How to Write a Carpe Diem Poem
Carpe diem is Latin for the commonplace saying “seize the day.” The origins of this idea can be traced back to the Roman poet Horace, who lived from 65 B.C. to 8 B.C. Since the Renaissance -- a period characterized by Classical revival -- carpe diem has become the name for this literary theme: We should live life to the fullest each day because time passes quickly and we don’t know where we will meet our end. Before you write your poem, you should decide whether you see carpe diem as a wise saying or a vulgar argument to indulge in the sensual pleasures.
Before you compose your poem, you should familiarize yourself with a few of the most famous examples of carpe diem poetry. A good place to start is with Homer’s “Ode to Leuconoe,” which is the original source of the carpe diem motif. Another must-read poem is from the Renaissance: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” written in 1681. Taking note of the similarities between these two poems will give you a better grasp on how carpe diem poems “work” and help you recognize some conventions to incorporate into your own poem.
Since carpe diem is only a theme -- the implicit or explicit argument a poem makes -- there is no standard form for a carpe diem poem. The easiest form would be free verse, poetry without a rhyme scheme or meter; the most difficult would be a more structured form, such as a Shakespearean sonnet.
The saying “seize the day” is a piece of advice. Therefore, before writing your poem, you should recognize that you will have to have a goal -- for example, you shouldn’t save the expensive plates for special occasions, but use them every day -- and use the carpe diem poem to make your argument persuasive and convincing. Some conventional ways of doing this are by writing about how death will come to us all; we don’t know when we will die; time is running out and, since physical beauty fades with time, we should take advantage of it now.
Many carpe diem poems are written to a specific person. In many instances, the poets-speakers are trying to persuade and pressure a woman into sexual activity. It is not actually necessary for you to write to a specific person. For example, you could look at A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees,” a carpe diem poem that is almost closer to a solitary meditation than an argument. However, you should take into account that it might be easier to write if you imagine yourself trying to convince a friend -- romantic or otherwise -- to “seize the day” by performing a specific pleasurable activity.
Since the major elements of a carpe diem poem are death, life and time, you can look to these concepts to find images. For example, a hollow skull could represent death, a blossoming tree could represent life, a winged clock could represent time. If you can, be more specific, personal and particular. Write each word down on a piece of paper and brainstorm things that you associate with each of the concepts. For example, when you think of death, you might picture the unfortunate squirrel dead by the side of the road.
Make the pleasurable activity sound good by incorporating all the five senses -- sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, -- into your description. For example, if you are trying to convince your friend to use the good dishes, you might describe the beautiful willow pattern on them, the clink of them being set down on the dinner table, the wood-polish smell of the old cupboard in which they are kept and the feeling of running your thumb along the clean, smooth surface. Be warned: It is better not to remind the reader of the stack of dirty dishes waiting to be washed at the end of the meal.
- Open University: "Seize the Day and Savour It: Horace's Carpe Diem," by Paula James
- Ball State University: "Discussion Questions for 'Carpe Diem' Poems," by Matthew Hartman
- "A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition," by M. H. Abrams, 2009
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