Dietary Supplement for your Poems
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our third column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
If your poems are weak they may need to be fortified with research. Poems subjected to "studious inquiry, diligent, protracted, systematic investigation" are bound to be stronger and more successful than their unresearched counterparts. Let me explain.
1. Research benefits poems that rely on images
An author's in-depth understanding strengthens poems which include image-symbol, metaphor or simile. If you're a specialist you'll be able to write poems using comparisons in your area of expertise without a trip to the library or an hour spent online with Google. Poems like "Genealogies"1 (where Nathan Harms rewrites the story of Cain and Abel using car imagery), "Embryology" (where physician Darlene Moore Berg recounts the in utero physiologically accurate development of God made flesh), and "Surgery"2 (where veterinarian David Waltner Toews compares the act of discovering a cow's inner secrets to writing poems) give delight because of their precise language and knowledge of specific processes.
However, if you're a novice without a specialist's background you will need the understanding and vocabulary that research yields. It's nearly impossible to write convincing poems based on metaphors outside your knowledge.
To research the subjects of nature and culture, go to places like the library or online to consult encyclopedias and other specialty writings.
2. Research benefits poems based on character and literary allusion
Poets often write about historical characters. For Christians, Bible characters are frequently the inspiration of such poems. Research is part of making this kind of writing convincing.
An example of one such poem done well is Marcia Lee Laycock's "Jacob." Though Laycock enters Jacob's thoughts immediately after he has wrestled with God, flashbacks throughout the poem allude to various events in his life. He remembers his reputation as a deceiver, recounts the reaction of his brother to the theft of his inheritance, and relives the events of the journey just before this encounter. These things make for a rich poem-reading experience. They reassure you that you are in the hands of someone who has researched Jacob thoroughly, is able to tell his story with accuracy and interpret it with orthodoxy.
Christian poetry also often alludes to other biblical material by referring to imagery, quotes, and theological concepts. You need handle these elements as carefully as you do character. Check the context from which your material comes to ensure you're using it accurately. If you use a Bible verse, make sure you quote it word-perfect.
Besides using the Bible to do this kind of research, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries (in book form or online) are useful to explore Bible characters, customs, settings, and interpretations.
You can research other historical characters by consulting encyclopedias, works of history, biography, and autobiography (also in book form or online). When using literary allusion—from Greek legend to Shakespeare —again try to locate the original source so you can check the context and quote accurately.
3. Research benefits occasional poems
Poems written to celebrate or commemorate a special occasion are not the sole territory of the poet laureate. If you need an excuse to write a poem, you have it when your parents celebrate an anniversary, your co-worker retires or your church has its 50-year celebration. Aside from creating a compliment to the celebrant, these writings become especially significant if they include references to, say, events of your parents' life together, memories of the workplace, and highlights of your church's history.
An example of an occasional poem that does these things is Linda Siebenga's "Dance to the Music of Prophets Mending the World"—a 40th anniversary tribute to the organization Citizens for Public Justice. In her poem Siebenga refers to what the organization stands for and specific things its members have attempted and accomplished during its existence.
The method of researching for this type of poem depends on the occasion. If it's a family event you may need to talk to other family members, look through photo albums, and read old diaries. If you're roasting someone from the office you'll want to talk to people they've worked with over the years. A poem commemorating a church or community event will benefit from conversations with old timers or a visit to the local museum. Of course the library and the internet have a wealth of information about national holidays and historic events.
4. Research benefits personal poems
Research done for personal poems—those writings born out of the elements of your life—is research of a different kind.
Sheila Bender says: “In writing personal poetry we must ask ourselves questions: ‘What is this feeling? Where did it come from?’ We search for the answer not through logic but through words, sounds, and rhythms that arise when we engage language in making tangible our sensory and emotional experience.”3
She says, quoting Jacques Maritain: “There is no question that the language of ‘felt thought’ must be quarried from our personal depths. Like the best gold, it does not lie on the surface”4 (emphasis mine).
She speaks of persistence: “To write the poem, to find the shape and form of the experience that haunts you, you must keep rappelling into the abyss”5 (emphasis mine).
There are many poems that do this well. “I Chased My Healing” by Mary Lou Cornish is particularly poignant. In it Cornish describes how she pleaded with God to heal her body. She uses scripture fragments as part of her prayer, and describes physical responses in language both passionate yet restrained:
My healing rests in God’s great hand
His fingers curled over it. I try /
To pry them open /
With anger, tears and pleas – Oh! Please!...
Doing research for such poems may include reading if you have written journals about the feeling or experience you plan to write about. But it will mostly involve dredging up memories, details, and specifics like the names of emotions, places, sounds, smells, tastes, colors, plants, animals, and products. This is research done by writing lists, word webs, and free-writes about the incident to bring it into focus and discern its meaning.
5. Research benefits communication
Just like artists choose between water color or acrylic paints to depict a particular subject and musicians choose between piano and guitar for a song they compose, so poets need to choose the poetic form that best suits their message. You would probably not write a poem about a subtle insight into nature as a ballade or rondeau. Rather, you'd write it as a haiku or tanka. If your poem ends with a surprise, you might consider writing it as a sonnet. A poem about a nagging or recurring thought might make a good villanelle. A pantoum could be the perfect form if you're writing about extreme states of mind like mania, paranoia, or delusion.
The best way to learn about forms and their respective strengths is to read lots of poetry. As well most poetry how-to books will discuss the characteristics of common forms. Glossaries of poetic terms (such as this poetic glossary from the University of Toronto also define forms.
Some common forms are haiku, tanka, cinquain, sonnet, ballade, rondeau, sestina, villanelle, pantoum and free verse. If you're not sure which suits your poem, try writing it several ways and then decide which is most effective.
6. Research improves your poem’s chances of publication
Finally you'll want to research where to get your poem published. You'll look for this information in market guides—online or in print. For an online guide that focuses on the Christian market check the Utmost Writer's Markets.
In the hardcopy market guide department, Poets Market is the most popular for publishing all kinds of poetry.
When you find a possible market, check the publication's web site to see if there are past-published poems in archives. This will help you decide whether your poem fits their publication. Before you submit, find and follow the submission guidelines (also often posted online or available on request by surface mail).
Then send your poem out. Because after all the hard work you've put into it, it would be a shame not to share your meaty and vigorous creation with the world.
Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.
Copyright ©2008 by Violet Nesdoly
 Nathan Harms, "Genealogies." Midnight in the Garden, (Edmonton AB, New Leaf Works, 2000) 20.
 David Walter Toews, "Surgery," The Impossible Uprooting, (Toronto, ON, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995) 26–28.
 Sheila Bender. Writing Personal Poetry, (Cincinnati, Ohio, Writer's Digest Books, 1998), 6.
 Bender, 19.
 Bender, 20.