The distinction between poetry and prose is not as fuzzy as it might seem, in spite of the prevalence of contemporary poems that neither rhyme nor have a fixed rhythm (meter). Compared to prose, poetry is typically more focused on
- The significance and impact of individual moments, singled-out slices of time
- Images appealing to the senses
- The essence of an experience
- The connotations of words (their emotional overtones)
- The sound of words
- The rhythm of language (even without a formal meter)
Many poems of the past and present do rhyme and have a fixed structure, of course, and these qualities can have a powerful impact on the reader. But whether you choose to write a formal poem or free verse, poetry can be an effective way of sharing your memoir—a single story or an entire book.
One of the best-known recent memoirs written in verse is Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. Brown Girl Dreaming earned the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, but the book also appeals to adult readers. If you think you might want to write a short or long memoir in verse, I recommend reading Brown Girl Dreaming to get an idea of the possibilities open to you. Another approach to memoir through poetry is Ekaterinoslav: One Family’s Passage to America: A Memoir in Verse, by Jane Yolen. As you will see by looking into these books and others (try Googling “memoirs in verse”), the possibilities range from writing an extended, coherent narrative that reads like a novel to writing individual short poems that, together, reveal the author’s experiences.
Telling stories in verse is an honored tradition. Shakespeare, for instance, often wrote his plays in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter. (He added rhyme for various desired effects, such as closing a scene with a memorable rhymed couplet [two lines of poetry].) In iambic pentameter, every line has five “feet” of iambs, which each include two syllables, the first unstressed (short) and the second stressed (long). As you will note, Shakespeare sometimes varies the pattern, often to create emphasis. Here, with the stressed syllables in bold capital letters, are Juliet’s most famous words from Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2):
WHAT’S in a NAME? THAT which we CALL a ROSE
By ANy OTHer WORD would SMELL as SWEET;
So ROmeo WOULD, were HE not ROmeo CALL’D,
ReTAIN that DEAR perFECtion WHICH he OWES
WithOUT that TItle. ROmeo, DOFF thy NAME,
And FOR that NAME which IS no PART of THEE
Take ALL mySELF.
You can see that each line (except the last) has five stressed syllables. Iambic pentameter is a meter that readily matches the natural cadences in English. Shakespeare built on those natural cadences to make his words even more powerful than they might otherwise have been.
You can do the same, whether through adopting a formal pattern such as iambic pentameter or through simply paying close attention to the sound of your words and the way they work together. And you don’t need to know the poetic terms to use poetic techniques. Read your writing aloud and tinker with it until you like the way it sounds.
Moving from literary heights to everyday efforts, I’ll share a memoir poem that I wrote. While I make no claims about the poem’s merits, I’ll insert notes in italics pointing out poetic techniques (also indicated by bold type within the poem) that you may want to try.
How I Got Lost
(We lose ourselves in different ways.)
Parallel wording helps readers link thoughts:
Until I was seven,
I was happy to be as I was,
To live as I did,
By considering the rhythm of the words as they’re chosen (here a slow line followed by a flowing line), writers help direct readers’ attention:
Giving and receiving love
In a life made entirely of blessings.
Of course snags came from time to time—
Limitations on going to Sally and Sheila’s,
Mean boys who scared me
(But Mother always chased them away),
Sally’s haircuts for my dolls,
The need for subtraction when I preferred addition—
Yet once past,
Obstacles stayed past,
Here a rapidly moving—anapestic (short-short-long)—line helps, I hope, to conclude the stanza in a way that is satisfying to readers:
Ne-ver TOUCH-ing my SPIR-it and JOY.
But by second grade,
The boys who had been my first-grade pals
No longer played with girls,
And I found that most of our class’ girls
Did not want to play with me.
Now I know what happened,
But I was bewildered then.
We were a nice family—
Mother and Daddy and I—
Alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) can add emphasis:
A comfortably fortunate family
Living in a pretty home
With a yard filled with flowers and my swing set,
Wearing Wanamaker clothes,
Eating Mother’s delicious cooking
After welcoming Daddy home at five.
