How to Write Poems About Specific People or Events

Today’s Tuesday, so I’ve been tweeting poetic on Twitter at the #poettues hashtag. If you have a Twitter account, please jump in and join in or follow along. Many poets share links to poems they like, ask questions about how to write or publish poetry, and/or just share what they’ve been doing the past week. In addition to those reasons, I like #poettues because it gives me ideas for blog posts.

Already this morning, @Poetic_line asked this question: Struggling with a poem about a pop figure. Is there a special way to approach this?

There are many ways to approach any poem (just check out the comments connected to any of the Poetic Asides prompts), but I find when you’re writing about specific people or events, it’s often a good practice to not attack your subject head on. Often, such poems end up feeling a little too one dimensional and descriptive (in a bad way).

It just so happens that my wife Tammy Foster Brewer had to write a poem this weekend for her Aunt Carol who recently passed away. Such poems are difficult because of the emotional involvement alone. On top of that, the poet has to write about a specific person and a specific event.

This is how Tammy tackled it:

Poem for
Aunt Carol


What we
have are memories.
Sometimes a
song or a scent
something as simple as a can
Coca-Cola. What I remember is


you in the
doorway and Joyce
at your
feet. Your arms open wide
with a hug.
The front yard covered
in dirt and
magnolia leaves.


When a luna
moth is born
it must
climb somewhere safe
to wait for
its wings to harden
before it
can fly away.


insects are born without
others with no wings.
We are
flightless birds. Not one of us
is perfect.
But you are now.

Tammy could have easily traveled to the land of flowery and abstract emotional verse. While what we feel may be very abstract and emotional, focusing on just our own abstract emotions usually leads a poem to be less about the person and/or event and more about the poet. Instead, Tammy focused on specific details, such as Carol’s favorite drink (Coca-Cola) and an image of Carol in the doorway.

Just as possible, Tammy could’ve found herself lost in a desert of over description. For instance, Carol was born here; then she went to school here; then she did this; then she did that; etc. While such a poem may be accurate, it runs the risk of getting boring and monotonous fast. Plus, such poems usually end up being very long. Tammy avoids this by including a couple details that make here think of her Aunt Carol. Other listeners at the service easily recognized the line about Coca-Cola and could probably picture her standing in the doorway.

These are some very good techniques for handling poems about specific people and events, but there’s one more that I find very impressive in this poem: It’s the flight imagery in the final two stanzas. You see, while everyone loved Aunt Carol, she also had a kind of troubled life, which I won’t get into too much detail about here. Still, everyone in the family knew about this troubled lifestyle.

Instead of saying explicitly what faults Aunt Carol had or avoiding them completely, Tammy does something very artistic: She brings in the luna moth, which is a metaphor for Aunt Carol. She has to climb somewhere safe to let her wings harden before she can fly away. Such was the life of Aunt Carol. When Tammy researched luna moths, she also discovered they have no mouths and, of course, other insects have no wings. They’re all different, just as we’re all different, and none of us are perfect.


Writing about people and events is very difficult. I know I’ve written many poems that have never seen the light of day about specific people and events. However, I think by looking at Tammy’s poem and others, we can see techniques for writing our own poems. (Plus, before I forget, I want to thank Tammy for letting me use her poem on here.)

To conclude, I’m going to link to one of the best poems I know on the craft of writing poetry. It is Frank O’Hara’s “Why I’m Not a Painter.” I think it does a good job of explaining what it is to be an artist, whether a poet, a painter, or someone else with artistic tendencies.


Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer


We tweet the life poetic every Tuesday on Twitter at the #poettues hashtag. You can write the life poetic with a little help from @SageCohen (also on Twitter) by checking out her book: Writing the Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen.

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7 thoughts on “How to Write Poems About Specific People or Events

  1. DeniseSwoveland

    Tammy,s poem inspire me to write a poem about my step-uncle Homer who died several months ago. May God comfort your family in the grieving process and healing. Good poem of remembrance without being cruel. I get emotional when remembering my step-uncle Homer. There is life after death in which your aunt is free of trouble and hurt.

  2. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    Tammy’s poem hit the right places; intimate moments of remembrance, then branching off into areas we all know. Finally, coming back to a universal truth. Wonderful poem, and I’m sure it will continue to help the whole family in the process of grieving.

    Frank O’Hara’s poem both touched me and cracked me up. He got to the essence of which muse bites whom, and why.

    Great lesson, Robert, and thanks. Amy (mother of a painter!)

  3. Bruce Niedt

    Robert, I too was very touched by Tammy’s poem – it hits all the right notes without sentimentality. I always believed that understatement always trumps overstatement especially when it comes to emotional subjects like the death of a loved one. Here is one I wrote about my late father-in-law who passed away about 2 1/2 years ago:


    In your dream, a blond-haired boy
    who looks like your grandson
    hands you a pair of roller blades.
    Try ‘em, he says. You let go of your walker,
    sit on the curb and strap them on.
    In later life you’d said, I used to ice-skate.
    Those look like fun.
    If only I were young enough to try.

    And in your dream, you do.
    One hand behind your back,
    the other oaring the air,
    you rumble and glide over pavement,
    the wind blowing back your wispy gray hair.

    And you skate for all your life was worth –
    past your grandsons, your dear departed wife,
    past your daughter’s wedding,
    past your metal shop smelling of hot steel and oil,
    past a table of maps from the war,
    past your saxophone on the chair amongst your bandmates,
    who are white-tuxedoed and ready to play,
    past your father’s milk cart, your mother’s infirmity,
    past your baseball-uniformed brother,
    who left too young and too soon.

    In your very last dream,
    you reunite with your buddies,
    all bundled and red-cheeked, aged ten to twelve,
    at the frozen pond.
    Your skates have turned to silver,
    and your loved ones line the banks,
    marveling at your calligraphy on ice.

  4. sheila harris

    the metamorphic referenced luna moth to an aunt long suffering in this life is quite stunning…
    beautiful in the delicate phrasing ..
    Robert,Tammy and family you have my deepest sympathy..

    there are other insects that ,once reaching the adult phase ,no longer feed and lose their mouth parts as reproduction is key and every moment of life remaining is then invested in that pursuit.
    the mayfly and caddis readily come to mind..

    thank you for passing on the pearls even in the midst of sorrow…

  5. DrPKP aka Pearl Ketover Prilik

    Dear Robert… Lovely piece… Condolences to Tammy who has now brought her Aunt Carol to life as she has departed this physical world. A truly beautiful remembrance and as you illustrate a wonderful example… as is Frank O’Hara’s… encapsulation of "why" is wasn’t a painter….