Whenever I’ve asked my students to write a poem, I invariably hear the question, “Where do I start?” My immediate reaction is consternation, plus a certain level of frustration (in case you don’t know, writing teachers can be an exasperated bunch). Poetry is all about your surroundings, right? So, formulating a topic should be as easy as attending school, going to work, or otherwise carrying out your daily routine. Why, oh student writer, are you overthinking this task? It’s supposed to be fun!
But then I take a deep breath and realize that this uncertainty about how to move forward is far more relatable than I allowed myself to admit. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned poet, translating ideas into verse can be daunting and bewildering. When you face a blank page, three essential questions jump to mind: 1) How do you assemble a poem’s building blocks? 2) How do you come up with something interesting to say? 3) How do you communicate the topic in your own voice?
I’m going to discuss three tips for generating poem topics based on the above questions. Though each concept is self-contained, they all reflect the process of awakening your inner poet and learning to pour your personality, quirks, and beliefs into any piece of art you create, whether with paint or words.
1. Assemble a Poem’s Building Blocks by Noticing the Natural
If you’ve ever toured an art museum, you probably encountered paintings called “still life” wherein the subjects were inanimate objects like fruit on a table or vases refracting morning sunlight. The artists depicted those items in their natural state—posing as they are, without pretense.
Poets treat the world in a similar manner—as it is, no strings attached. Raw, harsh, unmitigated. Poets who seek to convey human experiences tend to have few qualms with disclosing their honest emotions and perspectives, as in William Wordsworth’s visit to “Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth, as one of the famous Romantic (i.e., late eighteenth century) poets, saw nature as being heavy with meaning. And that’s an understatement.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…
If you’re struggling to settle on a topic for your poem, and especially if you’re feeling bogged down or “blinded” by your current environment, you might just need a change of scenery. Whether you live in an urban or rural setting, go for a stroll through a local outdoor venue, such as a park. Or revisit a familiar place and absorb the sights, smells, and sounds as you reminisce about the memories you’ve made there. Perhaps bring a journal along to record all your thoughts and emotions. Your notes don’t need to be structured yet. That comes after you’ve found an experience to describe.
2. Come Up with Something Interesting to Say by Creating Conversation
Although talking to people can help inform your writing, that isn’t the habit I’m referring to here. Rather, I’m encouraging you to engage with the stories unfolding around you as much as possible. These stories can involve anything, from a harried lawyer walking her dog after a long day in the courtroom, to a pastor hiding secrets behind his pulpit. Even “still life” paintings tell stories if you keep your eyes open.
But a story is only as interesting as it is relatable (or unrelatable, as the case may be). We read stories because they portray events that either hit close to home or are fascinatingly foreign. Robert Frost’s interaction with his neighbor in “Mending Wall” provides an example of the former.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Frost presents everyday occurrences in straightforward (and often humorous) terms. You can imagine the ongoing argument between the speaker and his neighbor, the glimpse of their personalities, and the lessons the conflict holds. That’s the key to incorporating an impactful message into your poem. What insights does this world, and even you, have to offer a wider audience of readers? Most poets don’t write for their own eyes only; they have words and stories to share that they believe are valuable. Even as you’re “noticing the natural,” look for the stories that touch you and could have the same effect on others. You’ll remember that crafting poetry is not such a lonely activity.
3. Communicate the Topic in Your Own Voice by Discovering Desires
Revealing your inner poet, the voice of your personality, is ultimately about your desires as an individual. Every human story is fueled by a yearning for more. Novelists have a keen understanding of this, especially in the arena of characterization. What does the lawyer walking her dog after a stressful day want? What does the guilt-ridden pastor (a la Scarlet Letter) want?
To jumpstart this exercise, jot down your goals in a journal (perhaps during your nature walk). What drives you in a particular situation? Where do those motivations lead? And what can they teach you and others?
Tennyson’s “Ulysses” demonstrates how to infuse inner longings into poetry:
Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This is where the poem can become personal. I’ve mentioned observing impersonal details in your environment and highlighting stories other than your own. But here you have the opportunity to be a little vulnerable. I say “a little” because a poem need not be a confession. But if a work is to have significance, it needs to softly echo the writer’s heartbeat. Beautiful, stirring words are born both from telling stories (as in the previous point) and exposing desires.
Write Your Piece
I’ve listed three practices (noticing nature, sharing stories, and delving into desires) that can kindle inspiration for a poem. But they’re not the only effective methods. No matter how you approach a blank page, you need to use whichever strategy stimulates your unique mind and voice. Walk, journal, think, and pray. But whether you’re writing poems for pleasure or a school assignment, know that you’re definitely not isolated in the endeavor.
Dwelling deep in the forests of New England, Graham spends most of his time reading, taking walks with his dog, and learning new and interesting things (and reveling in cooler, more temperate climates). Born and raised in the Boston area, Graham was homeschooled from an early age. After high school, he proceeded to get a bachelor’s in Literature from Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. He currently resides in the Boston area while pursuing a master’s in Education at Gordon College, steeping in the rich history of his home turf and a continued exploration of literature from across the world. He says you should read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, because they are incredible novels. Also, read Robert Frost.