There is no such thing as a poem without imagination. There are poems without metaphors that can work, poems without similes that can work, poems that don’t use rhyme or rhythm that can work and work well, but a poem without imagination isn’t a poem. The imagination is the cornerstone of all great poetry. Period. No imagination, no poem.
In his 1872 essay, “Poetry and the Imagination,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Note our incessant use of the word like, like fire, like a rock, like thunder, like a bee, like a year without a spring. Conversation is not permitted without tropes; nothing but great weight in things can afford a quite literal speech. It is ever enlivened by inversion and trope. God himself does not speak prose, but communicates with us by hints, omens, inference and dark resemblances in objects lying all around us.”
In other words, the world is not the world, nature is not nature and likewise, the poem is not really the poem insofar as it is always taking us to another place. But what is metaphor? Instead of thinking about metaphor in the way that school kids do in terms of rote definition i.e., “metaphor is the comparison of two unlike things without the use of the words like or as,” instead, I want you to think of metaphor as a journey from the beginning of the poem to the end of the poem and the poem as a word object that picks us up in one place and drops us off in a totally different location.
Writing Exercise: Find a place that you don’t ordinarily go to write and bring an object with you that has some emotional weight (for example, a photograph of your child or a piece of jewelry someone that you love gave you). It’s really important that you pick an object that has some sentimental value because if the object doesn’t mean enough to you, this writing exercise won’t work very well. Also, try to write in a place that is new to you. If you’re used to writing in a coffee shop, go to the park. If you’re used to writing in your office, go to a coffee shop.
Now you are going to write a poem in negative metaphor. So, if you decided to write about your wedding ring, you can write something like, “it is not like the weather” or “it is not like my wife when she asks me to do the dishes.” Okay, now we have just hit on a story. A story of a relationship. “It is not like the beginning of a marriage.” “It is not like Hawaii.” “It is not for people who don’t know anything about commitment.” Write at least fifty of these “it is not like” metaphors about your object. The reason that I want you to write in the negative is because I think it will actually free up your mind from getting too stuck on what you think your object should be. If you write at least fifty of these, I think what you will see is a narrative forming about the object and it will probably really be an important personal narrative. The poem isn’t about the object after all in the same way that love isn’t really about a gold ring. When you feel like you have written enough, wait a few days and go back to the place where you normally write and arrange the negative metaphors in an order that tell the story that you want to tell.
Sandra Simonds grew up in Los Angeles, California and earned a BA in Psychology and Creative Writing at U.C.L.A and an MFA from the University of Montana, where she received a poetry fellowship. In 2010, Simonds received a PhD in Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She is the author of four full-length collections of poetry: The Glass Box (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009) which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series. She is also the author of several chapbooks including Used White Wife (Grey Book Press, 2009) and The Humble Travelogues of Mr. Ian Worthington, Written from Land & Sea (Cy Gist, 2006).
Simonds’ poems have been published in many journals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Believer, the Colorado Review, Fence, the Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Volt, the New Orleans Review and Lana Turner. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Post Road and other literary journals.
She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is Assistant Professor of English at Thomas University in beautiful, rural Southern Georgia.