‘Tis the Season to Write Poetry

by Sage Cohen

As the holidays approach in a down economy, many people are seeking alternatives to the typical spending frenzy. The good news about hard times is that they challenge us to find creative new ways to give, share and create meaning. Poetry can be a powerful instrument for conjuring such alchemies.

Poetry can’t change our bank statements, but it can change the way we think about wealth. In fact, it is my lifelong relationship with poetry that has taught me that income is one thing, but prosperity is frequently something else.

For example, a few years ago I heard Mary Oliver speak. She reported that a critic of her poetry complained that she must be independently wealthy to have so much time to lie around in the grass and ponder nature. This made the poet laugh, because the critic was reporting in an underhanded and confused way about a truth that Oliver tapped into long ago: the act of lying in the grass and listening to the world IS wealth.

The truth is, we don’t need to go anywhere special to tune in to poetry. Our lives are already inundated with sensory information that is the raw material of poems. All we need to do is slow down, pay attention and write down what moves us, intrigues us, or stirs our curiosity. This does not require an inheritance or a 401K. It simply requires a willingness to welcome the abundance that is already ours, and to follow the golden thread of language wherever it leads us.

What poetry can give us is something far more valuable than money could ever buy – it gives us ourselves. Poem by poem, we write our souls into existence. Weighted in words, the spirit that animates us becomes palpable. By the same token, each poem we read offers a small window into the human condition, in which we may better recognize some glimmer of our own being.

Ready to tap into this great wealth of poetic possibility? The most important thing to remember is that your ordinary life will offer more than enough source material for poetry. The following exercises are designed to help you mine your daily experience to see what inspired thoughts and language might be awaiting you below the surface.

1.     Choose an activity you do regularly that is the absolutely most routinized, unremarkable event of your day. (Mine would be doing dishes.) Write down the answers to these questions about it:

·         Notice the physical feeling of this routine. Which muscles are involved? What kind of rhythm or tempo does it involve? Are you cold or hot, energized or depleted?


·         How do you feel emotionally when you do this?


·         What are the smells associated with this activity? (I use lavender soap, so my sink smells like a French garden.)


·         What do you see when engaged in this routine? (I look out at the butterfly bush and magnolia tree in my back yard. I enjoy watching meals erased from plates and glasses.)


  • Pay close attention to your thinking. What images and ideas bubble up as you are doing this activity?

  • How does the time of day or weather or location (indoors vs. outdoors, your home vs. someone else’s home, summer breeze or snowfall) affect your experience?

2.     What wildlife, plants and trees do you see out your window at home, at work, or en route? What do they look like, feel like, sound like? What are their names? What are the visual cues and references in your home and/or workspace?

  •  Make a list of the 20 things you come into contact with most.

  • Write down something else in the world that each of these 20 things remind you of. For example: The red teapot reminds me of the robin red breast. The worn wood of the mirror over the sink reminds me of the door to Grandpa’s barn. The curlicue pattern on the silver platter makes me think of storm clouds.

3.     Think of someone you see regularly in passing but do not know well, like your mail carrier, barista or neighbor. Write a poem that imagines what their life might be like:

·         Who do they love?


·         What have they lost?


·         What do their pajamas look like?


·         What are their aspirations?


·         What do they eat for breakfast?

4.     Explore your holiday archives:

·         What was your biggest holiday surprise?


·         What holiday is most meaningful to you and why?


·         Who do you yearn to see during the holidays?


·         How has Santa (if you have a relationship with Santa) satisfied you and let you down over the years?


·         What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened around the dinner table with your family at holiday time?


·         What outfit comes to mind when

This should give you a foundation of source material to start playing with. Circle a few words or phrases that interest you, and let those be the kindling for your poetic fire.

Don’t know where to go next? Freewriting can be a useful way to take your ideas and language a little further into the realm of the poetic. Set your timer for 10 minutes, sit down with your notebook, and keep that hand moving across the page, no matter what, without stopping, for the entire 10 minutes. You’re not trying to be brilliant here – just to get loose and let words start coming without thinking too hard. The more you practice, the looser you’ll get. And the looser you get, the more your language will surprise and delight you.

Eggnog, move over. Rudolph, there’s a brighter light guiding our sleigh tonight. I’ve never experienced any holiday cheer that rivals the state of grace that poetry invites into our lives. That is why I often give poems I’ve written as holiday gifts. I print them on pretty paper, place them in an attractive frame, and presto – the most treasured holiday gifts I’ve ever given cost me only the time I spent creating them.

Try it! You just might get hooked.

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World(Queen of Wands Press, 2007). An award-winning poet, she writes four monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor forVoiceCatcher 4. Sage has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and been awarded a Soapstone residency. She curates a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. To learn more, visit www.sagesaidso.com.

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