View Full Version : (a question) distilling down to the essence

05-30-2015, 09:18 PM
Newish poet, be gentle please!

I have a poem I'd like to finish, or at least get to a version that seems to hang the way I want it to.

It's what brought me back to trying poetry, a couple of years ago. It was inspired by a minor (yet traumatic to me) event, while I was on vacation at a place I love. Something happened that affected only me, and as I was trying to make sense of it I thought, "I should write a poem about this."

I hadn't had a thought like that for many, many years. Poetry had fallen out of my writing. I'd been focusing on fiction. But this just sprang into my mind. And so, once the crisis was resolved, I started it.

I was trying to convey the depth of my emotions, but it was just repetitive. Too long. I took it to my writing group at the time, which included a couple of poets, and while parts of it were well-received, the consensus was that: repetitive, too long.

I picked it up again a couple of months ago, and then again this week. It doesn't have the force of emotions that I felt during that time. The event itself was less than an hour long - maybe a half hour even - and yet, I've labored over this for so much longer.

So my question is - how to distill the emotions down? It's all just word choice, isn't it?

I'm quoting from another thread here: (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?306426-What-are-some-things-one-should-have-in-mind-when-working-on-a-poem)

This is not prose.
Line breaks are not enough to make it a poem.
If it reads like prose if you remove the line breaks it's not a poem yet.
This is not prose.
Remember the toolbox of poetic devices.
Appeal to the senses.
This is not prose.
Compress the language a bit more.
Don't spoon-feed the reader; make the reader work for their entertainment.
This is not prose.
Go back over the completed poem and make sure each word pulls its weight.
Maximize metaphor and images.
This is not prose.

The event itself wasn't really traumatic, but it did affect me deeply as I thought about what it could mean. At a different place, this would have been a rather trivial thing. But the isolated location made it into something much worse.

Maybe I need to add some location to the poem. That just occurred to me, writing this post out. The isolation making the event bigger than it was.

Ok, but otherwise, how do *you* distill your poem?

06-01-2015, 07:58 AM
I'm glad you asked this question, juniper - I think it's relevant for a lot, if not all, of us.

It's a question that reminds me that I really know nothing, except by reading. I guess that means that I know it when I see it.

I think of the phrases that stick with me, and why I think they do:
- concise: one line instead of two, using just the right word.
- illustrative: showing often does more than telling, e.g. the trail of a tear, or 'he was sad'
- unique: images, similes, metaphors that are unexpected or unusual

For the sake of discussion, can you think of a line that impressed you, and what about it attracted you?

For me, this passage from Seamus Heaney's Old Smoothing Iron stuck with me:

Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron

like a plane into linen,
like the resentment of women.

To me, those last two lines unfold a world of self-sacrifice for the family, and a dignified, mute restlessness.

I may have missed your point with this example. That proves two things:
- I really do know nothing; and
- this is a hard question to answer.

My guess is that others here will be able to give much better answers.

Debbie V
06-01-2015, 10:55 PM
I try to latch to the emotion uncooked: crisp, clean, fresh. I want it newly picked from the word garden. That's when it's truest, when I've had no time to think or process. I try to revise from that perspective. Having a good memory helps.

Go back to that space again and relive. Write what you feel. Identify and define the feelings from the moment forward. A poet's heart must be on the sleeve or on the ground to be trampled. If you can tap into your rawness, then recognize in your piece those elements that highlight rather than muddy it, even if you are highlighting a muddy trampled heart.

06-29-2015, 11:31 PM

Sometimes I write good poetry and also some bad poetry because writing can be just processing to me, an artistic endeavor, or exploratory. I guess I made friends with all sides of it. So my opinion here may not help you or be what you need and certainly not an 'expert' opinion. But I have been an admin on poetry sites experiencing the pleasure of poets moving in the passion of writing. Let no one or nothing take that from you from critques (helpful or not), fear, or needing to make the perfect poem.

Having said that, I am curious as to what that experience emotionally provoked in you (without need for knowing exact details). That is your 'essence' where you found yourself centered within, acknowledging and exploring, connecting. Laboring in a poem is great, especially in the unlayering, as long as it comes back to that original 'prompt' of what made you want to write the poem. Sometimes repetition works if you want to unlayer within the poem slowly for a special effect. I like what Debbie said, 'trap in the rawness'. My subjective feel of the poem above renders a feeling of - connect- disconnect- in how an event speaks to us....which is often related to traumatic events and processing. Tell me what you think.

06-30-2015, 01:03 AM
Juniper, have you posted your poem in the Poetry Crit section? If you haven't, would you be willing to try it? Put a note at the top that you are asking for gentle advice as a new poet and a way to condense the poem while keeping the feeling within it. Though normally other poets are nice enough in their comments, knowing you want/need gentleness is a great help to the critiquer, in my experience.

If you have posted it, could you give me the link please?

William Haskins
06-30-2015, 04:29 AM
it's worth considering the subjective nature of essence in a poem.

poem are written from a point of view, so the essence of an object or an event or an emotion will be necessarily processed through that lens.

just to run with an example of a traumatic event, since such a thing was the genesis of the thread...

if four poets walked from four directions upon the scene of a child being hit by a car and later wrote about it, you would likely get four very different poems.

one might write about irony of a school bell in the distance. another might tie it to their own lost sibling. a baby crying in the distance, a stream of blood running into a gutter...

essence is delivered through the poet's imagination.

06-30-2015, 04:51 AM
For me, the distillation is more about the delivery of the emotion than a retelling an event.

That equates to the poem perhaps not looking like the trauma, but rather feeling like it.
So, an ill child or loss of a parent instead of reading as an emotional eulogy of tubes and wires looks a bit more like something else.
A title goes a long way in that regard.
A metaphor can be very powerful.

Here's how i go about metaphors for the big ones. (big as in not a metaphor for a line of a poem but the whole thing).
Things that offer a universal understanding.
Does it have properties or key words which may apply
What connecting properties apply and how would i use them.
Do i know enough about it. ( if it feels right but you aren't sure, research it for a few minutes).
What point of view sees and expresses it best?

I've found the catharsis to be the same or similar and the poem is significantly shorter than an account of events would have been.

The essence is the emotion, not the details

06-30-2015, 04:52 AM
Juni, I'm interested in seeing your poem also, and thanks to Poetic for reviving this thread.

Another thing that occurs to me as a method for getting to the heart of something in a poem is to try out several approaches. Do different takes on it. I find if I let one unsatisfying poem obsess me (not that you are obsessing but I sure have!) I just end up stagnating and never getting anywhere. If I start over and come at whatever it is from a different angle, that can open the flow for me, and eventually I come up with something that I can live with.

You may never be able to fully capture or accurately represent this event and its impact, but it can still inform and inspire a great poem or even several. Maybe let it be fuel without having to entirely convey its completeness?

Here's something bizarre: I wrote this post maybe an hour or so ago but somehow failed to post it. Yay for auto save.

06-30-2015, 07:11 AM
Quote- "poem are written from a point of view, so the essence of an object or an event or an emotion will be necessarily processed through that lens"

Great point William.

And Kylabelle, auto save will probably be my life saver too lol.