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How to Write a Poem

    Begin In Delight

The password to poetry is delight. For most of us the problem of beginning a poem is like slaying a dragon that blocks the threshold to the Kingdom of Poetry. The password transmutes the dragon into a welcome mat and a warm greeting from the inner guardian. How do we begin a poem?

Start with the place that delights you. Is it the ocean, woods, or a mountain lake? Whatever place is the most delightful to you will be the stage for your poem. Concentrate on your poem-stage; go there personally or in your memory. Observe the actions occurring there. What action attracts you the most? Is it that gull gliding and skimming the water so gracefully, or is it that little boy delighted with the clams he commands with each footstep on the wet sand at low tide? That action which intrigues you the most, or which you best remember, is the vehicle in which your poem-idea will ride while journeying through the beginning, middle, and end of your poem.

A vehicle to carry your idea -- what does this mean? This is a poem-vehicle, the action you selected from your poem-stage, will now become something with which you will compare your idea. Robert Frost has provided us with an excellent example. In his essay on poetry, he discusses his idea that a poem should flow smoothly -- likening it to the action of an ice cube on a hot stove. The ice cube rides on its own melting. Frost found an action in life that is delightful to the child in all of us, and one that most people are either familiar with or can easily imagine.

When Robert Frost compares his poem-idea with his poem-vehicle, he often says that the two should be alike. In other words, the poem should flow like an ice cube on a hot stove. He communicates his poem-idea to the reader in two ways; first, with words -- the poem should flow, and secondly, with the image -- the ice cube riding on its own melting.

Sometimes our poem-vehicle can be both delightful from one point of view and serious from another point of view. This is the case with the image of the ice cube riding on its own melting. We see that Robert Frost takes the two opposite poles of hot and cold and makes them meet on the surface of a stove. A smooth action occurs. This concept in itself is enough for hours of contemplation and meditation by anyone who strives to balance the oppositions in life.

We are now going to take a guided tour through this process as we create a poem. We begin with a poem-stage. Perhaps in our search for a poem-stage, the place which delights us the most is New England in the wintertime.

Now we need a poem-vehicle. Visiting our poem-stage, we jot down in our poetry notebook those actions which attract us. From these notes we will select the most delightful, yet common, action. Perhaps the action having this quality most fully, enjoyed by both adults and children in snow country, is the making of a snowman and watching what happens to the snowman after it is made.

Often cold weather will linger and the snowman will stand for weeks in the front yard greeting people passing by. Then one day the mercury rises and the snowman slowly melts, presenting many humorous positions before its transition into a puddle. The life of a snowman will serve nicely as our poem-vehicle.

Every good poem has a poem-idea which is carried in a poem-vehicle as it rides around upon the poem-stage. The difficulties that Robert Frost encountered in having his poems published will serve as our poem-idea. These difficulties occurred in spite of the fact that Frost new the characteristics of New England and New Englanders, and nobly captured those characteristics in his poems. It is interesting to note that Robert Frost's first two books of poetry, A Boy's Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914), were published in London, England during his stay there. We can now let our snowman represent the cool attitudes of those editors and others who did not at first recognize Frost's great talent.

From experience with this process it is interesting to note that the poem-idea does not always make itself known to the consciousness of the writer before the writer finds his poem-stage and poem-vehicle. This is why we began with the poem-stage, followed it with the poem-vehicle, and introduced the poem-idea last. Many writers find that the poem-idea magically manifests itself after they become intimately familiar with their poem-stage and poem-vehicle.

Beginning the poem with our poem-stage, winter in New England, we introduce winter first. This gives the reader something to focus on and also something with which he is familiar.

It is important to remember always to be as helpful as possible to our reader. After all, it is with the reader that we wish to share our poem-idea. Therefore, every time we take a step in our poem we should ask ourselves: "Is this arrangement of words and images the best arrangement to convey our poem-idea to our reader?

Next we drive our poem-vehicle, (the snowman), which carries our poem-idea, (the poet's difficulties), onto our poem-stage, which is wintry New England. We introduce a man making a snowman. Remember that our poem-vehicle deals with the life of a snowman from its making to its melting.

The man making the snowman is Robert Frost, and the snowman characterizes the coldness supposedly typical of New Englanders. (Being a New Englander myself, I have to interject here that this well known stereotype of New Englanders is unfair to the many warm people there. However, this stereotype did exist.)

