Introducing Unexpected Objects: An Idea for Reviving or Finishing Difficult Poems

Lately, I’ve been dropping lures into my poems. Lures that would otherwise catch walleye in some small lake in northern Michigan are cropping up in my work to help me explore difficult subjects. The fact that lures are objects used to do something, that they are part of an action, made them particularly interesting and useful to me.

When introducing a lure into a poem that perhaps was so personal it lacked imagery, the physicality of the lure and the automatic disjunction between the lure and the subject forced me to make connections between images I would not have made otherwise. For example, I’m using a Rattle Tot (an erratic sort of lure that moves quickly from side to side in the water to attract fish) to explore a very inconsistent, frantic time in my childhood. One way I specifically connected the lure with my subject was through linking the movement of the Rattle Tot with the movement of a character’s eyes in the poem. Thus, the tangible aspects of the lure forced me to identify more tangible aspects of the situation/difficult subject.

The reason I give my example of introducing lures into my poems is that I think sometimes poets want to grapple with difficult (perhaps incredibly personal) subjects, but don’t know how to do so in a way that gives the subject a tangibility, a physical aspect that allows others to grasp aspects of the poem and not flounder in vague language.  Also, I think introducing foreign objects creates an energy that has the potential to drive new meanings into the poem, and may actually help the poet identify parts of a difficult subject that he or she did not previously see.

For me, at least, the absurdity of the object placed in a poem, especially if the object also has an active sort of function (as strange as that sounds, like a lure moving through water to catch fish) may allow the brain to find connections it had not noticed, and perhaps would not notice otherwise. I remember one of my high school teachers once advising my class to memorize a fact by picturing that fact either being read or announced or illustrated in a completely nonsensical situation. For example, I might imagine a goat telling me that the civil war began in 1861 while brushing his teeth in my garage. Whether this tactic is really so helpful, I’m not entirely sure. But, in my experience, the introduction of images, objects, or scenery that don’t obviously jive with a subject matter allows for an tension that allows for incredible creative potential.

Perhaps because we want to make sense of the absurd situation, the not immediately understandable connection between two seemingly different things, we generate bridges of meaning. For me, introducing an object that doesn’t seem to fit out-right into my poems, helps create connections that seem more fresh, and introduce new levels to the poem and the subject I’m dealing with.

So, I urge you to try dropping an object into a poem you’ve had trouble starting, finishing or revising. Perhaps the object will help pull your mind out of the depths of the subject for a moment to generate connections you had not seen. You may also get rid of the object after introducing it to the poem. The object may lead to some new insights/images/directions that lift the poem out of its stagnant space and allows for that energetic flirtation of a fin breaking water. Then, you can discard the lure, or keep it.

Michelle Calkins is from Grand Rapids, Michigan and is currently studying poetry at Virginia Tech.

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