Mother’s Day, Father’s Day…and Disciplining Your Poems

Laws flutter out
from groaning joints,
can be netted,
pinned, and framed in
angles, spaces.
Adhere to them
to channel them!
Steel a path. Fill
an unlikely
expanse. Draw out
a breathless span—
functional awe.
Forge a flight path.
Freed by shackles!

More on the thematic thread of laws and constraints in a moment…first:

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Approaching!

It’s time to start brainstorming ways to celebrate the beloved parental-types in your life this year. Might I suggest a few little poems? What a meaningful and personal gift poetry can be! You can spend as little or as much as you like on the presentation. You can craft one piece or a small collection. You can have a book made. If you choose to arrange the poems with photographs in your booklet, check out sites like Shutterfly and Kodak Gallery for features and pricing.

Poetry Prompts: Commemorate a Parent in Your Life

Need help getting started? Consider each of these prompts to be a launching pad for your imagination:

  • What does your subject do to lift up and empower those under his care?
  • Often parents go sorely unappreciated. What truth can you highlight about this parent – and the way others perceive her – that will make her feel valued?
  • Get inspired by a line from a song that is special to you and the subject of your poem.
  • Write about a time you realized his heroism.
  • What is her secret super-power?
  • Write about your most treasured down-time together.
  • Create a verbal dimension to a treasured photograph – express what is going on behind the scenes, what happened just before or after the picture was taken, or why you love this picture.
  • Meditate on the ways you have seen this person grow and flourish over time. What gifts has parenthood bestowed on him?
  • If you are writing for someone who is helping you parent, show the many ways he supports and aids you.
  • Make her laugh about parenthood’s adventures and misadventures!
  • If you are writing for someone who raised you, express gratitude for a time she disciplined you as a child and reveal the strengths and wisdom you gained from that discipline in the long run.

Speaking of Discipline…A Challenge to Welcome Formal Restraints

It is one of life’s great paradoxes that restraint often begets freedom. Consider the key role discipline plays in mastery of a skill – athletes will themselves to move their bodies according to the rules of their sports, musicians force themselves to repeat scales over and over until their muscles learn to speak the language of their instruments, and scientists (should) follow strict guidelines to ensure that they reach accurate conclusions through empirical research.

People accept these restraints because a skill or knowledge, once acquired, offers a kind of liberty. It gives its possessor freedom from difficulties that hold others back. Elite marathoners are free to run faster than others. Those who learn multiple languages communicate more widely than others. Musicians are free to express themselves in songs that connect with their listeners in ways that others can’t. We are held back by many factors, but most of all from lack of training and practice. When we have not applied discipline to a pursuit, we are bound by clumsy ignorance and inability.

Other kinds of restraints have other rewards. What we choose to put into (or not put into) our bodies affects our overall physical health and emotional wellness. Willingness to say no to individual desires—when appropriate—contributes to the success of our relationships. (Although excessive deference can lead to unhealthy relationships, too.)

Set Boundaries in a Positive Way

Anything can be taken too far, and discipline is no exception. As with most goals, the goal of restraint has to be paired with vision, compassion, pragmatism, and enthusiasm. When you restrain yourself for some worthy purpose, don’t focus on what can’t be done: “I can’t eat this. I can’t go out tonight.” Don’t let guilt paralyze you, either: “I should have worked out an hour today. I should have volunteered more hours at the old folks’ home this month.” When you apply some restraint to your life, you should be excited about and actively engaged in your endeavor, focused on what you are learning and achieving. You should be in tune with your progress. Otherwise, you’ll burn out and think yourself incapable. You’ll remain shackled by what you think you cannot do, by the static way things appear to be.

How Restraint Manifests in Poetry

What does any of this have to do with writing poetry? I found that writing poems according to formal guidelines taught me more about the art than any other single practice. When I talk about formal constraints, I refer to poetic “rules.”

Free-verse purists, before you hiss and cower like vampires shrinking from sunlight, consider this. You don’t have to choose a poetic form as strict as a sonnet, at least not right out of the gate. Start with a simple limitation, and you might find yourself opening up to increasingly more complex requirements over time. See the exercise below for ideas.

How Formal Constraints Can Free Your Words

As you restrain your poems in various ways, you will become more concise. The words you choose will become more effective. You will weigh each choice more carefully. You will consider the many ways of saying something, of making concrete an idea, of framing an image. You will also become more aware of the cadence of the language you use and the ways it can affect a poem. And you will become ever more capable of crafting masterful free verse poems because you will know which “rules” you are breaking – and why.

Exercise: Practicing Poetic Restraint

Try these formal restraints on for size:

  • Write a poem with six syllables in each line.
  • Write a poem with four words per line
  • Write a poem that makes an argument and shows an action in only three lines
  • Write a poem in iambic meter
    • The rhythm should sound like this: ba BUMP ba BUMP ba BUMP ba BUMP ba BUMP – and so forth
    • Look at this example from  John Keats‘ “To Autumn”
      • “To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells”
  • Write a triolet
  • Write a limerick
  • Write a sonnet

About Lesley Clinton

Lesley's poems have appeared in the 2016 Houston Poetry Fest Anthology, the 2017 Texas Poetry Calendar, Sakura Review, Haiku Society of America members anthology, Euphony Journal, Frogpond Journal, and others.
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One Response to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day…and Disciplining Your Poems

  1. Pingback: Watch for the December issue of Heron’s Nest | Hearth Bard

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