Word Pictures, A Poem's Worth A Thousand Images
Creating An Experience
A great piece of writing is an experience. Anyone who's ever read Frost or Wordsworth, enjoyed Shakespeare's sonnets or floated down the river with Mark Twain knows how easy it is to get lost in the words and let the world just fade away for a while. The difficulty, as any writer or poet knows, is in how to create that experience for your readers. My professor, a very smart poet named Kevin Craft, always maintained that a good poem should have a story. In fact, is a short story compressed into just a few lines. If you want to write a story, you have to have a character. In poetry, we call this the VOICE. The voice in the poem can be your own, a serial killer, or the old woman down the street with a hundred cats and no living family.
The biggest mistake I see from beginning poets is the lack of voice. It's easier to tell the reader what they want to hear than to show them. If we want to create a good poem that people really want to read and experience we have to give them imagery! Illustrate your work with a storyline, a setting, or a really great character and you've definitely begun. Do the best you can to present those images in an original and engaging fashion with no baggage attached and viola! You have a wonderful experience for the reader that you had fun writing yourself.
I get my images for my poetry from life experience, second-hand description, art exhibits, history books, other poets, fiction, even the tabloids sometimes. When you find a great image for a poem, write it down. I can't stress enough how important it is for a poet or writer to keep a notebook with phrases they like, great imagery they've found, and cool quotes they run across. If you keep a journal, add these things to it. Then, whenever you're stuck on a poem or story, you have a whole catalog of ideas to fall back on.
Presenting an image in a poem can be difficult sometimes. You could say, "an old, rusty metal gate clangs as it swings." This is descriptive and we can all picture it in our heads, right? But how much more fun is it to read, "Open, shut, open, shut, a rusted metal gate swings, ringing like an old farmwife on her dinner bell." Now there are two images in this stanza that work together to create an experience and make for a much better poem. The more "word pictures" you can create, the more other people are going to be able to relate to your poem and the better your work will be.
In the next capsules I've presented two drafts of the same poem so that you can see some of the process I go through when I'm revising. I feel the second version is much better and more complete than the first but you see what you think and feel free to let me know!