E. Svendsen
It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft
How Does a Poem Come Together For Me?

Asking, "How does a poem come together?" is like asking, "How do you get to Seattle?"  The answer is, "It depends on where you are starting from and what part of Seattle you are headed toward."  Are you starting from China?  Nebraska?  Kelso?  Are you headed for Capital Hill?  The Seattle Center?  Ballard? In poetry, of course, the directions are intellectual, emotional, artistic, even spiritual.

The easy answer to the question, "How does a poem come together for me?" is: I revise.  I keep writing, refining, adding, deleting, and polishing until the poem is exactly the way I want the poem to be. This is a true answer, but unsatisfactory, because so much more is involved.

The type of poem I write has a lot to do with how a poem comes together for me.  If I write a sonnet, for example, the form dictates much of the way the poem comes together.  I know I am writing a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a certain rhyme scheme.  A sonnet is expected to have a turn of thought after the first eight lines, and possibly another turn before the final couplet (depending on the type of sonnet I write.)

But strict adherence to the form does not necessarily make a sonnet come together.  As an example, I present my "Ear Sonnet," which I wrote to help students hear the rhythms of a sonnet.

Ear Sonnet  (A Teaching Tool)

Ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum
La lee la lee la lee la lee la lee.
Da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum.
Ma me ma me ma me ma me ma me.
Bamboo bamboo bamboo bamboo bamboo.
Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock.
Ra roo ra roo ra roo ra roo ra roo.
Lick lock lick lock lick lock lick lock lick lock.
But then but then but then but then but then,
wiff wuff wiff wuff wiff wuff wiff wuff wiff wuff.
Again?  Again?  Again?  Again?  Again?
Enough!  Enough!  Enough!  Enough!  Enough!
Which one?  Which one?  Which one?  Which one?  Which one?
All done all done all done all done all done.

This poem doesn't really come together, except as an amusement.  In order for a sonnet to come together, the poet needs skillful use of rhyme and meter, neither of which should stand out.  The poet needs skillful use of language, point and counterpoint, and something interesting to think about.  It is also helpful to be skilled in the use of metaphor.

In order for any poem to come together, it also has to hold some sort of truth.  I used to scoff at Wordsworth's allegation that his heart leapt up when he beheld a rainbow.  Then one day I saw a rainbow and, sure enough, my heart leapt up.  Wordsworth's words were true.  Okay, Emily Dickinson didn't actually hear a fly buzz when she literally died, but the artistic vision was true none-the-less.  We all know how in moments of great emotional impact we find ourselves conscious of the tips of our shoes or a ragged fingernail or the buzzing of a fly.

Here is a sonnet I wrote that I think comes together.  It doesn't really have a turn of thought after the octet, but I think it works anyway.  It came from a sincere feeling that I wasn't grateful enough for my many blessings.  The poem started with a feeling and looked for a way to express it.  Once I got the idea of "this when it should be that" the poem came together fairly easily.


Like thimbles full of water when there should
be seas, like jar-lids full of sand when there
should be vast beaches, like one twig of wood
when there should be a forest, like one pear
when there should be an orchard, like one word
when there should be a three-hour speech, one drone
when there should be a buzzing swarm, my Lord,
my thanks seem always far too small, like one
potato when there should be Idaho,
like one small blade of grass when there should be
huge lawns, like just one tiny flake of snow
when there should be a blizzard; honestly,
my thanks seem such a pittance spent in praise -
brief seconds when there should be days and days.

If the poem works for you, it is because you have had the same kind of feeling or a feeling that is similar.

Recently, I have been writing synonym sonnets, which are my own invention.  They work like regular Shakespearean sonnets except that I use a synonym scheme instead of a rhyme scheme.  For example, for the "a" synonyms, instead of using love/dove I would use something like love/affection.  For the "b" synonyms, instead of saying June/moon, I might say June/month.

I have set myself the task of writing 200 synonym sonnets, but I don't work on synonym sonnets exclusively.  It has taken me several years to write 67 of them, and not all of them have come together as well as I wished.  Here is a synonym sonnet that I think does work:

Transcendental Toggle Switch

Off.  Before I open up the book
the world is sour, the pleasure of my friends
is muted, calls annoy me.  I thumb a page
mind still short circuited by traffic, allies
at work or are they enemies?  Who knows.
Should I read now or should I pay my bills?
I open envelopes, my mind unfolds
the codes of those who want me for my cash.
I sigh, open the book.  Here's something odd:
a man is growing roses on a train
in Italy, speaking English, making strange
red-blossomed, thorn-pricked links on railroad cars--
and suddenly I am growing, knowing, flowing,
click-clacking on the world's bright tracks, on on.

