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Writing 201: Fog

Day 5 is upon us: clear your foggy mind, embrace absence, and paint with words.

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Your prompt: fog

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Fog. Today’s word prompt can be taken in so many different directions: condensation on your car’s window. An eerie landscape (or streetscape) at dawn. Your glasses as you enter a warm room from the cold outside. The mental state of confusion, forgetfulness, or dementia. How will you introduce fog into your poem today?

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Today’s form: elegy

Elegy at a glance:

  • Originally requiring specific meters, nowadays elegies come in all shapes and sizes, though they are united by their (often melancholic) focus on loss and longing.

Today’s form, the elegy, can trace its history all the way to ancient Greece. It started out as a poem that could be about almost any topic, as long as it was written in elegiac couplets (pairs of verse, with the first one slightly longer than the second). Over the centuries, though, it became something a bit more specific: a (more often than not) first-person poem on themes of longing, loss, and mourning.

Just because it has a pensive focus doesn’t mean an elegy is necessarily sad (it can even be bawdy, if not downright sexy — check out 17th-century poet John Donne’s Elegy XIX). As much as it can mourn something that’s gone forever, it can also celebrate it, like Goethe does here in his Roman Elegies, extolling the glories of ancient Rome:

Now the glow of brighter air shines round my brow:

Phoebus, the god, calls up color and form.

The night shines bright with stars, echoes with gentle song,

And the Moon shines clearer to me than Northern day.

If you’re looking for something more specific than elegy, a related 19th-century form — obituary poetry — calls for an emotionally-charged poem on the passing of a loved one.

What is being missed doesn’t have to be all that fancy, either. If you can say “Those were the best days of my life” about it, it probably qualifies for an elegy:

Standin’ on your mama’s porch
You told me that you’d wait forever
Oh, and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never

A moment, a place, a person, a feeling — your elegy can be about anything, as long as it evokes a thing that’s irretrievably gone. (And if you want to give those elegiac couplets a try, go for it!)

Today’s device: metaphor

You knew it was coming. The prince of poetic devices, the thrill up every poet’s spine. Yes: hello, metaphor. Metaphors are everywhere in poetry and in everyday speech (“I’m drowning in work,” “This problem requires brain muscle,” and on and on). They’re so ubiquitous that most people find it hard to explain what they are. So let’s try.

If you think you’ve never encountered a metaphor, think again.

A metaphor brings together two terms that aren’t normally connected, yet make sense once they are (its greek roots mean “to carry over”). Unlike its less subtle cousin, the simile (remember Day 1? It was so long ago it calls for an elegy!), metaphors don’t need connectors like “as” and “like” to link the two things together. They just smash them into each other and hope for the best.

You know you probably have a metaphor on your hands (that’s a metaphor too!) when you try to visualize the concepts you just described but can’t really, at least not without descending into nonsense. How can I picture a metaphor laying in my hands? Or actually drowning in work? Or my brain getting bigger biceps? I can’t.

How to avoid bad metaphors? Nothing beats experience and honest critics, but these six tips are very helpful, too.

You can of course stretch metaphors too far (even though “a stretched metaphor” is a pretty solid one). Is there a rule for avoiding that sad fate? Nope. It’s a question of context, of taste, and, ultimately, of a reader’s particular mood at the time of reading. One person’s wine is another’s rotten grape juice. So go ahead, don’t overthink it, because…

Baby, you’re a firework
Come on, show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go, “Aah, aah, aah”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y

I’m sure you’ll make us go “Aah, aah, aah” with your metaphors today.

Photo by Black Zero (CC BY 2.0)

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