11. Life Stories Part 4: Poetry as Memoir

Author: Nola Published: almost 3 years ago.
Tags: autobiography, memoir, poetry Category: Writing tips

When I was in high school, I came across James McAuley’s poem Pietà. It’s only short, so please take a moment to read it. The poem speaks of parents coming to terms with the death of their infant child soon after birth. The imagery was so beautiful and the emotions so raw, I could feel the poet’s pain. I had never heard of the author, but I wondered if his poem was autobiographical. I couldn’t imagine anyone writing those lines unless they'd lived through the experience. Many years later, I read a biography of McAuley and discovered that he and his wife had indeed lost a son within a day of his birth. More than 35 years later, this is still my favourite poem.

So why is poetry such a good vehicle for autobiographical material?

  • It can touch people’s emotions at a deep level, whether that involves empathising with someone’s grief or laughing out loud at their quirky interpretation of life.
  • It uses an economy of words which reduces experiences to their essential elements.
  • It lends itself to beautiful imagery, including similes and metaphors.
  • It’s ideal for conveying small snapshots of life (e.g. the family picnic that went pear-shaped).
  • In a book of poetry, you can employ different styles to add interest and variety to your story (e.g. traditional rhyming poetry or free verse, long or short, funny or serious).

Most of these are not unique to poetry. For example, novels can also use vivid imagery and affect readers' emotions. However, if you develop your poetic voice, the skills you learn will help transform your other writing projects (e.g. use of metaphor, succinct expression).

One of the best ways to learn how to write poetry is to read good examples. Click on the authors’ names below to see some sample poems.

Patrick Hicks’ latest poetry collection Adoptable details his reflections of adopting a son from South Korea.

Valerie Volk’s award-winning book In Due Season expresses the poet’s thoughts and feelings during the last months of her husband’s life.

Cameron Semmen’s book The Poetry of Home includes pieces about love, family, faith, and other experiences that have shaped the poet’s life.

Much of Maya Angelou’s poetry grew out of her experiences as an African-American woman growing stronger through life's challenges.

Even if you don’t regard yourself as a poet, try jotting down a few lines about one of your experiences. You might be surprised how quickly you tap into some autobiographical gems. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bit rough; you can always polish it later.

Can you think of other poets who write autobiographial material? I'd be interested in hearing about your favourites.

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