes we have stamped into the earth.  Now you have an entire concept to work with, and all you had to do is look at a few weeds poking up through the sidewalk.  Brilliant!

Your subconscious secretly writes poetry.

Doctors and scientists admit they do not have a very good grasp on how the human mind works.  They do know the subconscious mind is very active, though most of us are never aware of what it’s really up to.  A writing instructor I had in college taught me a good technique to get in touch with my subconscious.  He told me to carry around a dozen or so 3 x 5 index cards.  If I noticed something interesting, jot it down.  Every interesting thought or observation got its own index card.

Here’s an example.  I was crossing a road in July, and there was heat distortion coming up off the blacktop.  I thought the observation was worthy enough to note, so I wrote down: Heat distortion on road on one of the index cards. I waited a few days to go through the cards, and I came to the one about Heat distortion.  Without any effort I immediately jotted down, Shimmering Specter.  I put the cards away, and repeated the process a few days later.  I got to the one that said, Heat distortion on road, Shimmering Specter, and another thought just flowed from my pen to the index card: A halcyon oasis.  I was amazed when I realized I was subconsciously authoring one of the assignments due for my summer writing workshop.  It was a 5-7-5 syllable haiku.  Admittedly, I composed the last line with conscious effort, but it didn’t feel like pulling teeth the way composing poetry usually felt for me.  After ten or fifteen minutes I completed the haiku.  It read:


shimmering specter

a halcyon oasis

what beautiful lies

Okay, it wasn’t brilliant poetry, but it was worthy enough to present at a college level writing workshop.  Just by crossing a hot blacktop road my subconscious thought up a little story about getting lost in a desert and being fooled by a mirage.  Pretty neat.  And it took very little effort, save for having to carry around some 3 x 5 index cards all the time.  Now you can get a note pad app for your smart phone, so there’s really no excuse not to try this out for yourself.


Whatever kills me makes me stronger– Peter Griffin

The great thing about writing a poem is it can free fall from the sky, hit the ground, bounce a few times, and come back stronger.  That is, of course, if you’re willing to take an objective look at your work and make some revisions.  In my opinion, the revision process is the soul of good writing.  It’s where grandiose ideas, raw emotions, and penetrating insight are crafted into the concise literary forms we recognize as poetry.  If you have the luxury of workshopping your poetry, by all means, take advantage of it.  I know how terrifying it can be to put something as personal as a poem out there to be scrutinized and dissected. However, it’s been my experience that the process only leads to more refined versions of the poem, until you are left with the best possible iteration of the original.  After all, you owe it to your poem to take it as far as it can possibly go – to make it as good as it possibly can be.


Keep writing, keep revising, and be kind.