Identifying Themes in Our Poems

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

When people learn that I’m a poet, two questions usually come up. If someone hasn’t read my work before, they might ask, “What are your poems about?” On the other hand, if someone is familiar with my poetry or has read a particular piece, they sometimes want to know, “Why did you write that poem?”

Maybe this has happened to you, too. The funny thing is, this ties in directly with today’s Theme: A Story’s Soul post. These individuals, perhaps without knowing it, were asking me about the literary themes I explore in my poetry.

So let’s dive deep in your poetry and see what themes we can find there. Before we get started, though, make sure you check out our previous Theme: A Story’s Soul post on identifying literary themes in the poetry we read.

Three Questions to Ask When Identifying Themes in Your Poems

Sometimes you might be aware of the themes you bring into your poetry. Other times you might be so absorbed in the act of creation that theme (or, rather, the less obvious themes) is an afterthought, at least until you’ve had a chance to process what you’ve written. Regardless, it’s good to know not just what your poems are about, but what they’re really about. This means starting with these three sets of questions, which start at a poem’s surface level and then mine deeper:

  1.  What?: What is the poem about? What explicit themes does this piece touch on?
  2. How?: What is the poem’s overall tone? How did the feelings you were experiencing while writing this piece influence its themes?
  3. Why?: Why did you write the poem? What implicit (or less obvious) themes do these reasons, as well as the tone, usher into the poem?

Do these questions sound familiar? If you read our post on themes in the poetry we read, then you’re correct. This list is a variation on the previous one. This time, we’ve reframed the questions so they’re better suited for writing instead of reading. (The only difference is we eliminated the question about mood, or the feelings a reader experiences during a poem.)

On the Surface: What Are Your Poems About?

When we explain what a poem is about or what inspired it, we’re also revealing that poem’s explicit themes. These are the most obvious themes that readers will find the first time they read the poem. To identify your poem’s explicit themes, start with its topics – the facts that answer the “What” question – and look them from a broader perspective. If it helps, think of topic as a means for illustrating those larger concepts we recognize as themes. Or you can ask the question, “What ideas do my poem’s topics represent?”

Not sure how you’d do this with your poems? Let me share the “what” of three of my own and those themes to get you started:

  • “Elegy”: This poem, which I wrote after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, is a tribute to the Back Bay / Copley Square neighborhood of Boston, where the bombings took place. It’s also a response to the terrorist attack, alluding to the injuries and trauma that people suffered that day as well as the horror and heartsickness I felt in response. Thus, the poem’s explicit themes are place, violence, and sadness.
  • “Gifts”: This single-stanza meditation is centered around my almost stepping on a turkey feather and then, rather than taking it home with me, “giving it back” to the ground. It’s also framed by the idea of the possessions we keep and the gifts we’re meant to have for only a short time. So in this case, the explicit themes are man and the natural world and selfishness versus selflessness.
  • “Origin Story”: Another place-themed poem, “Origin Story” is a brief history in verse of how the iconic geography of Cape Cod, Massachusetts was formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. In this way, man and the natural world is also one of its themes, in an unexpected way: The poem describes the peninsula’s formation as if it’s a human being born.

Going Deeper: Why Did You Write Each Poem? How Did You Feel?

Once you’ve identified your poem’s explicit themes, it’s time to delve into the implicit themes. This is where the “why” and “how” of the poem’s crafting come into play, and for good reason: Your reasons for writing a poem, as well as the approach you take when writing it, will allow other themes to emerge. The words and images you use to convey your thoughts and emotions – which, in turn, will influence the poem’s tone – will offer subtle hints of these other concepts that might not otherwise be captured when you share the poem’s topics.

Here are the “why” and “how” for each of my sample poems, as well as how they helped to introduce additional themes:

  • “Elegy”: As I mentioned earlier, part of what inspired me to write “Elegy” was my reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings. I wasn’t there that day; nor did I know anyone who was. But as someone who’s sensitive to other people’s emotions, I imagined myself there at the site of the bombings and became quite emotional. As a result, many of my word choices in “Elegy” reflect the idea of empathy, or the act to experiencing someone else’s feelings or pain as your own.
  • Gifts”: Why did I write “Gifts”? Partly because I had surprised myself by returning the feather to the ground instead of taking it home, and partly because I was thankful for the experience it “gifted” to me. So as I wrote the poem, I ensured my word choices reflected gratitude and, to a degree, spirituality. Sometimes we find small blessings in unexpected places, just as I did with the turkey feather.
  •  “Origin Story”: Because the poem talks about Cape Cod’s geological “birth,” I carefully selected my words in “Origin Story” to highlight the personification of the Cape and the concepts of birth and new beginnings. (One of my friends told me this poem reminds him of superhero origin stories.) Thus, life and existence, with a focus on creation, emerges as a theme. So does time, with its references to patience, the future, and the amount of time it takes for landscapes to be created. And, thanks to the expectant and celebratory tone, so does hope

Why Is It Important to Know Themes in Your Poetry?

As you identify the themes in your poems, you might find that several themes repeat across your work. This is normal – in fact, every poet should have recurring themes they explore. When I review my current repertoire, I notice several recurring themes, like man and the natural world, spirituality, wonder and amazement, and exploration, among others. I also notice other themes that appear less often, thanks to each poem’s distinct tone or topics. But I don’t see the recurring themes as a weakness. Rather, I see them as part of my identity as a poet.

The same goes for all poets. You’ll revisit certain themes in your work, most likely because those themes matter to you. They’ll stem from your passions, hobbies, research subjects, ideals and values, personal experiences, and other sources of inspiration. In that regard, your poems are aesthetic extensions of you – and all writers, not just poets, have every right to embrace their identities and write about what’s important to them.

Which leads to one last question: “Why is it important for us to know our poetry’s themes?”

Well, knowing your themes allows you to target appropriate journals, poetry publishers, or themed anthologies that might be a good fit for your work. It also helps you find the right open mic nights, poetry readings, and other venues where you can perform your poems and thus promote your writing to a wider audience. Finally, this knowledge can guide you as you build your own poetry manuscript and determine which poems belong thematically speaking.

In short, knowing your poetry’s themes can help you craft your identity as a poet and find the right audience for your work. It explains why critics and readers alike view Mary Oliver as one of the beloved nature poets of her time, Dorianne Laux as “a compassionate witness to the everyday” with a focus on working-class America, and Natasha Trethewey as a much-needed storyteller who intertwines the historical and the personal. Each poet’s identity is unmistakable, partly because of the unique web of themes each poet addresses – and clearly feels passionate about – in their work.

Remember this as you write new poems and review the themes you explore in them. And don’t ever worry that revisiting the same themes makes your poetry repetitive or boring. After all, they’re part of who you are, as a poet and as a person – and no matter what your web of themes looks like, it will resonate with readers who need to read what you have to say.

What are some of the themes you address in your poetry? Do you intentionally write poems on these subjects? Or do you typically discover the themes after you write? Feel free to share examples of what some of your poems are about and why you wrote them.

Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Massachusetts. She’s currently taking clients with manuscripts in speculative fiction, literary fiction, or YA, though she’s open to other genres as well. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Canary, Muddy River Poetry Review, Soul-Lit, and elsewhere. A Massachusetts resident, she can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.

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