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The Poem Pivot – the personal to the universal

From the Sierra Poetry Festival

Next festival is April 18, 2020

I was so inspired by the third annual Sierra Poetry Festival  I wanted to share some information I learned.

One dynamic workshop was led by Blas Falconer a poet and instructor.

During the workshop at the Festival, Blas delivered his ideas on how to reach beyond the personal in a poem. How do you make a poem, indeed, how do you create an essay, that moves from personal to universal.  Universal truths always begin as personal, specific stories or descriptions but to start with that intention (I am going to write an essay that delivers big universal truths . . .) can be deadly, both for the work and for your purposes.  That said, here is some advice:

Poems keep pushing to get out

Poems do want to reach the universal

A goal for the poet is to make the poems true for more readers

We need to enter a poem  to better understand it

A strong poem is the šarchetype shadow of the individual experience (okay, that one is mine)

Stories we repeat are meant to give a sense of who we are to strangers

If that is true, then our  stories become us, so be choosy about the story you tell and repeat

Can we write a poem containing all the conflict of the human experience?

What are some essentials of a poem and how do we, exactly, turn the poem – pivot, from personal to the universal?

Poetry is not an exercise in ego but writing out in an attempt to understand something

Here are some ideas. 
A line of poetry is the length of about one breath.  Why?  Poetry was only recently written, for centuries before, the words and stories were chanting, memorized and taught (that is why poems like the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays often rhyme, easier to remember)

One line = Ten syllables = one breath

How much we can say before taking in another gulp of air?   

A shorter line indicates that the poet is holding back something;  creating a puzzle or a mystery.  

A line longer  than  10 syllables indicates that those additional lines, those that move beyond what can be expressed in one breath are important, grand, even heroic.  

That said, in more than one breath.  Take those lines and pivot from the interior outward to reflect the larger world,

Actively do this while writing it.  In other words, as you write down the found words or the best description of your inner world, consciously pivot and look for the larger meaning.
If you are only telling the story, why would anyone read it again?

The Objective Correlative

Throw this around in a conversation and your friends will reach for more bourbon.  The objective correlative the artistic and literary technique of representing or evoking a particular emotion by means of symbols that objectify that emotion and are associated with it.

Here is Falconer’s suggestion on how to do this:

Free-write (Journal) about a long-ago incident in detail – on something that stayed with you.   

Find an art piece, a painting works best, but anything inspiration will work.  Describe the art piece that reflects that painful incident.


The process is not as easy as it sounds (reads) but it is an interesting exercise none the less. Give it a try!

One last piece of advice – Once you know the poem isn’t going anywhere, that is the moment, the line, to pivot and make it good. In other words. Write out all that personal stuff knowing you may make a pivot at any point in the work to express something that resonates with the reader, either because it’s unusual or because they recognize themselves in your work.

Which is a wonderful goal for poetry.

Try it yourself and post it to my facebook page What’s Your Story?


Catharine Bramkamp is a successful writing coach and author. She has published over 300 newspaper and magazine articles in publications like Modern Maturity (AARP), SF Chronicle and Santa Rosa Magazine. She was a contributor to two Chicken Soup Books and has published anthologies of her work, non-fiction works and novels. Her work has also appeared in a number of poetry and fiction anthologies. She has experimented with the self-publishing world since 2001. She has published and self-published seven books through companies like Author House, author assist companies like 3L Publishing and through traditional publishers like Write Life. Her poetry collection, Ammonia Sunrise, will be released in August 2011 by Finishing Line Press and her mystery novel, In Good Faith will be released by Write Life in 2011. Catharine holds a BA in English from UCSB and a MA in English from Sonoma State University. She is a 25 year member of California Writer’s Club. She is an adjunct professor for the University of Phoenix. She works with authors of both fiction and non-fiction to make their dream of producing a book come true. For more information on that, visit her at Catharine has lived in Sonoma County for 25 years and considers wine a food group. She is married to an adorable and very patient man who complains he’s never featured in any of her books. Her grown children who are featured in a few of her books have fled the county.

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