The title of this blog post must be taken with a pinch of salt. I don’t make it a habit to write poetry for life’s big events, and I’m always surprised to hear that some of my poems have been used in that context. It is something that most poets will be asked to do at some point though, so I thought it might be useful for me to discuss what I found helpful.

Last July I wrote a vow renewal poem, and this last week a funeral poem. The person who died was in the audience (and indeed gave a reading) at the vow renewal, so that the two feel linked, even if the end result was quite different. I’m not going to claim that either are great literature, but they served a specific purpose and made the people they were for happy, which is all that matters ultimately.

Two challenges:

  • Integrity. These might not be poems you’d want collected, but they still have to feel like they’ve come from your stable, rather than Hallmark’s. That being said, this isn’t the right place for your five page experimental reworking of the Inferno, you’re going to have to loosen yourself up a bit.
  • Ephemerality. These are poems that have to work in the moment, for that audience, instantaneously. Some people might want a copy afterwards, but it is very much about that one event.

Techniques for generating a poem:

  • Be specific. If you know the person well, don’t be afraid to weave in some personal anecdotes into your poem. In the vow renewal poem for instance, I picked the image of my mum drinking lacto-free milk out of solidarity with my stepdad.
  • Be entertaining. People will have expectations about the poem, which you can enjoy debunking. This goes for funerals too where your poem can be an opportunity to celebrate the person’s life.
  • Be personal. Examine your own reaction to this event. My funeral poem finally clicked into place when I embraced my denial of his death.
  • Be constrained. Giving yourself an arbitrary form can help generate a poem, even if you abandon the stricture later. With the funeral poem, I used the person’s name every other line, which also helped me find the final direction for the poem.

Below is one I made earlier: