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How to Write a Transcendentalist Poem


Transcendentalism is a movement in literature and philosophy that emerged in 19th century America with writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Transcendentalism circumvented traditional morality by leading the individual to seek direct contact with divinity in nature. In this way, transcendentalist poetry transformed ordinary experience into experience of the sublime. You, too, can reach lofty spiritual heights by writing your own transcendentalist poem.

Choose a Subject

Nature was the prime subject of the Transcendentalists. You can write a poem about a particular tree in the forest, a field of flowers or an ice-blue mountain lake. If you live in the suburbs, write about your garden or the patch of lawn clover that attracts bees. If you live in the city, your subject doesn’t have to be a natural object. It may be a bright street lamp or a worn sidewalk bench. The idea is to establish rapport with the universe, to find your own sense of divinity in something ordinary. Choose a subject that personally strikes you as beautiful.

Choose a Format

Most transcendental poetry, from Emerson to Margaret Fuller, was written in some kind of metrical verse. Each line had a certain amount of stressed syllables, and line ends often rhymed. You, however, don’t have to write in meter. Write naturally, but limit your poem to one page to ensure you don’t wander off topic. Break up discrete sections into stanzas if necessary. For example, if you’re writing about a tree in Brooklyn, one stanza can focus on the trunk, another on the boughs and another on the leaves. You want to focus your lines, your voice and imagery on the subject at hand. If you want to use a rhyme scheme, try something simple, like rhyming the second and fourth lines of each stanza.

Unleash Your Imagination

Like the Romantics who preceded them, Transcendentalists valued imagination and intuition over reason and logic. Once your subject and format are established, let your imagination flow. Don’t be scared to wax poetic. Use figurative language, metaphors and similes to find likeness between your subject and the divine. Perhaps a deep blue mountain lake seems to you like "God’s still eye watching the world from below," for example. Describe how your subject transcends the ordinary. The more vividly you write, the more sublime your experience.

Reveal Something New

Because of the movement's emphasis on originality, you should avoid clichés. If you’re writing about garden flowers, don’t say, “Roses are red and violets are blue.” Rather, explore what aspect of the flowers is distinctive to you. Imagine how you can present these features in a new light. Maybe you would write that the flowers are “more yellow than the votive candle-flames in my stale Sunday church.” Consider Emerson’s “The Snow-Storm,” how creative forces left “the frolic architecture of the snow.” Describe how your subject was created and how it’s perceived by you, the poetic individual.

About the Author

Scott Neuffer is an award-winning journalist and writer who lives in Nevada. He holds a bachelor's degree in English and spent five years as an education and business reporter for Sierra Nevada Media Group. His first collection of short stories, "Scars of the New Order," was published in 2014.

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