Writing Exercise: All the Feels

To learn how to achieve the objective correlative (T.S. Eliot’s term for making your reader feel what you want them to feel), I encourage students to try this exercise:

  1. choose a few favorite poems
  2. underline all the words/images/phrases that make you feel something (any emotion–anger, hope, sadness, etc)
  3. make a list of those words/phrases/images
  4. choose 5 to use in one poem of your own

I’ll give you an example of how to do this.

My poem of choice:

Kitchen Song

Laura Kasischke

The white bowls in the orderly
cupboards filled with nothing.

The sound
of applause in running water.
All those who've drowned in oceans, all 
who've drowned in pools, in ponds, the small 
family together in the car hit head on. The pantry

full of lilies, the lobsters scratching to get out of the pot, and God

being pulled across the heavens
in a burning car.

The recipes
like confessions.
The confessions like songs.
The sun. The bomb. The white

bowls in the orderly
cupboards filled with blood. I wanted

something simple, and domestic. A kitchen song.

They were just driving along. Dad 
turned the radio off, and Mom 
turned it back on.

Some feelings evoked by the images/phrases for me personally:

  • white bowls: purity/emptiness/fragility
  • drowned: ominous, fearful
  • family hit head on: again fear, tragedy
  • lilies: death
  • God // pulled across….burning car: theologically complicated thoughts on God’s (maybe) indifference to horrific tragedy
  • the bomb: sudden surprising tragedy and death
  • I wanted something simple….: contrast between the everyday monotony / cozy family in the car with sudden tragedy and death
  • last stanza: small everyday actions contrasting with the looming tragedy (car hit head on) we assume is about to happen

Good thing I chose a cheerful poem.

I have always admired the way Kasiskche uses images so powerfully in her poetry. And you can see that she is also a novelist in her story-telling here–how ominous this poem is.

So if I were to continue with this exercise, I’d try to pick two other poems that are very different–maybe something by Robert Frost and something by Wendell Berry. Then I’d look to my list and see what images I might want to use (However I must caution you to avoid using entire phrases and stanzas from another poem without citation–for that reason if you can mostly use just words instead of large pieces of the poem, it will be easier for you to write your poem.)

If you try it out, let me know!

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