How to Write Poems About Specific People or Events

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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

or
something as simple as a can

of
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.

Some
insects are born without

mouths,
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

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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.