Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Poetry Sparks

Whenever I need inspiration for a particular storytelling task the first place I usually run to is my collection of poetry books.  Great poets have the gift of expressing concepts with the most uncommon words and phrases, and gleaning and recombining fragments from these verses often results in a unique title or story idea.

To try this yourself, pick up a few poetry books at the library, grab a notepad and pen, and start reading.  When you find a phrase that has appeal to you as a title concept or story inspiration, jot it down (and remember to note the author and the title of the poem so you can go back to it, cite it, etc.)  

Here's a list of title sparks I made while reading through The Poetry of Pablo Neruda:
  1. habit of dreams (Joachim's Absence)
  2. fallen night (We Together)
  3. between garrisons and maidens (Ars Poetica)
  4. the moon dwells (Sonata and Destruction)
  5. her dark star (The Night of the Soldier)
  6. I listen to my tiger (The Young Monarch)
  7. garden in the dark (Single Gentleman)
  8. dreaming of bandits (Sexual Water)
  9. the midst of rain (Autumn Returns)
  10. stones of silence (What Spain Was Like)
Habit of Dreams would be a great title for a story about a person with a sleep disorder (or a dream addiction); Fallen Night I'd probably change to Knight Fallen and write about an honorable warrior's tumble from grace.  Between Garrisons and Maidens is a little long but just gorgeous; I could see that titling a story about star-crossed medieval lovers, or perhaps the person who carries their secret messages for them.  Of the remainder, I really love I Listen to My Tiger; that is just begging to be a title of a story about a very ferocious pookah. 

Poetry is also a great place to find story sparks; poets tend to load up their verses with devious imagery and ideas.  If you're in an inspirational lull you might find a word or phrase that spontaneously jump starts your muse.

Here's a list of some story ideas I got while reading through Ranier Marie Rilke ~ Prose and Poetry:
  1. shadow's falling (The Book of Hours)
  2. signs of winter (The Fourth Elegy)
  3. angel gaze (The Seventh Elegy)
  4. Lords of the House of Lament (The Tenth Elegy)
  5. with early death (The Tenth Elegy)
  6. fall of light (The Sonnets to Orpheus, #22)
  7. racks no longer required (The Sonnets to Orpheus, #9)
  8. shade or shine (The Sonnets to Orpheus, #29)
  9. night without objects (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge)
  10. those who burned their letters (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge)
The two that jumped out at me first were #4 and #10; both instantly inspired story ideas based on the exact wording.  The other eight are more conceptual for me; for example I can imagine a story about the day all the shadows in the world disappear (#1); a freak snow storm in July in one of the hottest places on the planet -- which is about to become the coldest (#2); depending on how you want to interpret the word "rack", a near-future day when all stores, or shoes, or torture is made illegal (#7).

Sometimes when you mine poetry you'll get a mixed bag, especially if you read through an anthology with verses written by many different poets.  Here's a mixed sparks list I put together while sifting through Poetry That Lives Forever:

  1. When his wings enfold (Of Love, Kahlil Gibran)
  2. A whiplash unbraiding (A Narrow Fellow, Emily Dickinson)
  3. Not yet in quiet lie (Daybreak, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
  4. speak silence (To the Evening Star, William Blake)
  5. with spiders I have friendship made (The Prisoner of Chillon, Lord Byron)
  6. too hot the eye of heaven (Sonnet XVIII, William Shakespeare)
  7. all the pleasures prove (The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Christopher Marlowe)
  8. at sundawn stirred (A Child's Laughter, Charles Algernon Swinburne)
  9. halls of pleasure . . . aisles of pain (Solitude, Ella Wheeler Wilcox)\
  10. the one less traveled (The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost)
Of this group I'd say I could turn #4, #7 and #10 into titles, and the rest into stories.  I'm particularly struck by Dickinson's imagery of a whiplash unbraiding with #2; I can see a really great story idea about an unfair flogging going very wrong unfolding as well.  #5 sounds a bit Renfieldish, but I've written a book about a prisoner who could control spiders (and any other insect near him) and you can have a lot of fun with that kind of creepy superpower.  Swinburne's at sundawn stirred made me think of daylight vampires for some reason; what if you put a spin on the mythology so that they couldn't tolerate the dark?  And Wilcox's halls of pleasure . . . aisles of pain conjures up all kinds of storytelling ideas: the memoir of a gifted opera singer with a perpetual, terrible case of stage fright; a YA about a popular kid becoming the target of a bully; a religious cult who lures in victims with unbelievably wonderful spiritual elation that they must never question, until the day someone does and they find out what really creates all that endless bliss . . .

Getting sparks from poetry is also a great way to break through a writing block; try looking for words and phrases that create instant imagery and resonate on some level with you.  Once you have a list of ten, write out a short premise on what they brought to mind, and then choose one and write one page about it.  If the idea doesn't hold your interest, go back to your list, choose another premise and repeat.  Even if you don't end up with a complete story, it's great writing practice and might help you get past whatever is blocking you.


  1. Thank you. I love this post.

  2. What a great idea!!! I am not a huge poetry reader, but I think I am about to be! Thanks for adding a list of places to start. :)

  3. Well, there's my writing exercise for the day!

  4. I really like this idea! I have a question though. What happens if one of those lines of poetry is the perfect title for your story? Can it be used?

    1. The full line from a poem that is not already in the public domain? I wouldn't without first obtaining permission. However, if you want to use a couple of words from it, you can without obtaining permission as that would be a short phrase. According to the government, (and I'll quote here) "titles, names, short phrases and slogans" are not protected by copyright law. Source: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf

    2. So the excerpt, Those Who Burned Their Letters, as long as it's cited on the frontispiece is okay? Copyrights are becoming such a touchy thing now with the interwebs.

    3. Rilke is tricky because while his works in German are in the public domain, the English translations are not. :) I once quoted a fairly short paragraph from a lengthy letter of his (and properly attributed it to him in the book) and the editor later cut it down to one line. If it were my call I would use your excerpt but cite it as well, just to cover all your bases.


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