In Parts 1 and 2, I described condensing the holiday season into 10 basic statements, then explored how to expand on each statement individually for blog posts or journal entries. Since my primary interest, and the focus of this site, is writing poetry, I’m going to choose a single statement and brainstorm to come up with lines and images for a poem.
The most potent statement for me right now, the one I’d most like to address in a poem, is “My Aunt Shirley died on Pearl Harbor Day.” The first step is to reflect on that statement. The significance isn’t really that my aunt died on Pearl Harbor Day. I could work with that eventually in a poem, and probably will. Certainly I could write about her death exclusively, compose an elegy, mourning her passing in verse. Ironically, such a poem seems too formal and distant from the experience of her loss. Yet, her loss is what I want to write about.
If I sit still and let the impressions of December 7 and the days that followed flow to me, what I keep returning to is the memorial gathering the following Saturday. Since that’s what is stirring me the most, that’s what I’ll write about. The original statement was simply a springboard.
Sometimes images and lines come full-blown into my mind, but usually I have to dig them out of random impressions, refine and shape them, collage them into sections of poems, and sometimes bust them apart and start over again with salvaged bits. I have no idea what I want to say in this poem or where I want to take it, so I’ll begin by listing five physical details of the evening:
My aunt’s photo portrait sat on the white mantel surrounded by floral arrangements in red and white.
A white revolving Christmas tree stood in the corner by the mantel, cheery, indifferent to sorrow.
Rain fell heavily that evening, with a snowstorm on the way next morning.
The bright kitchen was ringed with spreads of food, from salads to baked ham to Christmas cookies and other desserts.
Metal folding chairs lined the perimeter of the living room, fitted into spaces between sofas and armchairs, and still there weren’t enough seats for the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
Now I’ll list five emotional details:
In memory, the gathering seems more like a Christmas party than a funeral service.
My mother was composed until she was given a copy of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”—a song that is meaningful to her, yet she didn’t know it had meant so much to her sister as well.
My uncle said he was too upset to say anything about his wife, and wept with heartfelt grief, then recovered to share amusing anecdotes with the assembled.
My youngest cousin broke down when he tried to speak about his mother but rallied on with some spirited memories.
The children were playful and amusing, and didn’t seem aware that it was a sad occasion.
At this point I can pause to review the raw material I have. I see a theme of white emerging. Despite tears, the mood was generally lighthearted, even festive. But where is my aunt in all this? This was my first visit to my cousin’s house, so I had no associations between the home and my aunt. The portrait on the mantel was of my aunt as a much younger person. I realized that woman was a total stranger to most of people in the room, in-laws and grandchildren and their children. That’s a key impression I probably want to work into the poem.
I’ve got a few things to start working with. Here are some initial lines—the “collage” I spoke of earlier:The young, trim blonde in the portrait smiled down from her place of honor, enshrined among red and white blossoms that suggested the holiday season more than death. A small white tree revolved slowly in the corner. A street of porcelain houses with warmly lit windows twinkled behind the son as he teared up, recalling his mother.
The woman in the portrait was a stranger to the younger people in the room—the daughters-in-law, the grown grandchildren, the toddling great-grandkids. They knew a fulsome woman with hair as white as the branches of the tree. The old snapshots their grandpa passed around were a revelation, this stylish girl in form-fitting bathing suit, this flashy woman with teased white- blond hair with a bow dead center.
At this point the lines are getting away from me, so this is when I gather up all my notes and put them away for awhile. I’ll probably keep some of what I’ve written, but a lot of it will be discarded or pared down. I’ll write a lot more; there are details and descriptions I haven’t worked with yet. As I roughed out those lines, it all still felt too distant, so I may wind up writing the poem in second person, addressed to my aunt, as though describing her memorial service to her.
What all of this illustrates, though, is how to start with a single statement and keep expanding it into material for a poem. It’s so easy to feel clammed up or uninspired when trying to write; but how hard is it, really, to simply write a statement about something? There’s your all-purpose NUDGE: Write a statement. Then write sub-statements. Keep focusing in and examining your subject in words. Keep everything you write, even if you don’t get any farther than assembling a group of statements. Later you’ll get those notes out and be stunned at the inspiration you find in them.