Archive for the 'Sage Cohen' Category

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Choose Your Speaker’s Vantage Point

Sage CohenBy Sage Cohen
One of the trickiest-and most liberating-aspects of poetry is that there is no Gold Standard against which we measure its worth. Without this standard, it can also be difficult to evaluate when a poem is finished. Because each poem is trying to accomplish something different, it is up to us to decide when the poem has arrived. This is not easy to do, even when one has been writing for decades; but it sure is satisfying to practice!
 
The important thing to remember about revision is that it is a process by which we become better acquainted with the poem and push it farther toward its own potential. In the revision stage, we revisit and may reinvent the choices we’ve already made with language, image, voice, music, line, rhythm and rhyme.
 
The tricky balance involves wildly experimenting with what might be possible in a poem-beyond what we first laid down on the page-without losing the integrity of idea or emotion that brought us to the poem in the first place. This is a skill that develops over time through experience and largely by feel. If it seems like you’re groping around in the dark when revising, welcome to the club!
 
The process of revising poems is unique for each poet; and often, each poem has its own, unprecedented trajectory. I’ve had a few “whole cloth” poems arrive nearly perfectly complete in one contiguous swoosh of pen to paper. And I have other poems that have taken me more than 15 years to finish. More typically, I work on a poem for a few weeks or months. Sometimes, I think a poem is finished; and years later, it proves me wrong, demanding a new final verse or line structure or title.
 
For the purposes of establishing a revising practice, I recommend that you divide writing and editing into two completely separate acts that happen at two different sittings, preferably on different days. The goal of this checks-and-balances system is to give yourself the space to let it rip when you’re writing without fearing interference from your inner editor. Don’t worry: if it’s bad now, it will still be bad next week; you can fix it then.
 
Once you feel you’ve exhausted every last drop of poetic possibility in the writing of the first draft, or any time you get stuck and don’t know where to go next, put your poem aside for a while. The next time you return to it, you’ll be wearing your editor hat. 
 
 
In my experience, time is the greatest of editors. The longer a poem sits untouched, the more likely you are to have a sense of how to proceed when you sit down to revise.
 
Don’t know where to start with your revisions? Try asking yourself the following questions: 
  • What is most alive in your poem? Underline the line(s), word(s), phrase(s), stanza(s) that seem to be the kindling feeding the fire of this poem so you can easily reference what’s working well throughout the revision process. 
  • Is there exposition at the beginning or summary information at the end that is not serving the poem and could be trimmed?
  • Who is speaking? What would the poem be like if told from a different speaker? (For example, if a poem is about an experience shared by a mother and daughter, told by the daughter, try telling it by the mother.)
  • Where is language weak and flabby? How can you give it more energy and muscle? Can passive verbs become active? Can modifiers be cut? Should “dropped” be changed to “plummeted”?
  • Verb tense: What would your poem be like in a different tense than it was written? Even if it happened in the past, try the present; and vice versa. See what gives it the most power and energy.
  • Does the shape of the poem (line length, stanza breaks, white space) mirror the emotion and rhythm of its content? Should it?
  • Are punctuation and capitalization consistent?
  • Is there good music of repeating sounds throughout the poem?
  • Does each line break create the desired interest, pause, movement, and focus on key moments or words?
  • Is the title serving the poem? How can the title take the poem further?

Remember that no one but you knows the best way to craft your poem. Have fun, be willing to experiment, and know that you’ll learn a little more about revision each time you try.
 

Writing the Life Poetic by Sage CohenSage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, The Oregonian, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University, co-hosts a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Soapstone residency. To learn more, visit www.writingthelifepoetic.com
 

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Choosing Your Speaker’s Vantage Point

By Sage CohenSage Cohen

In every poem, there is a speaker-a person or narrator delivering the poem-and a listener-the person receiving the poem. The choice a poet makes about who’s delivering the message or story, and to whom, can significantly impact the reader’s experience of the poem.
 
For example, a poem may tell the tale of the consequences a man’s addiction has had on his life. Depending on whether he’s telling his AA group from whom he’d like support, his boss from whom he’d like forgiveness, his son whom he’s trying to teach not to repeat his own mistakes, or a general audience, the experience of the poem could go in a number of different directions.
 
These possibilities assume that the man who is the subject of the poem is also the speaker of the poem, telling the story in his own voice. Another possibility is that this is a poem about a father, told by a narrator who is someone else: maybe his son, his boss, or his AA sponsor.
 
