Imagine this--you're at home, in your pyjamas, feet up on the coffee table, as you leisurely page your way through the Sunday paper. All the while, you're actually working on your poetry!
The newspaper can be a treasure trove of ideas for your poetry. And it all begins with the first part of any article:
Headlines cram an enormous amount of information into a small space. They also eliminate unnecessary "deadwood", like "a", "an", "the", "am", "is", "are", "was", "were", "that", and "which".
Sounds a lot like poetry, doesn't it? In writing poetry, we aren’t usually concerned with what is grammatically correct, politically correct, or punctuationally (Is that a word? We don’t care—we’re talking poetry here!) correct. We’re going for powerful images, striving for the best way to convey the most meaning in (usually) the least amount of space. Headlines grab attention AND convey meaning all at once. If your poetry can do the same, you’re well on your way to getting more readers for your material.
Here are a few exercises you can try:
1. Take a sampling of headlines BEFORE you read any of the articles. Make a list. Now try to manipulate the headline. Do something to it. Find synonyms, change words, change word order . . .the possibilities are endless. To show you how weird it can get, take a look at a poem I made entirely from a headline I manipulated a bit. It's called
Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of BC-bound sockeye by Alaskan fishers (off Noyes Island)
Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of BC-bound sockeye (by Alaskan fishers)
Overfishing of hundreds of thousands of (BC-bound) sockeye
Overfishing of hundreds (of thousands) of sockeye
Overfishing (of hundreds) of sockeye
Overfishing (of sockeye)
Using parentheses to "net out" parts of the headline meant that the form added to the meaning as well. If you center the poem above, you get a great "down the drain" effect that shows the results of overfishing. Some have told me that it looks like a fishtail. Others have said the shape resembles a trawling net. The main idea is that even the shape gets readers thinking.
With every line, a new part disappears (but the headline that remains still makes sense). At the end, the parentheses have nothing left to catch, and that is what we're left with--no more poem, no more fish. Even the shape of the two parentheses coming together makes the shape of an O: ().
2. Haiku headlines?
Ok, so I’ll admit—haiku is not my favourite form. In fact, my favourite haiku was by Sappho, I believe, and it went something like this:
with a crunching sound,
the praying mantis devours
the face of the bee
Now, that’s my kind of haiku—there’s power in those seventeen syllables! Too often, haiku is general, soft, and ordinary. There are many examples out there about leaves falling to the ground, the wind blowing, rain falling, and so on …. The reason I like the praying mantis example is that it is specific and it packs a lot into a small space: circle of life, violence, death, onomatopoeia, specific nouns, a specific verb—it’s all there, in 17 syllables. The main weakness? There are still six weak words: four articles (a, the, the, the) and two prepositions (with, of). Six out of seventeen syllables is about 35% of the poem—still a lot, by my count. So even Sappho can use improvement…Can you do better?
A few years ago, I found a website that would update, daily, haiku headlines. They would take news stories each day, and readers would craft haiku that told about the latest and greatest tidbits. A recent search proved disappointing—I couldn’t find the site anymore (let me know if you locate where it’s hiding). I found a reference to it on about.com, with a few less-than-inspiring examples:
michael jackson to tom green
thriller to jackass"
"planet of the apes
where mankind see, mankind do,
big bucks first weekend"
Not exactly deep thoughts here, but it does make haiku interesting all over again for me. What are the news stories of the day? Can we create something powerful and forceful that conveys meaning in 17 syllables (5 for the first line, 7 for the second, and 5 again for the third)? Take up the challenge, and send me your creations!
These are just a few ways to use headlines to get started with poetry. I know they've added topical poems to my collections, and there is always fresh material to work from-- every single day you pick up your newspaper. GET POETIC!
Read more articles by Chuck Baker or search for articles on the same topic or others.