In a free verse poem, a poet needs to employ all of the skills needed in a sonnet.  While regular rhyme and meter are not required, a free verse poem may employ rhyme and meter differently.  There may be internal rhyme, random rhyme, cadences, and/or rhythmic repetitions.  One also needs to learn how to make skillful line breaks.  Here is a poem that I wrote when it occurred to me that, when one gets terribly angry if one doesn't lose it one reaches a kind of hard, quiet stasis.


Rage is green.
It is very peaceful.
It is something which only plants
really know how to shout about.

I used to think rage was red,
but that is only anger.
Rage is green, pastoral,
rustled by the wind.

It is only from this green serenity that
one can toss back one's head with bright green
"I don't care."

And crashing--
still green in the edges--
rage is shattered silver,
like a leaf's green-edged tears
or my own broken mirror.

Once I wrote a small poem - just a few lines - and I impulsively titled it "Love Song Fragment Number 28." This led to a self-assignment to write a book of 100 small poems, all about different aspects of love.  I wrote many more than 100 small poems then tried to cull the best ones.  I had the idea that there could have once been a love poem that had shattered into 100 pieces, and these smaller poems were shards of the larger poem.  But the 100 small poems really are separate little poems in themselves.  Here are a few:


Blanket, quilt or comforter,
I wrap your voice around me when
I hear you speak
and I am naked, cold.


A slight of pen:  I disappear
my letters float up:  steam
(look for me in mirrors.)


My love for you
is now a part of me:
a hip
a lung
a pair of shoulder blades.


You were on the couch that night,
I was on the bed:
two burning islands,
the hall was
river instead of bridge.

My former marriage was dissolving at this time.  That may have had something to do with the fact that the poems were "fragments."  But a collection of poems came together because one thing led to another, and a concept chapbook was the result. 

We know that prosodic techniques make a poem come together.  But filling the form - even a free verse form - won't necessarily make a poem come together.  A banal, sing-song sonnet can't be said to have come together; nor can a free verse poem be said to come together when it is just prose lines with line breaks that make it look like poetry.

It is not a poem
if I just put prose
into poetic-looking lines.

I find that I like to set and to meet challenges

--Write a long, linked sonnet sequence based on a Bible passage.
--Write a poem from a list of ten concrete nouns.
--Write a sestina about hamburgers.
--Write poems based on phrases from math or science books.

From this last challenge, I got a poem based on a sentence about equal fractions, "The product of the means is equal to the product of the extremes."


My means aren't equal to these new extremes,
nor are their products.  Though I track and trace,
your image is abandoning my dreams.

My computations, diagrams, and schemes
cannot be proved - they build upon no base;
my means aren't equal to these new extremes,

My figures fail - though I'm expending reams
attempting to sum up and save your face,
your image is abandoning my dreams.

Each calculation hits the page and streams
away to nonsense.  Do not save.  Erase.
My means aren't equal to these new extremes,

The days pulse - Monday, Tuesday - each day seems
to dwindle every set to empty space:
your image is abandoning my dreams.

Subtraction haunts my pillow.  Silence screams.
The breakfast table adds an empty place.
My means aren't equal to these new extremes,
your image is abandoning my dreams.

When I think of a poem coming together, I think of the final stroke, the last piece of the puzzle.  But you only get to that final stroke by starting on the poem in the first place and by working through the entire process.

One long (3 pages) free verse poem came into being because I was depressed.  My father had died a year before and my mother was failing in a nursing home.  I had a reason to be depressed, but I have fought other, less rational bouts of depression at different times throughout my life. 

At the time I wrote the poem, it was early in Bill Clinton's presidency.  He was visiting regular, middle-class citizens in their own homes.  It made me wonder:  what if Joy and Depression were people?  The persona of the poem has an unwanted visitor, Depression, and she writes a letter to Joy pouring out her feelings about her unwanted guest.  Joy writes back and says she/he will come to visit.  While the persona is preparing for Joy's arrival, Depression can't get her attention.  Depression gets depressed and leaves town.  Joy does indeed visit and a plaque is placed on the persona's house afterward.  The poem ends:  "You have size and shape.  They can never tear your house down."

This poem came together because of an odd association (Joy as visitor based on Clinton as visitor) and because I was able to come up with some true things about Joy and Depression during my narrative.  For example, sometimes, when I am preparing for something joyful, depression does go away.

I once had a friend tell me she wanted to write a book of poetry, but she didn't want to put much work into it.  Sorry, friend, unless you are a genius, you have to do the work.  Even Shakespeare had a long working apprenticeship of writing five-act plays in iambic pentameter.

For me, a poem is a kind of problem or puzzle.  The solution emerges through persistent, concentrated work.  I make a poem come together by paying attention to what I am saying, by revising, by working to find the right words, and by being open to additions or excisions or new insights.  I work at it.  I try to make a good opening and a good closing, and I try to give the reader something to remember and to think about.

For me, poetry is the slowest type of writing.  I can spend more than an hour trying to find one word of one line and I may later cut that line from the poem.

