Exploring theme part 3: learning from poetry #amwriting

Poems are stories told in a highly structured fashion. They are stories about the feelings one has for a place or a person, the emotions one feels when faced with shattering circumstances. Poems can be heroic and epic or tightly constrained to one moment, one person’s thoughts.

2WritingCraft_themePoets understand how central a theme is to the story. A poet takes the theme and builds the words around it. Emily Dickinson’s poems featured the themes of spirituality, love of nature, and death, which is why she appealed so strongly to me during my angsty young-adult life.

Via Wikipedia:

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Little-known during her life, she has since been regarded as one of the most influential figures in American poetry.

Evidence suggests that Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a penchant for white clothing and was known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.

While Dickinson was a prolific writer, her only publications during her lifetime were 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems, and one letter. The poems published then were usually edited significantly to fit conventional poetic rules. Her poems were unique for her era. They contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends, and also explore aesthetics, society, nature and spirituality.

If one only knew that she had been agoraphobic and never left her room in an era where the internet didn’t exist, one would think she knew nothing of the world and had nothing to say that would be worth reading.

dickinsons poemsBut that would be wrong. Poets write words that range far more widely than their physical surroundings. Some poets are constrained by unrewarding jobs, others may be “on the spectrum,” as they now say, and still others are constrained by physical limitations.

Poetry is a craft that uses words to explore the interior life of a moment, a place, or an idea. Fleshing out and exploring every nuance of a theme is a core function of poetry.

A theme that Emily Dickinson often wrote about is “the undiscovered continent.” Literary scholars consider that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places she inhabited for much of her life.

As solitary as her life was, this interpretation of the undiscovered continent makes sense. It is the “landscape of the spirit,” embellished with nature imagery. It is imagery meant to convey a dwelling place of “oneself” where one resides with one’s other selves. It is an expansive, liberating force.

For example, in “They shut me up in Prose –,” she sets out the idea that society enforces limits upon the speaker, confining her to the acceptable female roles, concealing her to prevent her from expressing herself. But her prose is a product of her mind and refuses to be constrained.

Those constraints inspire her, fuel her drive to write. Society cannot limit her mind, no matter how they try. In the poem “I dwell in Possibility –”she shows us that limits are an illusion to one who dwells in possibilities.

Quote from GradeSaver:

“I dwell in Possibility –”is deeply interested in the power gained by a poet through their poetry. In the first stanza, the poem seems to just be about poetry as a vocation as opposed to prose and is explicit in comparing the two. The metaphors and similes used make it so that poetry is possibility, poetry is more beautiful, poetry has more doors and windows open for access, for different perspectives and interpretations, while prose by default, then, is more closed and limited and homely. [1]

Dickinson showed us how important employing themes can be when finding words to express our intent. Her work demonstrates that themes can be as common and ordinary as the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order), the fear of death, love of nature, or the expression of faith in God.

The 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster employed the theme of rural poverty, using the term hard times to turn his simple songs into anthems that people embraced and are still singing. Tommy Fleming’s version can be heard here. The crowd embraces that song today as much as they did when it was written. Its popularity is due to the way Foster employed his theme, the way he presented it with words and melody.

‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more. [2]

But what of writers who don’t write poetry? How do we who write novels and short stories use themes in our work?

The possibilities are limitless.

An aspect of a setting can become a theme. These can be as solid and physical as a particular rock or tree that acquires an emotional meaning to the characters in the narrative. These physical objects gain a sense of presence that recurs throughout the story.

Or they can be as complex and intangible as a mental landscape that allows a prisoner to roam freely.

Poets have a lot to teach those of us who write narrative prose.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss 2nd coverFantasy author Patrick Rothfuss knows how to make use of a strong theme. He uses the theme of silence to create a powerful opening to his novel, The Name of the Wind. The opening paragraphs of that novel hooked me.

To wind up this dip into poetry, themes are the unifying threads woven through our work, connecting the dots and holding the plot together. The words we choose and other elements of the story, such as the setting, are how we present our themes. Themes, in turn, color our words and setting and steer the plot.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Cullina, Alice. Chainani, Soman ed. “Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems “I dwell in Possibility –” Summary and Analysis.” GradeSaver, 26 July 2009 Web. 20 March 2022.

[2] “Hard Times Come Again No More” (sometimes, “Hard Times“) PD|100. Written by Stephen Foster. Published in New York by Firth, Pond & Co. in 1854.


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10 responses to “Exploring theme part 3: learning from poetry #amwriting

  1. I have always enjoyed Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I’ve been writing more poetry lately, and I think the careful attention to word choice and tone strengthens my fiction writing; it’s neat to consider these connections.

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  2. Pingback: Exploring Theme part 4: Allegory #amwriting | Life in the Realm of Fantasy