Welcome to Sunday Morning Lyricality, featuring a weekly song or poem by a Minnesota writer, followed by a prompt to help you write your own poem.
In the heat of July, what is more necessary than water? In childhood, what is more necessary than nurture? In Carrying Water to the Field, Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen has made a poem that soothes and cools my deep longing to know simple human kindness. The childlike innocence of this poem is akin to poems by Emily Dickinson and William Blake. But apparent simplicity is often significantly more complex than we assume. There is some poetic (artistic-linguistic-musical-mathematical-philosophical) genius at work in this astonishingly perfect poem.Tracy Rittmueller
Carrying Water to the Field
And on those hot afternoons in July,
when my father was out on the tractor
cultivating rows of corn, my mother
would send us out with a Mason jar
filled with ice and water, a dish towel
wrapped around it for insulation.
Like a rocket launched to an orbiting
planet, we would cut across the fields
in a trajectory calculated to intercept–
or, perhaps, even–surprise him
in his absorption with the row and the
earth turning beneath the blade.
He would look up and see us, throttle
down, stop, and step from the tractor
with the grace of a cowboy dismounting
his horse, and receive gratefully the jar
of water, ice cubes now melted into tiny
shards, drinking it down in a single gulp,
while we watched, mission accomplished.
Writing Prompt based on “Carrying Water to the Field” by Joyce Sutphen
We offer writing prompts based on featured poems for people who want to write something, who need a little help getting started. We don’t imply that you ought to write something. Many people enjoy reading or listening to poems without feeling compelled to write one. You might simply read this prompt as an exploration into what the featured poem is doing, and how its language works. This can deepen your acquaintance with poetry and lead to great pleasure in being a reader of poems.
How to Write a Poem About Your Childhood
This poem, a study of a farmer-father “cultivating rows of corn” “on those hot afternoons in July” of the speaker’s childhood, is the title poem of Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen’s 8th collection: Carrying Water To the Field: New and Selected Poems. Writing in 1st person plural, the poet uses “we” and “us” to narrate from the viewpoint of siblings sent out to give the farmer a drink. The selective details of this poem illustrate the family’s bond. Using concrete images rather than abstract language, the speaker does not tell us, ” My parents were nurturing.” Instead, she shows the mother taking care to wrap the “jar / filled with ice and water” in a dish towel to keep it cold. She might have said she admired her father, but instead she shows him through the speaker’s eyes, as he
…steps from the tractor
with the grace of a cowboy dismounting
And to reveal that the siblings’ walk across the field took some time, the poet gives us, ice cubes now melted into tiny / shards.
As I wrote earlier, there is some poetic genius at work in this astonishingly perfect poem. So let’s examine just a few important tools this poet uses, which can help you chisel and polish an interesting, meaningful piece of your childhood into a poem.
How to Craft a Simile
Notice the simile at the beginning of the second stanza, “Like a rocket launched to an orbiting / planet.”
For your poem, begin by finding your own version of “a rocket launched to an orbiting planet.” Use a discovery or achievement that happened in your early lifetime, when you were between 6 and 16. You might remember hearing about it in school or on the news, or you might do an internet search of “scientific discoveries,” “scientific advancements,” or “human achievements,” and type in a decade that corresponds to your childhood. My search of “scientific discoveries 1970’s” returned the Big Bang Theory.
Find a phrase to describe your discovery, for example, to describe the Big Bang, I found, “free electrons meeting up with nuclei to allow the first light to shine.” Now, begin to construct a simile, “x is like y.” Insert the word “like” in front of the words you found to describe your discovery. For example, “like free electrons meeting up with nuclei to allow the first light to shine.” That’s the “y” of your simile.
The x of your simile will be a moment from childhood.
To connect the “y” of your simile to your personal “x,” first brainstorm a list of feelings or emotions you could associate with your simile’s “y.” My emotion-list in response to, “free electrons meeting up with nuclei to allow the first light to shine,” includes: excitement; anticipation; wonder; awe; mystery; romance.