All of this is to say that any given poem could be approached from a range of vantage points. As the writer of the poem, it may behoove you to experiment a bit with at least a few different ways into any given poem to learn how you want to tell it and how you’d like your reader to hear it.
 
For example, do you want the reader to know from an objective distance that the young lover is anguished with heartbreak? Or do you want to stand your reader in the wobbly shoes of the accused ex who has just emptied every drawer and bank account? Each engages readers differently and gives them a different vantage point from which they participate.
 
Your turn!
 
Take a poem you’ve already written and tell it differently. Let’s say it’s a poem about a particular experience you had, told in an omniscient voice to no one in particular. To create a new slant, you might revise this poem to tell a first-person (I) story to a specific listener-perhaps the person who carried you out of the schoolyard that afternoon-or the person who you wish had done so.  

  • Write a nature scene, perhaps about a snowstorm, in the voice of a child  from her point of view.
  • Write about that same scene from the point of view and in the voice of the snowman she’s built. 
  • Now let the cedar tree standing tall above the scene narrate from its lofty vantage point. 
  • Let us see this scene through the eyes of the guy who drives around plowing snow on his day off.  

Now reinvent the poems by writing about a child in a snowstorm, the snowman she’s built, the lofty cedar tree and the guy driving the plow

 

Writing the Life Poetic by Sage CohenSage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, The Oregonian, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University, co-hosts a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Soapstone residency. To learn more, visit www.writingthelifepoetic.com

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Writing Titles

Sage CohenBy Sage Cohen

Because it is the first thing a reader sees, the poem’s title sets the stage for the drama that will unfold. It lets your readers know how to enter the poem and gives them an idea what kind of poem it will be.
 
A poem’s title can define a time period, “Civil War” (yours truly), a season, “Winter” (Marie Ponsot) or a moment in time, like Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.” Or it may establish a specific location, “Cannon Beach At Sunset,” or a more general one, such as William Stafford’s “Over the Mountain.” It can let us know who the poem is about, as in Ron Koertge’s “Cinderella’s Diary” or name the extended metaphor that will be explored, as in Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard.”
 
Timing is important when choosing a title. You don’t want to start (or more importantly, finish) too soon. Writing a poem can feel much like trying to steer a runaway car. You think you’re headed to the supermarket, but then suddenly the poem gains momentum in some other direction, and you’re heading at breakneck speed into that empty lot where Jason Phillips beat up your brother in second grade.
 
For this reason, I recommend not worrying too much about what the title might be when you start writing a poem. Let the journey of the poem unfold. You may end up editing the supermarket entirely out of the final poem, making the title “Aisle Two, Bulk Cashews” completely irrelevant. Once the poem has revealed itself and is fully formed, that’s the time to think about finalizing your title.
 
The good news about choosing an ill-suited title early in the poem-writing process is that it can serve as an itch that keeps you scratching until you’ve discovered more about what the poem truly wants to be. In other words, when a poem closes a door, it opens a window! Sometimes, the wrong title can lead us from what looks like a dead end through a porthole into some topic or theme we might not have otherwise discovered.
 
Wondering how to title a poem? Not sure if the title you chose is working well?  Ask yourself these questions to explore the range of possibilities available to you and keep experimenting until you find the one that fits best:

  • Do I want readers to know exactly what this poem will be about after reading the title? 
  • Do I want them to know who is speaking, or what time period is covered, or where the poem is located?
  • How would a more abstract title–one that represents a key theme of the poem–work? (As in “The Weight” by Linda Gregg, a poem that intimately studies the relationship of two horses) 
  • Is there exposition in the poem that could be cut and replaced with a title? (Then you could just dive into the poem without having to explain the context of the action.) Tu Fu does this well in “Alone, Looking for Blossoms Along the River.” 
  • Would the first line work well as a title? (Sometimes the title serves as the first line of the poem. Sometimes it repeats the first line of the poem.)
  • Would the last line work well as a title?
  • Is there a phrase within the poem that captures the essence of what the poem is about? 
  • How can I use the title to shed light on or add depth to the poem-saying something that takes the reader a little deeper than the poem does on its own? 

The more you experiment with titling your work, the better you’ll know your own style, strategies and the range of possibilities available to you in every poem.

 
Writing the Life Poetic by Sage CohenSage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, The Oregonian, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University, co-hosts a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Soapstone residency. To learn more, visit www.writingthelifepoetic.com

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Sense and Nonsense

Sage Cohen

Don’t know what a poem means? Not sure if you’re interpreting it right? Well, let me let you in on a little insider secret: the poem means whatever you believe it means.

