DonnBusPhotos-007a2x3Hello, I’m Donn Taylor, here again to talk about poetry and ways to achieve the “higher voltage” that distinguishes poetry from most prose. This month and for several more we’ll be talking about ways to make your poems different from many, perhaps most, that editors will see. Most of the new poems I’m seeing are written in the poet’s own voice, with the poet as speaker (persona) of the poem and the poet’s self as the subject. It’s safe to assume that editors will see more of that kind of poem than any other. Last month we illustrated making your poem different by MAKING THE SPEAKER OF THE POEM SOMEONE BESIDES THE POET.

A second method is to WRITE ABOUT A SUBJECT OTHER THAN THE SELF. Again the only limits to this approach are those of the imagination: choose an object, a person, a myth, an event, an idea…. My colleague Beth Ayers wrote a poem about an elderly couple she saw holding hands at a poetry reading. Another colleague, Susan Love Fitts, wrote about her husband, an accomplished composer, as he studied a musical score. We’re all familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” written for the 1837 completion of a monument commemorating the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord.

The subject can also be a myth, as it is in this delightful lyric from the seventeenth century:

                            The Silver Swan

        The silver swan, who living had no note,
        When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;
        Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
        Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
        “Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;
        More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”
                                –Anonymous, published 1612

Sometimes it’s possible to combine a person, a situation, and a value system into one poem. I tried this with my poem “Cosmos in Wartime.” I believe that, in wartime, the wives of the nation’s defenders are guardians of the values their husbands are defending. These wives are guardians of things more valuable than all the gold in Ft. Knox. The poem honors my own wife but, by extension, all the wives of the nation’s defenders.

          COSMOS IN WARTIME   © 1996, Donn Taylor

          There at the center of the universe,
          An ocean and a continent away
          From where I labor, calm at end of day
          Descends, drawn down by likeness, to immerse
          Her house in tender truths till she rehearse
          For children deep assurances that say,
          "This spirit-night, no strife nor storm shall sway
          These quiet cradles, nor the world amerce
          Souls of these innocents for ancient wrong
          As price for human essence wrenched awry."
          She speaks in trust that only grace allows,
          Modestly unaware her softness, strong—
          Stronger than stone or steel—holds up this house
          In love, to let the house hold up the sky.

These well-known poems use the same or similar techniques: Emily Dickinson: #185 “Faith is a fine invention”; Thomas Hardy: “The Convergence of the Twain”; Christina Rossetti: “In Studio”; Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Ozymandias”; Thomas Gray: “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drown’d in a Tub of Goldfishes.”

Here are some suggestions for getting started on this kind of poem:

    1. Look closely at a painting, then represent it in poetry.
    2. From #1, write a poem in which a fictional character talks to the painter. (What questions does the painting leave unanswered?)
    3. Study several paintings, then generalize them into a poem (as did W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Artes”).
    4. Write a poem about a person you know well (or a public figure you admire or dislike).
    5. Write a poem about a public event. (It’s best to avoid subjects with which the editors will be flooded [e.g., 9/11] unless you can give them a very original interpretation.)

In my next several posts we’ll continue with techniques to make your poems different.




  1. Donn, thank you for that lovely post. Your examples brought to mind some of my favorite lines from Frost. Even though he wrote many of his poems in the first person, his work evokes images of more and of other-ness that plant the reader squarely in the moment.

  2. linda glaz on July 20, 2012 at 8:44 AM said:

    Ahh, how I loved Dickinson as a young girl. I longed for the singular life of a writer, Errgghh sometimes dreams do come true.

  3. Donn, this is such a helpful post. I love The Silver Swan. I remember singing the art song as a freshman music student at ETBC.
    “holds up this house
    In love, to let the house hold up the sky.”
    Absolutely beautiful!

  4. Thank you Normandie, Linda, and Jody. Let’s all read more poetry–the good kind, not the publish-or-perish mass-production kind.

  5. Great advice Donn. Cosmos in Wartime is beautiful. I know some Army wives who certainly fit the bill!

  6. Thank you, Kelly. Yes, the wives are the best soldiers in the regiment.

  7. Just caught up on reading this series. So much valuable info!

  8. Thank you, Connie. Every little bit helps.

  9. I so enjoy these posts, Donn. I look forward to trying the exercises!

  10. Thank you, Cathy. And best of luck…uh…Providence…with your poetry writing.

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