Using Poetry to Write Your Memoirs

April is National Poetry Month, so why not try poetry when writing your memoirs!

Using poetry to write your memoirs is a great way to organize your thoughts and hone in on one particular event. Because poetry deals with putting emotion into words, it naturally becomes the perfect medium for recording your life stories. Memoirs are slices of life – one or two major events that shaped you into the person that you are today. Many people have a difficult time deciding where to start writing their stories; the poetic form is the perfect medium to sort through the events of your life and pinpoint the emotions behind specific events.

Some basic tips

  • Let the poem evolve; don’t restrict yourself to rhyming, etc. As a matter of fact, rhyming poetry is outdated.
  • Start with concrete images – these are things that you can touch – furniture, nature, places, people, etc. Add specific detail to those images, adding the abstract – love, hate, fear, etc. to the concrete images.
  • Poetry is about ‘feeling’, about ‘emotion’. You are basically painting a scene with words. (see my example below).
  • Write in 3rd person if you need to. Sometimes it is hard to let yourself fall into the emotional landscape of memories. Don’t be afraid to allow yourself a buffer in the beginning. Sometimes using 3rd person creates an interesting version. (see sample below)

Some Poem Ideas

Use lists of favorites. Simply make a list of your favorite things. Go back to your list and add specific details and emotions surrounding each thing.

Use lists of firsts. Make a list of all the firsts you have had in your life. The first time you kissed, the first time you married, the first time you rode a bike, drove a car, had an illness, etc. This list could be huge! Choose one of those firsts and make another list that describes every detail of the event – concrete images and the feelings attached to those concrete things (the bike). Be very specific!

Another idea: Take your lists of firsts and favorites and cut them into strips. Put the strips in a jar. Pull out one strip every day and write a memoir poem.

Choose a concrete object from your past. I wrote a poem about the cradle my children slept in, the hope chest my papa gave me on my 16th birthday, and my favorite tree from childhood. Your object could be a photo, a ring, a book, a piece of clothing, etc.

Be sure to choose an object that has some emotion attached to it. Describe the object with as much detail as possible. As you write, many emotions will surface – add those in! Write about why this object is so important to you.

My favorite memoir poem is the repetition poem. In this poem, you simply catalog your life. This exercise is perfect for generating ideas to write about later. Start with the year you were born. Write a sentence that says, “In 1962 I was born…” Fill it in. Since I was very ill when I was born, I wrote, “In 1962 I was born and almost died.” I then added two more lines to that sentence to make a stanza.

Sample
Around 1972 we hide behind the couch.
A man with a gun is yelling
on the front lawn. I stare at the carpet
and pretend I am in Oz wearing red ruby
slippers. Tap three times and you are home.

© Karen Hamilton Silvestri 2007

There you have the event, concrete images, and the emotion behind the event.

Keep adding years. You might have several events for one year; that is okay! Write them down. The more you generate the better. Don’t be afraid to jump through time. Start with the year you were 30, then when you were 5, etc. You can then go back and choose longer stanzas for a poem all its own. Make a New Year’s Resolution to return to this poem and add each year.

Finally, write a poem about a family tradition. Choose the major tradition in your family and describe it in detail. Who is there? Where are you? What emotions are swirling around? Be very specific! You can also choose a year’s worth of holiday traditions, putting each holiday into one stanza of the poem.

Sample Poem using an Object from the Past


The Hope Chest

It wanted something from something, anything.
It wanted to cry to see the misused, forgotten,
mateless, battered little trinkets of a life longed for.
So it gave them a home, promising them that someday
they would be whole again, useful and loved. It snuggled
them deep into its woodsy darkened womb and promised them birth.

The old man placed it carefully on the yellow carpet in front of the girl
on the day she turned sweet sixteen. She sat
crosslegged and wrapped her arms around the carved cedar.
An eagle spread its wings mightily across the lid, not knowing
how crudely Papa’s knife had rendered its shape in flight.

The years passed and she filled it. An antique teacup with no saucer,
a satin and velvet quilt with the binding forever flailing in the wind,
awkward blankets crocheted by a child for a child,
a china teapot bought at a yard sale with a music box in its base
that used to play “Tea for Two” but just refuses to participate now,
a pewter salad fork with no mate to call its own –
dishes and dreams soon to be broken.

She moved it so many times. Its treasures spilling over and tumbling
away somewhere, its lid no longer even connected to its base, the brass beaten,
screws fallen and lost forever, deep scars of everyday life embedded
too deeply to be sanded out. Empty now, passively waiting
to be filled once again with dreams and latent memories
of what could, should be.

The eagle unknowingly soars higher
and the hope chest sighs deeply

© Karen Hamilton Silvestri 2003

Sample Poem Describing an Event from the Past

Take My Hand

She wants to show you
Where she found God

It was cold for May. She was hiding from Papa
who wanted her to hold up the wall
while he hammered it into place.
“You have a hard head just like your Papa”
he told her. In Spanish. Which she didn’t understand.
She wanted sleep and solitude.

Follow her…
She wants to show you
this place where God found her.

Here. she was crouched by this side of the house,
here. Near this solid stone with dew on it and
this humming hydrangea that the bees called home.
she waited right here. She had been waiting since 1978,
when the nuns told her “God will find you
in the silence and the stillness”. 22 years of waiting.

Can you see it? This is the place
Where she was finally silent and still enough
To find God and for God to find her.

And He came. She knew it was Him.
He found her there, right there, hugging her knees
eyes fiercely closed, her mind all in fragments
No words, no speech, no sight
Just the light of a million moons and the peace
of a thousand stars settling over her.

© Karen Hamilton Silvestri 2008

Please share your poems with me!

About Karen Y. Hamilton

Walt Whitman says about his autobiography, Specimen Days “…At any rate I obey my happy hour’s command, which seems curiously imperative. May-be, if don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.” This is what I feel at this juncture of my life, the need to gather together memories of my ancestors as well as my own memories into some semblance of order. Because all of those fragments, all of the fragments that make up any life, become stories. I am the mother of three sons, who affectionately (I hope!) call me 'gypsy mom' because I tend to wander around a bit soaking in the universe's wonders. I am currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. I have published essays with Heritage Press, Florida Living, and the St. Pauls Review. I am currently working on a book of poems about the Florida Everglades pioneers and a memoir about grief and the bonds of friendship. I live in my hometown, Jupiter, Florida and work as a freelance writer and curriculum specialist.
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5 Responses to Using Poetry to Write Your Memoirs

  1. deelaytful says:

    This is a very good idea! In fact, there are very few “novels” (and by that I mean a full narrative from beginning to end) told in poetic form so this would be a worthwhile project.

    • Thanks! I agree with you…you can do a full memoir in just one poem! And you can keep writing poems that bring in your memories. It is a wonderful way to record your life. 🙂

  2. Patricia Delcambre says:

    I really love this idea because it calls me to respond to my life in a different way. Typically, I would not have used poetry. It helps me get over the “where do I begin” delimma because I can start anywhere I want, especially given some of the tips and ideas you have included. Each response can be “stand alone” or eventually become a chronological cycle. I like that.

    • Glad you found it helpful! I love memoirs and I love poetry…it was only natural that I would end up combining the two. Doing memoirs this way just seems so freeing, doesn’t it? 🙂 Cheers, Karen

  3. Ultra Sounds says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I write poetry and am incorporating it into my memoir. Many of the chapters will begin with a poem. The poems actually came first in my writing-  it’s like they set the tone for the prose. 

    I’ve never seen this done before, so it’s interesting to hear this discussion. 

    Samantha

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