Maybe a poem doesn’t “mean” anything to you. That’s ok, too. Not all poets are striving to make literal sense. Maybe the poem made you feel something, but you don’t know why. Maybe the way the poet arranged three words in a line was so surprising that it gave you a new idea for your own wordplay. Regardless of what the writer of that poem may have intended, it becomes something uniquely yours in your hands.

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that there will not always be something for us to love or admire in the poems we read. Sometimes a poem will mean nothing to you and offer no particular delight or revelation of any kind. This comes with the territory. Just as you probably don’t enjoy every person you’ve ever met, not every poem you encounter is likely to click with you, either.

Chances are good that along the way, you’ll write a poem or two or more that you don’t understand (or couldn’t explain) yourself. When I am writing a poem that doesn’t make literal sense to me, I think of how Michelangelo described his process of discovering the shape of a sculpture that awaited him as he chipped away at his marble block. I believe that there is some truth that exists whole, and when I get a glimmer of such a possibility, I strive to find its shape in words. This requires a very different kind of knowing and trust. Like groping my way in the dark and deciding which structures feel as if they will hold my weight.

Maybe the most difficult thing about poetry is the fact that there is no definitive right and wrong way to write it and no single, universal way to interpret individual poems. There is no authority beyond ourselves to confirm that we’ve arrived and that we did it right. Not-knowing (when writing or reading a poem) is the point at which many people throw in the towel and decide poetry is just too difficult.

However, I’d like to propose that in the realm of poetry, there is no failure in the absence of an absolute. Not-knowing offers a kind of limitless potential. Poetry has taught me that life and language can be far more meaningful when we get beyond the strictures of literal meaning into the endlessly possible place where poems live!

Your turn!

* Find a poem you don’t understand- preferably one you have never liked. Find three things to admire about it, whether it be the sound of a phrase, the quality of an image or a line break choice.

* Write a poem that imitates something about this poem that you don’t understand. Don’t worry about writing a comprehensible narrative. Just have fun with the language and see where it leads you.

* Wait at least a few days. Then revisit both poems- the one you found and the one you wrote- and decide what each of them means to you. You don’t have to be sure. There’s no right or wrong. Your own interpretation is your exact truth.

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, The Oregonian, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University, co-hosts a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Soapstone residency. To learn more, visit www.writingthelifepoetic.com.

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Shaping Poems with Stanzas

By Sage Cohen
Sage CohenA stanza is a series of lines in a poem grouped together to comprise the body of the poem. If a snowman were a poem, each snowball section of him would be a stanza. The size and shape of each are unique to express each individual part, but are also similar and related. Together, they add up to the whole of snowman. In a similar way, the parts (stanzas) of a poem add up to the whole shape and continuity of the poem.
 
Stanzas also influence a poem’s momentum. Line breaks are the place where the reader lingers an extra beat; the space between stanzas brings the reader to a hard stop. Therefore, a two-line stanza will have a different impact on pacing (typically more halting) than an eight-line stanza, which allows language and images to flow a little longer without interruption.
 
Unless you are writing in a specific form that dictates stanza length, how you navigate the shape and heft of your stanzas is entirely up to you. Some stanzas are two lines, and others are the length of an entire page-or more. Some poems have a series of similar stanzas (each with four lines, for example) and others have stanzas of varying line lengths (one might have four lines, another eight, the next three, the last a single line). Your choices are literally infinite.
 
Over time, you’re likely to develop your own aesthetic sense of how stanzas work and what your choices mean. For example, there was a period of years where I wrote mostly in very long stanzas of uneven length. I’d break the stanza when I was starting a new idea. A few of my poems about disappointment in love found their way into short-lined couplets (stanzas of two lines.) I felt that paired lines mirrored the yearning to partner. Clipping the lines short created for me a kind of tension. And the white space around the couplets contributed, in my mind, to the melancholy of the poem.
 
A poem intended to be a rant or chant might have no stanza breaks and either very long lines to give a feeling of streaming momentum or very short lines to communicate intensity. And a poem about a Zen garden might have lines that are precisely the same length, with four stanzas, each comprised of four lines, for balance.
 
There’s no right or wrong when shaping stanzas-only your own sense of visual aesthetic, rhythm, pacing and meaning. The best way to find out what feels right is to experiment!
 
Your turn!

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Writing the Life Poetic by Sage CohenPoetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, andVoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

Getting Your Poems On The Page: Create Momentum with Lines

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen
Lines act as the engine that moves the reader through a poem. How you hinge one line to the next, where you break the line, and the amount of white space you create through line lengths instruct the reader about how fast and bumpy-or smooth and leisurely-the ride of your poem will be.