Next, brainstorm moments in your childhood when you felt one or more of these things. In a list of experiences where I felt anticipation, wonder, and romance, I would have to include a family trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Chose your childhood memory, and now you have a simile around which to build a poem. The simile I am working with, my “x is like y: is: A family trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota is like free electrons meeting up with nuclei to allow the first light to shine.
Write down your own simile. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense. In Joyce’s poem around the simile, “Carrying water to the field is like a rocket launched to an orbiting planet,” the “x” of her simile becomes the title, and the “y,” doesn’t appear until the beginning of her second stanza. So maybe the title for my poem could be “Visiting the Black Hills,” and somewhere in the middle I would have the phrase “like free electrons joining with nuclei to birth the light.” I did some revising here, deleting extra words, inserting ones with better sound.
Gather Sensory Details and Interesting Words for Your Poem about Childhood
Now that you’ve chosen your childhood memory and made a simile from it, you’ll want to gather sensory details and interesting words from which to construct your poem. Begin by writing about that childhood memory. Where were you when you began? Where did you go? How did you get there? Who was with you? What was the weather like? Name what you remember. Throw in a few quirky details. For example: late July. parents, brothers, and nine year old me. Dawn. Salmon and white Oldsmobile. Trip to South Dakota. Long hair. Hot. Sweaty. Smelly–wet wool, dirty clothes. Badlands, somebody crying. Deadwood, South Dakota. Stage coach. Fake hold up. Black Hills gold pinky ring I didn’t get–too poor. Did get the blue and white beaded necklace from the Corn Palace in Mitchel. Later wondered who made it, Dakota women or children in China? Lime green cotton shorts. Felt like a heroine in a wild west story.
And now, notice that Joyce incorporates rocket-related words and images—“insulated,” “trajectory calculated,” “earth turning below,” “throttle / down,” and “mission accomplished” into her memory of carrying water to her father. This is one way to breathe vitality into a poem. So list words and images associated with with your discovery. My list would include: neutral atoms; afterglow; cosmic microwave background, the universe began; 13.8 billion years ago; mathematical models, astrophysics.
Writing a First Draft of Your Poem
Now you have plenty of material to begin drafting a poem. First choose a point of view. Use 1st person singular (I, me) if the feeling is predominantly lonely or independent. Use the plural (we, us) to capture a collective tone of belonging or conspiracy. And if your memory is of disconnection, detachment, or pain, try writing about yourself in 3rd person (she/he/they, her/him/them).
As you write up your memory into a poem, somewhere in the middle, start a sentence with the “y” of your simile and see where it takes you.
Now, take a look at your list of words and images associated with your discover. Pick something that represents an action or accomplishment. From my own list, I would choose “the universe began.” Use your chosen words to conclude your poem.
Go back and weave in words from your list words and images associated with your chosen “discovery.” Does the “x” part of your simile work as a title? Can you shorten it, or choose another word to give it more interest?
A Ridiculously Abbreviated but Useful Definition of Poetic Form
One of the most noticeable things about poetry is that is looks different on the page. Unlike a novel or a biography, a poem doesn’t fill the page from top to bottom and margin to margin. A ridiculously abbreviated, but useful, definition of poetic form might be, a poem has a shape.
In your next revision, use poetic form to impose order on your material. You could spend a lifetime studying the forms of poetry–there are that many. The simplest way to start is to just pick one form, and use it. Try this form, from Carrying Water to the Field:
Try shaping your poem according to this symmetrical structure.: turn your writing into three complex sentences. Break each sentence into a stanza of six lines, with approximately even line lengths.
If after attempting this rather formal form, you discover your material doesn’t flow into long, complex sentences, feel free to experiment with shorter stanzas of two or three lines, or lines of inconsistent length. Listen to your own poem, and let it shape itself into whatever form it wants.
Joyce Sutphen grew up on a farm in Stearns County, Minnesota. She is a professor ermeritus of English at Gustavus Adophus College and is Minnesota’s poet laureate. Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems is her eighth poetry collection.
“Carrying Water to the Field” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen ©2019, published by University of Nebraska Press. Appears with the permission of the author. (Buy Now)