When I was very young, I thought using the dictionary, a rhyming dictionary, or a thesaurus was "cheating" because it wasn't all thought up in my head.  I later learned that my head can use all the help it can get.  Reference materials are tools.  It is appropriate to use them.  I enjoy looking though the thesaurus to find an exact word, and I enjoy looking a word up in the dictionary to be sure that the word means exactly what I think it means.

But I have hundreds of pages of lines and ideas that never came together to become poems, even though I know a lot about grammar, structure, prosody, etc.  I never know when a poem will be struck by lightning.  I can write ten poems in a row that make me wonder why I even bother, then suddenly one or two or three poems sizzle and snap.  This makes me believe that the poems that come together are only a fraction of all the lines written during a poet's career.

In the end, the things that make any poem come together  are largely intangible:  strangeness, wonderfulness, resonance -- the things which raise a word structure into the realm of art.  These things become more and more a part of one's poetry as a poet develops his or her own voice, the way in which he or she chooses to express his or her own particular way of seeing things.  I have also learned to trust my own voice more and more not to worry if my voice is not like other voices; it isn't supposed to be anybody's voice but mine. 

Voice is what emerges when a poet writes lots and lots of poems. Gradually one's own way of saying things comes through, and one's own particular insights light up the poem: one has said something that no one else in the world will say in quite the same way.

Brenda Ueland, in her book If You Want to Write, said that if you want to know how to fix a story you have written, you should write five more stories then come back to the story you want to fix.  In that spirit, I keep notebooks full of starts and drafts, which I look back through upon occasion.  Every now and then I find a piece that I know how to fix, and that fixing means that the poem at last comes together.

My process works like this:  I get an idea or I think of a line that starts me out on a poem and I build from that point.  I work through it again and again and again until it starts coming together or it reaches a point at which I can make nothing more of it.

Recently, I discovered the overdrive principle.  When driving a car with a standard transmission, as you accelerate, you work upward through the gears.  The highest gear is overdrive.  The work that you put into any piece of writing corresponds to working through the gears.  If you stop working on a piece too soon, you will never reach over drive -- that wonderful point in your work when your mind is so fully engaged that your unconscious mind starts giving you its input.  At this point it feels almost as if someone else, some muse or some higher power, is taking over. 

Some ideas don't have enough gas to go up the gears, but when I do get a poem that goes into overdrive, I feel ecstatic.  Thus, I would caution other poets not to give up on their poems too soon.

How do you know when you've hit overdrive?  It's like love:  you know it when it happens.  Your poem crosses the finish line.  It comes together and meshes perfectly.

I often think a poetry class should begin by having the class members look at paintings Miro, Chagall, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, Turner, Rembrandt, Mary Cassat, Georgia O'Keefe, Michelangelo. There are thousands of ways to show one's particular vision.  Then look at poems by Wordsworth, Ginsberg, Shakespeare, Parker, Auden, Dickinson, Sexton, Collins, Levertov, Keizer, O'Hara, Nash. There are thousands of different ways to express yourself in poetry, and the best way to express yourself is in your own true voice.

At some point, though, whether a poem comes together or not lies in the perception of the reader.  If the poet reaches the reader, the poem can be said to have come together.  There are canonized great poems that don't come together for me.  They don't move me.  If I hear that someone is reading Paradise Lost for pleasure, I ask, "Why?"  (Though someday I may reread it and it will come together for me because I will have learned better how to appreciate it.)  Thus, whether a poem comes together or not can be a matter of subjective taste.

But I've learned more and more how to recognize when my own poems come together for me.  Then it is up to me as it is up to each poet--to trust my own convictions, and to treasure my uniqueness.
I believe that, if I work hard and if I am lucky, I will find the seemingly magical element that will make my poems come together.  To steal a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins, "It will flame out like shining from shook foil."  #

Sharon E. Svendsen is a poet whose work has been published in Bellowing Ark, Innisfree,
Atrocity, Byline, The Lucid Stone, Artisan, Thresholds Quarterly, Zebra, Cape Rock, Cedar Rock,Cornfield Review, Huron Review, Gryphon, Pudding, Nit & Wit, Antigonish Review, Wellspring, Lyric, The Old Red Kimono, The Vincent Brothers Review, and many other periodicals and anthologies.  (Some of Sharon's poems were published [before her 1988 marriage] under the name Sharon E. Rusbuldt.)  Sharon is the founder and CEO of Writers¹ Haven.  She has a BA in English, with a Creative Writing emphasis, from the University of Washington.  She runs Writers¹ Haven Reading Series in Poulsbo, Washington.  She lives twelve miles west of Bremerton, on a hillside overlooking the Olympic Mountains.


Writers appearing
in this text

W.H. Auden
Billy Collins
Emily Dickinson
Allen Ginsberg
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Carolyn Kizer
Denise Levertov
Ogden Nash
John O'Hara
Dorothy Parker
Anne Sexton
William Shakespeare
William Wordsworth