The choices you make about lines will reflect your own unique sense of rhythm, music, and meaning. While there are no rules about how and where you should break lines, there are a few things you might want to consider.

Think of the line break (the place where the line ends) as a comma-the place where the reader lingers an extra beat. A line break can coincide with the completion of an idea, or it can leave the reader hanging mid-idea, intrigued and wanting more. Each creates a different kind of momentum.

When breaking a line, decide what word you want the reader’s eye to linger on a little longer. Because strong images or language can engage the reader enough to follow to the next line, you might want to end a line with a descriptive word like “atrophy” rather than a modifier such as “the.”

Now let’s look at the shape of the lines themselves. Do you want your poem to feel dense or light, fast-paced or leisurely? Line breaks can contribute to these effects, especially when the shape is paired effectively with meaning. For example:

Tense and tightly
wound, staccato
short lines strung
together without
stanza breaks
feel halting,
stagger
like ocean
chop

Whereas a poem whose lines are longer and lingering might suggest
Something a little more spacious, such as a curtain
breathing in and out a window or a leisurely walk
along the lacy froth of foam along the line
of the ocean’s receding memory.

Do you see how the shapes of the stanzas mirror their meaning? Does the first stanza look tense? Does the second stanza feel more languid and slow moving?

Of course, these are only two possible ways to approach the shape of a poem in a world of possibilities. The following exercises can get you started with an exploration of how to make line breaks work best for you.

Your turn!

1.    Write an angry poem. Don’t say anything explicitly angry in the poem. Just try to give the reader an angry, agitated experience through the shape and momentum by using the white space of the poem. Let rage stutter through the length of the lines and the places where you break the lines.

2.    Find a published poem whose line breaks you admire. Write your own poem that imitates the pattern of the line lengths and the types of words at the end of each line. If the first line of the example poem is a complete sentence, yours should be, too. Where a descriptive image continues from one line to the next, yours should do the same.

3.    Revisit a poem you’ve already written. Whatever your previous choices were, do the opposite; break long lines up, and lengthen short lines. Vary the types of language and phrasing that end each line. Then compare the two versions and see which one feels like a better form for the content of the poem.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Writing Music-Rhyme, Rhythm & Repetition

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen
Songs can take hold of us and refuse to let go. I have been taken hostage for days, years, decades by some of my favorites. I’ll bet you have, too. What do songs do that speaks so directly to us and moves us so deeply?

In songs, rhyme, rhythm, and repetition typically work together to deliver messages in a way that we respond to physically and emotionally-so much so that hearing a song can spin us back to the time and place of our first hearing it-resurfacing smells, feelings, even people who we might not otherwise have remembered. It seems, then, that the songs we love somehow plug into our nervous systems, entangling themselves in our memories. Because songs are poems set to music, we have the same opportunities to tickle people down to their foundations with the rhymes, rhythms, and repetitions we choose in our poems.

Rhyme
Repeating sounds can help create a kind of cohesion in a poem. This is the delight of rhyme; it’s easier to retain a phrase if it is strung together with sounds that echo each other, probably because it feels good to say and hear it.

Rhythm
Songs rely heavily on instruments to communicate rhythm; poems use words and lines and white space. But the trajectory is similar. The way you break a line, space a stanza, and choose your words for their syllabic pluck is akin to the drum keeping a beat for a song.

Repetition
Most songs have a chorus-a catchy few phrases that get repeated intermittently throughout. When done successfully, a chorus creates a kind of comforting return to the familiar, while expanding in meaning each time as the song progresses. Repetition can work the same way in free-verse poems, but with no standard formula to follow. The real craft of repetition comes in offering something fresh with each appearance, using a recurring idea or image to peel back layer after layer, rather than circling the reader back to the same idea, of which she will tire easily.

Your turn!

Modeled on song lyrics, write a poem that has end rhymes, similar syllable-count lines, and possibly even a recurring chorus. Use the lyrics of any songwriter you admire as your example-and don’t be shy about imitating.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

Getting Your Poems on the Page: The Power of Pronouns

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen
Point of view orchestrates the reader’s distance from (or proximity to) the speaker. When writing a poem, your first instinct may be to recount your own personal experiences using the first-person, singular point of view-the I. This is a fine approach that can serve a poem well. However, because this is often the most obvious and natural way to go, I recommend experimenting with other point-of-view options to get a feel for how they might benefit a poem.

