Lots of people starting out with poetry want to know how poets come up with their ideas. If only there was a simple answer to that!
For me, in my very first poems, the topic came first, and then the form. I wanted to write about a health crisis in my family, just to vent, and what came out were poems. Not great poems! But definitely of a kind of poetic form.
Gradually over several years, poetry has become the magnifying glass through which I look at the entire world and all of its issues, large or small. A ladybug scuttling across a leaf—That could be a great poem topic. Despair over the lives of children living in refugee camps—Another great poem topic. Love the way “hurdle” and “turtle” sound together—Maybe you can build a silly poem around a turtle who wants to run track! Hey, I like that idea.
Anyway, in an effort to express where some of my ideas come from, I decided to keep track one day of the things I noticed that made me think: What a great idea for a poem! There aren’t that many, just 6. But I certainly didn’t have time to write 6 poems yesterday. In fact, the only poem I wrote was my daily 15 Words or Less Poetry Diary poem. So if I notice things each day, I’ll always have more ideas than time to create poems, and that’s certainly true of me.
So, here’s a single day’s list of poem inspirations:
1. At the doctor’s office, a lady was trying to check on treatment for her daughter. The woman appeared to be poor and somewhat uneducated and at sea with the whole process. The clerk was showing her a paper and explaining that she didn’t have some kind of coverage needed. I thought a poem about what the paper said about her daughter’s treatment versus what her heart felt about it might make a moving poem. It would involve repetition, The paper says, the paper says, the paper says, because there was a sense of foreboding to the encounter. The system was an immovable force. No coverage, no treatment, no hope.
2. Driving down the street, the leaves on a tree (not aspen, need to find out which specific tree!) were shimmering in the sunlight, and the tree looked like it was covered in tiny twinkling Christmas lights. Or perhaps covered with millions of silver butterflies fluttering their wings. The poem would be straight imagery. The sight was beautiful, and I wanted to try to capture it in words.
3. On the side of the highway, a brief stretch of small woody, evergreen plants looked kind of like a miniature forest. I thought it might be fun to write about furniture or a garden or some household thing from the point of view of a small creature like an ant. The poem might be a surprise, where you don’t realize until the ending that what’s being described isn’t really giant, it’s just giant from the narrator’s point of view.
4. I’m working on a nonfiction book that involves deafness. As I was thinking about a deaf student’s school day, I tried to immerse myself in what that would be like. And I wondered whether that silence was something I might be able to express through poem. The contrast of lots of activity with no noise intrigues me. And expressing silence through an oral form.
5. At work, I read a reference to Sojourner Truth and her quote about the pain mothers felt watching their children get sold on the slavery block. It made me wonder, as I have before, what a dog thinks when her puppies disappear to new families. I read some melancholy animal poems in the morning by Ted Hughes, and I think that’s part of what made this idea jump into my head.
6. When I went outside to turn the sprinklers off in the evening, there were two male robins standing just at the edge of the spray range. They were in the mist, enjoying cooling off in a little man-made rain. It was so funny, almost as if the sprinkler had been set up just for them. I thought this might be fun to write either from the robins’ point of view or just as an entertaining, unusual image.
And there you have it. If I write these poems, will they be any good? I haven’t got the slightest idea. But the only way to improve my poetry, I know, is to write more of it. And to write more of it, I just need to be open to all the images and thoughts throughout each day that could serve as the basis for poems.
If you have trouble coming up with things to write about, try keeping your own notes for a day. Jot down anything that you feel a strong reaction to: things beautiful and bizarre, questions, words that feel good on your tongue. And then sit down to write.