We spend a lot of our lives explaining and listening to explanations. Here’s why vegetables are good for you. Here’s how to work out this equation. Here’s why I don’t want to go to that party. Here’s why I feel the way I do. Explanations are necessary and valuable. They’re also, sometimes, exhausting.
One of my favorite things about poetry is that it doesn’t require us to explain. In poetry we get to provide the details and then trust the reader. We get to make imaginative leaps, and we don’t have to explicate how we got from Point A to Point B. In fact, sometimes the most exciting poems are ones that get rid of what I call the “connective tissue”—those explanations that spell everything out. In poetry, getting right to the image or detail can be a powerful way to emphasize your point and to make your language even more surprising and compelling.
This Month’s Poetry Break: Don’t Explain
Step One: Choose your location (this can be anywhere: your kitchen table, a garden, the bus stop, a playground from a long-ago memory, etc.). Now describe this place through a list of 5-10 comparisons, using the phrase “reminds me of” in each one. Use as many of your senses as you can. Pay close attention to your surroundings or to your memories of a place. In writing down your observations, be as truthful and accurate as possible, and remember that your perceptions of the world around you will be individual and subjective—this is a good thing! Don’t worry if your comparisons seem strange or “unpoetic”—poems are fueled by surprises. In the example below, I’m writing about my backyard.
The sky today reminds me of a blueberry sno-ball.
The air reminds me of pine trees and wet soil.
The cardinal singing reminds me of a child desperate for attention.
The smell of gasoline from the lawnmower reminds me of a hot summer day by the river.
My dog sleeping in the sun reminds me of a happy lizard.
Step Two: Now go back and remove the explanatory connector “reminds me of” from each line; replace it with the word “is.” For example, the line “The sky reminds me of a blueberry sno-ball” becomes, simply, “The sky is a blueberry sno-ball.” A reader knows the sky isn’t literally a sno-ball; because we understand that you’re working in the realm of metaphor, the explanation of metaphor isn’t necessary. Line two becomes “The air is pine trees and wet soil,” and so forth.
Step Three: Give your poem a title that provides some emotional context for the poem—try something like “Today I Am _____,” and then fill in the blank with a particular emotion.
Step Four: Put it all together. Feel free to vary the structure of your lines if you like, or not. And voila! You’ve got a poem full of imagery, detail, and surprisingly evocative descriptions. Well done.
Today I Am Exhausted but Hopeful
The sky is a blueberry sno-ball.
The air is pine and wet soil.
The cardinal singing in the crepe myrtle
is a child desperate for attention.
My neighbor mows his lawn,
and the gasoline is a hot summer day
by the river. My dog sleeps
in the sun, a happy lizard.
For a little while, take a break from explanations and all they require. Rest. Observe. Write your life.
Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently Danger Days. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.