When I sit down to undertake the strangeness of writing poetry, I like to contemplate metaphors that enhance my understanding of the task. For instance, writing is like breaking frozen ground with a shovel (which this New Englander has done before, whether on purpose or inadvertently). Sometimes the shovel cracks or dents from the combination of harsh temperatures and heavy impact. Usually the ground remains stubbornly unbroken in spite of the effort.
The current season is another metaphor in itself. Autumn is inspiring and invigorating. Daily routines get busier and then slow down with winter on the horizon. It is a season of letting go; the leaves change color in the cooling air and finally drop toward the hardening ground. From a more abstract perspective, autumn is emblematic of patience and maturity as a year of dreaming and striving gradually closes.
During such in-between seasons, we can fall prey to immobility, frustration, and despondency. Where do our dreams lead, and can we measure up? Will we see the fruits of our labor? Will the harvest, after all this time, be bountiful? The questions paralyze us as we seek purpose.
“The struggle is real,” as the kids say. The solutions, however, are equally real and infinitely practical. Many claim that the “easy” answer is to write. Pick a convenient time every day and make a point of jotting down your ideas. You might not keep the piece for your repertoire, but you will salvage scraps for future projects. Even the smallest image or passing phrase can be the basis for hope.
In this article, I will describe a general concept and specific exercise in poetry writing that continue to encourage me. Essentially, we must return to the basics to remind ourselves how creative writing (poetry especially) works.
A General Rule: Learn Your ABC’s
When I’m feeling lethargic about my own writing, I review other poets and writers whose books I’ve extracted copious leaflets of inspiration from. We all have them. As for me, who better to break frozen ground with than Robert Frost himself?
I refer to Robert Frost and his poetry because of his sensitivity for human hardship and steadfast belief. He writes on a wide range of topics, from pain to perseverance, but he is primarily known for his relatable, conversational tone. This shows up in his poetry through his use of ABC rhyme schemes (the simplest and most foundational type). What matters is that you are intentionally practicing the form’s basic elements while seizing an opportunity to pour your thoughts and ideas onto paper. Though forceful and sometimes unpleasant, in the end it can be quite therapeutic.
For example, read Frost’s poem “Something for Hope” from his collection Steeple Bush. Not only is it thematically relevant, but its rhyme scheme is refreshingly straightforward. See if you notice it.
“At the present rate it must come to pass
And that right soon, that the meadowsweet
And steeple bush, not good to eat,
Will have crowded out the edible grass.
Then all there is to do is wait
For maple, birch, and spruce to push
Through meadowsweet and steeple bush
And crowd them out at a similar rate.
No plow among these rocks would pay.
So busy yourself with other things
While the trees put on their wooden rings
And with long-sleeved branches hold their sway.”
Note how the verses are paired together according to how the final word in each line rhymes. “Pass, meadowsweet, eat, grass / wait, push, bush, rate…” The pattern for these three stanzas is ABBA, with each letter corresponding to a line. The aim is to establish a consistent pattern and carry it through the entire poem. This is an effective intellectual exercise as well as a way to organize and expand the ideas and images in the hidden realm of your imagination.
Besides assigning letters to verses, another method is to count out syllables. Start with ten syllables per verse (or less if you wish). As you go, the syllable count may start to vary, and that’s okay. Most importantly, the flow of your thoughts needs to transfer naturally from your mind onto the paper. By the end, you will have a steady beat to call your own, much like in Frost’s first stanza: “At the present rate it must come to pass / And that right soon, that the meadowsweet…”
A Little Exercise: Write a Sonnet
The ABC pattern, along with syllable count, is prominent in another simple and achievable form: the sonnet. When literary folk think of the sonnet, the infamous playwright Shakespeare comes to mind—and for good reason. Shakespeare was as much a poet as he was a dramatist. That said, Robert Frost penned his fair share of sonnets. And so can you!
I like to view sonnets as small, concentrated packages of imagery, which can link together or stand alone. A sonnet consists of fourteen lines and often adheres to the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (three quartets and a rhyming couplet at the conclusion). Sonnets typically consist of ten-syllable verses. Shakespeare largely established a traditional question-answer format, with the first half of the poem asking a question and the second posing an answer. This grants structure to whatever themes you decide to play with and nudges your inner questions to the surface, freeing your imagination.
A sonnet can be constructed many different ways. If you are in the mood for a longer project, you could try writing what some call a sonnet sequence: fourteen sonnets with a unifying theme. These types of projects, whether a single sonnet or a whole collection, will further enlighten your comprehension of theme development and how images relate to each other in a poem. Starting small will help you find a launch point for mastery and continued experimentation.
Patience: A Writer’s Resolve
This launch point fosters the hope Frost writes about. Ultimately, we must remember where we are before we take a step toward where we are heading. Pausing to observe our surroundings and present intention is an act of will, and it requires patience and determination. This is the writer’s resolve—and, more specifically, the poet’s. Whether we tap our finger on our wristwatch or our feet on the floor, the challenge to be patient remains the same. Patience is indeed a pursuit of excellence. Alongside persistence, it means rising up to and settling in for the long haul.
Earlier I stated that Frost’s “Something for Hope” was thematically relevant, and this is true. But I am convinced that the most powerful elements appear in the second half of the poem, the final stanza of which I include below:
“Patience and looking away ahead,
And leaving some things to take their course.
Hope may not nourish a cow or horse,
But spes alit agricolam ’tis said.”
Throughout the poem, Frost raises imagery of seasons in their cycle, the growth of forests and the taming of fields—and, most of all, the frustration of the laborer. Frost’s meaning could be interpreted multiple ways. I suggest, however, that the main thrust of Frost’s argument lies in the Latin phrase “spes alit agricolam,” which translates to “hope sustains the farmer.” Here the poet asks readers to examine his sources for inspiration. He also sets the laborer apart from the livestock, and separates the writer from the pen he or she carries. In the end, the answer Frost provides to the above question is rather telling: the poet is not a workhorse. Nourishment cannot be found in drudgery, but in the rudiments behind patient labor. The poet has dominion that can only be granted by the Great Poet. So, cut yourself some slack.
We all start somewhere. Usually at the beginning.