This indicates that Robert Frost had the ability to capture the characteristics of that part of the country and its people into a form -- a snowman. Robert Frost was a master of form. He took much delight in putting his subtle ideas of homespun philosophy into the rhythm of New England imagery. Let us now use this idea. So far, we have the beginning of our poem entitled:

The Poetry Of Robert Frost

In winter,
a playful man, who knew the woods
rolled New England into a

Robert Frost's poems did not get published until many years after he began writing. He had to wait for the most auspicious time. Since our poem-stage is winter in New England, the most auspicious time might be indicated as a warmer season. We will use summer. Being familiar with Robert Frost's image of the ice cube on a hot stove, we will now play with that image. In our imagination we will expand the hot stove image to the hot streets of New York City -- the location of many publishing houses that Robert Frost may have dealt with after returning from England. With the hot stove resembling hot streets, how about the rest of the image -- the ice cube riding on its own melting? Yes, our snowman can serve us well here. We will place him on the hot streets of New York City just as Robert Frost put an ice cube on the hot stove. We now have the middle of our poem:

At the right season, he set it
riding on the hot streets of New York.

Why not let the poem tell us what to do next? Certainly most people would expect the snowman to melt on those hot streets of New York. Well, that is a part of our poem-vehicle -- the life of the snowman ends in a puddle. But wait, the snowman being our poem vehicle, we must therefore make sure that the poem-vehicle has carried our poem-idea to its proper conclusion before we let our snowman melt completely. A snowman, with its triune form, has a face, arms, and usually a hat, pipe, scarf, and broom. But no one would expect a snowman to have a heart! Yet our poem-vehicle does represent attitudes of people; therefore our snowman must have a heart. Besides, it will be a pleasant surprise in the poem. We know that the people of New England finally joined the editors and the rest of the world in accepting Robert Frost as a great poet. (Poet Laureate of The United States Of America during the Kennedy Administration). This is one of the victories of the poet -- acceptance. Robert Frost won this acceptance. Now our snowman must surrender -- giving us an ending. We will melt the cool attitudes represented by the snow leaving just the heart of the New England people -- the essence of New England. This is poetic alchemy, giving us our poem:

The Poetry Of Robert Frost

In winter,
a playful man, who knew the woods,
rolled New England into a
At the right season, he set it
riding on the hot streets of New York.
Soon, a melting hand reached inside
and gave its heart to the poet.

In the same essay where Robert Frost introduced the image of the ice cube on a hot stove, he challenged all poets, past, present, and future in his own playful way. He announced that a poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom. We have learned that beginning in delight is easy and fun. But ending a poem with wisdom is a deeply satisfying achievement for any writer.

The process of creating that wisdom comes from the same place that our poem-stage and poem vehicle came from. We search through a knowledge based on experience -- our own or others. Here, instead of reaching into our memory for the delightful experience, we contact that part of our storehouse of memory holding the lessons we have learned in life. This is where the poem-idea comes from. This is poetry by attunement. Great poems are made by the perfect matching of the poem-idea to the poem-vehicle and poem stage. Many times that perfect match is a play of opposites as Robert Frost has hinted at when he wrote about the happy-sad blend of the drinking song. We superimpose a human problem onto a delightful image usually taken from nature. For instance, the human feeling of "separateness" and its companion "searching for the right path to travel in life" may be compared to the action of a lost ant, inspecting every frantic inch of the wrong way home. Wisdom is deeply involved in experience -- even borrowed experience as in the poem we have just constructed using the experience of a poet in the process of getting his poems published. So we see that ending in wisdom can be as easy and as mush fun as beginning in delight. When we reach inside during the melting away of all that is not wisdom we are left with the heart, the essence of life. Ending the poem is the easiest part of all. When the ice cube is melted stop the poem. Do not try to melt imaginary ice cubes -- the flow of the poem will suffer. The poem is smooth as long as it is riding on its own melting.

An excellent example of how the process of poem-stage, poem-vehicle, and poem-idea are used is in Robert Frost's poem Birches. His poem-vehicle is a boy who is a swinger of birches. If you are unfamiliar with this poem, please find it and read it over a few times. Notice how he drives his poem vehicle out onto his poem stage. See how he begins in delight and ends in wisdom.

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