When you replace I with you in a poem (known as second person), you invite the reader to participate in a new way. You can be read different ways; it can mean “one”-a general, universal point of view-or it can literally mean “you,” thus including the reader in the action of the poem. You can also be a direct address to someone specific: “You left me; how could you?” In this case, the reader may be positioned as an eavesdropper overhearing words directed at someone else-or they may find themselves standing in for that person.

What happens when a first-person experience is transferred to the third person (he/she)? The advantage of the third person is that it gives both the poet and the reader some personal space from the action of the poem. They observe rather than participate. This can create breathing room to write things you might not otherwise feel comfortable expressing.

For example, consider “He wanted to die,” versus “I want to die.” The first person feels immediate and urgent. The third person feels less immediate; we read it less personally.

Your turn!

Write a poem that speaks directly to someone important to you about an experience that you have shared. Imagine there is no reader beyond this person. Then rewrite the poem as if you are describing the same experience for a general audience. Notice which pronouns you choose, and why. How do they serve each version of the poem?

Next, revisit a poem or two that you have already written, considering whether they might have a greater impact by experimenting with a different point of view.

Moving forward, continue to experiment with pronouns to help you find the point of view that best expresses what you want to say while making the depth of connection you want.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine


Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Talking Your Walk

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen

In poetry, what you say is important. How you say it is equally important. Word choice can dramatically impact the tone and experience of a poem. The poet’s job is to choose language that best expresses the feeling and context of the poem.

For example, you might choose “endure” to describe a cancer patient making it through a rough day, and use “wait” to describe someone stopped at a traffic light. “Abide” feels a bit formal to me and has a flair of romance. I picture a young man at the feed shop a century ago. He knows instantly that he loves the young woman at the cash register, goes home to change into his Sunday suit, and returns to the store to propose marriage to her. As the woman blushes and fumbles in surprise, the man abides, awaiting an answer. What does “abide” conjure for you?

When selecting language in a poem, you may want to ask yourself:

Where and in what time period is the poem set? How do people speak? Are there any cultural or geographical influences on the way language is used there? (Language spoken on the street in L.A. in the 1980s is different than that used in a Victorian parlor.)

What is the natural world doing? Are there seasonal, lighting, or weather influences on the poem that affect its language? (How might smog words differ from thunderstorm words? What language would sunrise conjure compared to sunset?)

What is the emotional tone of the poem? Is it angry? Peaceful? Excited? Remorseful?

What happens in the poem, and how might language best buoy this action?

Using language that is typically associated with a certain place, time, or emotion can viscerally evoke a subject or theme. Other times, predictably appropriate language can feel uninspired or clichéd. In this case, it could be interesting to play against expectations by finding surprising language that is out of sync with the typical associations. The best way to find the language that will be most successful in any poem is to experiment, and then experiment some more.

When you become conscious of the words you are choosing, you are likely to discover fresh new ways of using language that surprise and delight you and your readers.

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Writing Images–Show Vs. Tell

sage.gifBy Sage Cohen

A poem’s job is to bring a story viscerally to life. In making a poetic scene or a narrative palpable for readers, descriptive images are often far more engaging than statements. This truth has been distilled to a golden rule of poetry that echoes through classrooms everywhere: Show, don’t tell.

Let’s take a look at what show vs. tell means by considering different ways to communicate the concept of “weakness”:

Telling: “I felt weak.”
Showing: “I could barely lift the spoon to my mouth.”

The first example explains to the reader how the speaker feels. The second example gives some specific details to bring the concept of “weak” to life. We can see where weakness lives in the speaker’s body in this moment. When you “show” with images, you offer the reader a visual, tactile, sometimes auditory reference, rather than a conceptual one. Because weakness might look and feel completely different in your body than it does in mine, images can help you more effectively articulate your own experience. They can also help move a poem from vague to specific, making it a lot more interesting.

A good question to ask yourself every time you make a declarative statement in a poem is, “What would happen if I described this instead of naming it?” The best way to find out is to experiment with injecting images and see what feels right.

Now it’s your turn! Rewrite the following statements to “show” instead of “tell”:

Her hair was a mess.
I hate the smell of roses.
He couldn’t wait to see her again.
The preschooler wasn’t ready to leave the playground when recess was over.
You always change your mind.
The moon is full.
I refuse to give up.

Getting a feel for the art of the image? Good! Try using this technique next time you draft a poem. Replace three “tell” statements with “show” images. Notice how that changes the experience of the poem. Bring this exercise to every poem you write, and you will soon be writing language that leaps off the page.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.


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