"Approaching Poetry" by Sage Doyle
Sage Doyle guest post
I am honored to be invited as a guest blogger for the Writer's Chatroom Blog, thank you Audrey! Since it seems my own blog has gained some success from my poetry, I've decided that, as I write this article, I will conceive, compose, and revise a free-verse poem, describing the process throughout. Each of my poems begins with an idea, situation, mood, emotion, or reaction. For the sake of this article, I'll say the idea is the first cup of coffee in the morning.
Approaching the Idea
Once I have the idea, I envision it in my mind and make it real inside myself. I determine who the narrator is, if it is me or a character, and the narrator's experience must become whole, like a short story. It needs to be visually, emotionally, sensually, and psychologically solid. There is a backstory and an emotional reality as I approach the poem. Regarding the morning coffee, I'll say this man had a rough night. He's been under a lot of stress due to job loss. His girlfriend broke up with him. He went out with the guys last night and didn't get to sleep until 5am. It's now 10am Sunday morning. He wakes, puts on a robe because it's chilly, and turns on the coffee maker. My reader would never know these details, but I create them to make it real.
Next, I put the words down:
I hear the sound of the coffee brewing
and I breathe
The brisk cold of the morning
to seek comfort
I smell the rich grounds
as the hot water passes through them
and at last
as I look through the glass doors
into the late morning
I embrace the cup
and feel at ease
I then read the words repeatedly aloud or in my head throughout the revision process. For my first read-through, I check for the natural flow of the poem and try to revise according to where the rhythm is leading me. I reword or rephrase the poem to express the idea using the right words and language that will give a sense of the backstory.
Regarding punctuation, I rarely use periods or semicolons because I think they are like a wall. I use capitalization, line breaks, and commas in order to create pauses, or stanzas for a shift in ideas. I prefer to allow undefined pauses because I like my lines to be free to flow from one to the next as meaning is interpreted by a reader.
The Revision Process
I want to keep the words brewing, breathe, and brisk because I like the alliteration. Sometimes creative writing techniques happen accidentally as in this case. The skill comes during revisions when you notice them and leave them alone. Hearing a sound is redundant to me so I'll eliminate the sound. I'm going to remove the capital T at the beginning of the third verse because I want the word breathe to flow into the next line, which I plan to change. I like to connect ideas from line to line. When talking about breathing and then about brisk cold morning, these concepts both regard air. The two phrases about air can flow together and be interpreted differently. This example also flows into the third sentence, when the cold of the morning air persuades the narrator. But now I just decided I'm going to take out the air element. He is breathing the scent of coffee. He is breathing the cold morning, which is persuading him. However, as brisk and cold are also redundant, and I've already determined I like the word brisk, I want to change the word cold. Cold is a strong word actually which can describe a person or a mood, or in the narrator's case, his situation. This narrator needs security in many ways. I want to find a word that can both describe the morning being cold, and his current world, which is falling apart. Since I brought up his lack of security, I think I want the word to mean unsafe. The morning can be both unsafe, and represent a new day, and he has a sense of comfort from this morning coffee. I don't want to forget the optimism this coffee symbolizes. For now, the morning will be unsafe, but later, when it begins to persuade him, it will represent a new beginning.
Instead of cold, I choose the word biting, because it has a nice rhythm with brewing and morning, and adds to the alliteration. It also describes both the cold aspect and the lack of safety. I'm satisfied with the next line, but I want stronger words than seek comfort. I want more rhythm, more of the backstory, so I will add phrases as well. I read it over and and over again until I get a sense of the sound that should be there. The rhythm and fluidity need the right words to create a sound as well as meaning. Instead of comfort, which is a closed word, I use solace, because it's an extensive word and therefore more reflective of his needs. Sssooollaaacccee as opposed to ComforT. I add the phrase, and grace because it emphasizes the word solace, but it also dignifies the narrator. He's not weakened; he has grace, and now he can be visualized standing strong and ready to move forward, taking the day on.
The word rich when describing coffee grounds is overdone, so I want to change that. I need a word that describes both the grounds and fruition for the narrator. The word grounds works because it has a double meaning. The coffee helps to ground the narrator, again he is standing tall and strong. This word is significant and symbolic. I choose the word abounding to describe the grounds and eliminate the verse about the hot water because it distracts from the double meaning and the potential for diverse interpretations of abounding grounds. This could be referring to the coffee grounds or the narrator. I still want to mention the smell of the coffee brewing, but I'll use the word essence, again because it has more than one meaning. I describe the essence as bitter, which can either be the smell of coffee or the trials in life. I say with to show that the narrator is part of it, not consumed or controlled by it, with bitter essence.
Now there is a transition in the poem; he gets the coffee and begins to drink it. I find there's an awkward transition from abounding grounds to and at last though I like the latter line. In between I add arising about me (double meaning). Next, I like how the narrator is once again taking direct action, looking through the doors. He hasn't done this since he said I breathe. I think look is a weak word though, and glass doors is limiting. Regard instead suggests a respectful acknowledgment and an acceptance. Our man is not afraid, he's ready. As I describe this I envision him nodding, so I think I will add that in. I eliminate through the glass doors partially due to cliché symbolism, and also, since I already decided he was with the situation, if he's looking through then there's a sense that he's testing the waters as opposed to stepping out to confront the day.
I like the simple vocabulary of the last lines, though instead of making him feel at ease, I think he's more assured than that, so he will state that he is at ease, I am at ease. The concrete beginning I hear the coffee brewing brings a person in, people like coffee and it's real and relatable. Then in the end, after subjective and symbolic layered verse, it becomes concrete again. This gives a sense of closure, resolve, and completion. Even though it is one moment, it has a beginning, middle, and an end. I entitle the poem "Coffee" because I prefer simple titles which don't impose interpretation:
I hear the coffee brewing
and I breathe
the brisk and biting morning
prompts me to hold
on, pursuing solace
with bitter essence
arising about me
and at last
I nod and regard
the late morning
embracing the cup
and I am at ease
I read through again for fluidity and rhythm, ensuring there are no phrases that are jagged. Sometimes, however, a little awkwardness can be used to give a sense of unease. In this case, there is slight unsteadiness, an almost abrupt transition, but I think it works for the narrator; it's reflective of his experience. It's almost like the instant he makes the choice, "yes I'm ready," sudden and without hesitation. Lastly, I double check that my punctuation, line breaks, and capitalization help to create the flow I want, and I proofread for typos.
This is how I approach writing poetry, and it's not intended to suggest it is the right way to do it. Some people might actually prefer the first version of the poem. I believe poetry is a deeply intimate genre, and people have their own techniques. For me, every narrator is a character that I become emotionally connected with. Otherwise, the narrator is me and I am exposing parts of myself that would never otherwise be revealed. I remember reading Edgar Allan Poe's 1846 essay "The Philosophy of Composition" in which he describes a very mathematical approach to his writing of "The Raven." It disturbed me to think there was no emotion but rather a T. S. Eliot sort of approach to Poe's writing. I learned later that the essay may have been a mockery of the critics and was something of a joke as far as Poe was concerned. I've never read further than that on it, but I'd like to believe that. This is just an example of how words can evoke moods, emotions, and thought, instilling a profound and passionate connection for a reader. This is a brilliant phenomenon, and for both the poet and the reader it can be very personal.
Chatroom member Sage Doyle writes poetry and contemporary fiction. Visit his blog at http://sagedoyle.wordpress.com/ .