Poetry Based on Research: Looking for Ideas

December 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

rita doveengraved225science demingnativedarwin poems

Research can provide an excellent starting point for poetry. This topic has come up recently in online discussion forums and in-person conversations.

Some of the top research sources for me are: online news sites, old newspapers, diaries, journals, history books, textbooks, letters, maps, dictionaries, almanacs, how-to manuals, biographies, museums, travel guides, planetarium shows, nonfiction books (especially science for me).

Here are just a few examples of books of poetry that incorporate research:

  • Natasha Tretheway, Native Guard, poems telling the story of the first Union army regiment of black soldiers “Elegy for the Native Guards”
  • Melinda Mueller, What the Ice Gets:  Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1916 (an epic poem)
  • Ted Kooser, The Blizzard Voices, based on survivor narratives of the Nebraska Territory Blizzard of January, 1888
  • Ruth Padel, Darwin: A Life in Poems  Several poems here
  • Barbara Helfgott Hyett, The Tracks We Leave, poems based on endangered species “Dusky Seaside Sparrow”
  • Barbara Helfgott Hyett, The Double Reckoning of Christopher Columbus “Rain”
  • Anna George Meek, Engraved, chapbook of poems based on 19th century engravings from dictionaries “Segment of a Circle”
  • Rita Dove, Sonata Mulattica, poems exploring the relationship between black violinist George Bridgetower and Beethoven
  • Alison Hawthorne Deming, Science and Other Poems “Science”

For science-inspired poetry, I’ve read books by Alison Hawthorne Deming, Pattiann Rogers, and Linda Bierds (Bierds covers both history and science). Albert Goldbarth also has a sweeping range of history, science, and culture in his poems.

Pitfalls of Research-based Writing

Can you spend too much time researching? Research can takeover the writing process, or stall it altogether. Novelists who write historical fiction often mention the problem of getting sidetracked by too much irrelevant or too-detailed research, or more research than they can use. A poem can begin to sound more like an encyclopedia article than a poem.

I caught myself spending hours fact-checking the science in one of my poems, only to realize that once the science was right, there really wasn’t a poem on the page yet–just a skeleton of facts. The research is a starting point, a framework, but the poem has to move beyond it. My strategy now is to deliberately make myself move away from the research source once I have the spark of an idea, and I write from my own thoughts. Later, I can return to the source if I need to. Generally, the gut instinct or forward motion in a poem is right, and it is important to maintain the momentum. Fact-checking comes last now in my process.

It’s also critical for the research to connect to the poet in some way. I had many failed attempts at incorporating scientists into my poems. I found a connection with Darwin that resonated with me, so the Darwin poems worked, but the poems on Copernicus did not. (The poems using characters from fiction also didn’t work, because those characters did not relate in a strong way to what the poems were doing, or to the emotions I was experiencing.)

Editors and Research Poems

It’s vital to keep track of your research sources as you draft your work. Epigraphs or titles may be sufficient for crediting original sources, or a brief note can be placed at the beginning of a book or a specific section of a book. In some instances, I’ve had to make end notes to a poem or italicize specific lines. Editors differ in the amount of detail they ask to publish with your work, but the original sources should be acknowledged somewhere. If you look at the example poems above from The Double Reckoning of Christopher Columbus and Darwin: A Life in Poems, you can see how the poems contain information on the research either off to the side (quotes from Columbus) or as editorial footnotes.

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