Santa brought my bike;
Kind Dr. Wagner made house calls;
Ballet lessons had begun when I was four,
Years after I first heard stories and poems
On Mother’s and Daddy’s lap.
We sang at the piano in our living room
And drove to Kentucky to Nannie’s house.
Although most of the poem is unrhymed, the addition of rhyme calls attention to these lines:
Nothing was missing that I could see,
But many of my classmates’ parents
Saw gaps in my pedigree.
Daddy was a DuPont chemist with a PhD,
But the parents of popular Hannah and her court
Envisioned their daughters’ debutante balls
I’ve added more alliteration and another rhyme for emphasis:
Filled with DuPont family familiars,
A future not to be lost:
Tolerating plebeian playmates like me
Could bring too great a cost.
Jane Austen’s world of fiercely rigid social rules
On where to visit and whom to frequent
Had survived 150 years
And crossed the ocean to land in our school.
Hannah and her circle knew:
I was one of the not-our-kind,
And so she critiqued
A repeated phrase structure and another rhyme have, once again, been added for emphasis:
My plaid dresses and buckle shoes,
My classroom questions,
My broad-jumping proficiency
And dodgeball deficiencies.
In third grade, she nominated me for class president:
The gesture was a taunt,
Not an affirmation.
By my second grade, Mother and Daddy and I
Had moved to an even lovelier home
A little more alliteration and the use of “and” in place of a comma link the images and improve the line’s rhythm and flow:
With woods and rocks and paths for playing
And neighboring children who played with me,
But being me
No longer felt sufficient.
If Hannah and her friends
Did not like me,
I would work to change;
If not popular, I would be smart,
Even as smart as the boys in arithmetic.
I might evade censure,
Anticipate every judgment
And match what others
Appeared to prefer.
And in that way
I met the years ahead:
Elementary school and junior high,
High school and college
And every job in my career.
Shorter lines call attention to themselves:
And so I lived,
Even with the love I knew at home
And all my opportunities,
Wherever I found myself,
I could endure the expectations
Only so long,
The barely attainable demands
Required of me,
Or so my fear believed;
The risk was too terrible
For me to test my truth:
Long words can likewise add weight to a line:
Because I am mysteriously but irredeemably flawed,
Matching others’ mix of weaknesses and strengths
Will never be enough
To win acceptance
Readers notice and are pulled in by patterns (here and in the closing stanza):
I always tried again:
A new job,
A new romance,
A new plan for finding meaning,
A new spot on the Earth that seemed to promise
Satisfaction and, finally, peace.
I will try again now,
Though, this time,
Not in my usual, ever-since-Hannah way.
She was a child and did not understand;
I was a child and did not understand.
Now I am nearly old
But never too old to renew
The Winnie I was
When loving and being loved,
Enthusiasm, courage, and resilience
Were fully enough for anyone,
And finally, as in Juliet’s famous what’s-in-a-name speech, I end with a short, emphatic line:
For comparison, here are two paragraphs from my essay “Our First Little White House” that cover some of the same territory as the early stanzas of my poem above. The poem looks at how my idyllic childhood went awry over the span of my years, beginning in second grade. In contrast, the essay narrows the focus to examine the joys of my early years within my family. For both pieces, I hope, the form supports my purpose.
For all of us little girls and boys, our mothers were at home, ironing our clean and well-made clothes, driving the carpool to kindergarten, and protecting us from the bullies. My mother invented games for long, rainy afternoons and read me stories and poetry—about Reddy Fox and the West Winds, and about the elephant whose trunk got tangled in the telephone. To celebrate my birthday, she gathered a dozen neighborhood children to join in eating a cake she had decorated with gumdrops.
In our community, the fathers, too, were exactly the fathers we would have desired. My father pulled me on the sled; repaired my wooden dog that wouldn’t stay upright on its wheels; built me a jungle gym, a marvel where I could do gymnastics; and took me to the ballet.
Will writing poetry—writing free or formal verse—release your creativity and help you to tell your story? If the approach interests you, why not give it a try?
Next: Recommended reading for memoir writers