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Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 2 Share This Page
Zeroing onto a Theme and Choosing the Words
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What does the theme of a poem mean?

In the broadest sense, the theme is the central idea of the poem, which is developed through out the poem. The theme is one idea which the lines of the poem paint. It is the base of the poetry, upon which the whole poem is built. 

Now let me distinguish, the theme of the poem from the tone of the poem. The tone of the poem generally refers to the mood set by the poem. The tone of the poem may be happy, sad, melancholy, frustrated, expectant or dejected while the theme may be first love, heart break, spring, a dew drop.

Another related concept is the pace of the poem. The poem may flow fast, medium or slow. One sure way to see the pace of a poem is to read it. You would know the pace of a poem that way.

Take for example this poem I wrote a while ago,

The wounds of the soul take a lifetime to heal
And my hurt goes so deep I can't even cry
My heart has gone numb, I can't even feel

I look into nothing and I deeply sigh
Feeling beat, I just sink to the floor
I have cried so much my tears are dry

My trust is lost, my heart is sore
But I am so sad, I don't even care
My cup is full, I can take no more

I am dead inside and live in despair

The theme of the poem is a heart break and the tone is one of despair or frustration. The pace is fast.

Also, thought the theme of the poem will remain constant through out the poem, the tone may keep changing. It may start as happy, change to bittersweet and end as sad.

Starry eyed I sit gazing at nothing
Friends adorning my hands with henna
A shining bindi adorning my forehead
And a blush rendering beauty to my cheeks
Lost in my own world,
I give myself up to.
Welcoming my future
and beloved with open arms

Shatterer of dreams walks in
Holding a missive in his hand
Aware yet unaware of the holocast
He wreaks in my life
The paper holds but a line
"Comrade killed in action"

Numbed I sink against the wall
Tears washing away the half done henna
And my dreams along with it
Half done henna
A half lived life
All done away in a second
Here my tears flow copiously
and there your blood flows incessantly

Seconds ago I was among the numerous
Brides embracing a future
Full of anticipated bliss
Now I join another clan
Of war widows
Embracing a future??
Full of treasured memories
And shared dreams........
Bearing the cross
Of an unfulfilled love
And an unfulfilled life

The theme or central idea of the poem remains a bride on her wedding day through out the poem, but look at how the tone changes from happy to sad to resigned. The pace is medium to slow.

Now how do you go about choosing a theme for your poem? I always pick instinctively. I am more of an off the cuff writer. If any idea pops in my mind or something moves me, I wrote about it. You can pick any theme, lets say love at first sight. You see a man/woman and something clicks and you know this is the person for you. How do we write it down in a poem?. 

First think of the tone. With the theme we picked, it is going to be happy and expectant. Next think back to your first crush if it was years ago and think of what you felt then. 

Write down your feelings, it can be written as a set of sentences at this point. I choose to write the poem in first person to make it seem more personal. So here is my list. Go ahead, type out your own.

When I first saw you, I felt new avenues open in my life.
When I first saw you, I was caught up in the magic of togetherness
even though I hadn't as yet spoken to you
.
When I first saw you, I started dreaming of us being together
for years to come and cherishing the memories.

I lost count of time.
I was scared of what I was feeling for you
as it was all so new and yet I was excited
I wanted to keep looking at you
My heart told me you were the ONE

Okay so these are some of the things I felt when I fell in love. Now how do I go about transforming them into a poem? I see the difference between a prose and a poem as the difference between a straight line and waves. Both are sets of points, but while a straight line goes straight and dry, a waves moves up and down in a smooth manner. Similarly, words in a poem, smoothly rise and fall in crescendo. Each line fall on the next and flows into it. Like you can't make out the difference between distinct waves after they tumble into the shore, similarly the individual lines of the poem should mesh together and not be a part onto themselves.

Now I can write all the thoughts in one go in a single stanza or choose to have different stanzas. At this point, I am not going to worry about the form of the poetry, right now we just write out the poetry as it comes. I am flooded with thoughts of first love so my poem is going to be quite long, so I decide to break it up into three stanzas. Generally it is a good idea not to let any stanza exceed ten lines, unless it is absolutely necessary. 

I think points 1,2 and 3 above will go together well as first stanza so this is what I come up with,

The first time I saw you,
I felt new vistas open in my life
The road ahead was not just straight
But had exciting virgin by-lanes
Just waiting to be discovered....
Just waiting to be explored......
By two of us in tandem,
And then buried deep inside,
The cushion of memories,
Locked safely away in the innermost,
Recesses of the heart,
Never to be revealed,
Yet always remembered

Okay now to move on to the second stanza, I want to convey that I lose count of time when I saw him and am both scared and excited,

The hours after I first saw you,
Passed in a flash
Holding in it's mystic,
The lure of an exotic future,
And the fear of an unknown tomorrow,
The unspoken promise in your eyes,
Teased me away from myself.
Your gaze seared into my soul,
Until I found myself wanting.......
To go to you in future
Yet strangely reluctant to....
Let go of the present

And finally I want to end the poem in the last stanza. This is where you should be careful. A good ending to a poem is as important as a good beginning. The poem shouldn't feel incomplete in the end. 

The instant I saw you for the first time
I knew I wanted to take a second look
That would stretch to a life time
I then closed my eyes
And let heart lead the way

Now read the whole poem at one go and see if it flows well. Do the lines feel choppy? Does any part seem forced? If it does the words you used are all wrong. You need to tweak them a bit. Now look at the punctuation. Is it okay? What about the meaning? Is it easily conveyed or is it vague? Have you over done the clich's? Clich's became clich's because they sound good and everyone likes to use them but using a clich' in your poem can make it sound jaded. What we want is the poem to feel fresh.

What I want you to do as this week's exercise is pick a theme, build on it and write a verse. I will be happy to comment on it.   

Image (c) Gettyimages.com             

Smitha Chakravarthula
March 21, 2004
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