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Using theme-specific language to relay strong emotions in poetry

Recently, I was notified that my poem “Butterfly House” was awarded Honorable Mention in the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. The poem is in my newly released book of poetry, “The Dragon & The Dragonfly” and was one of those poems that came quickly.

I’d decided to celebrate my late husband’s birthday by going to the Butterfly Museum at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. I’d never heard of the museum until the week before when a friend mentioned it. I decided it would be the perfect adventure for the day to honor his transition into his “new” life and to honor my struggle to find my own new life. I say struggle because I wasn’t there yet, but I knew this is what I wanted—to find my way forward.

It was a truly magical experience. At one point, I just stood with my arms outstretched and waited for a butterfly to land on me. Several came and went, but one—a big orange and black monarch—stayed for a while on my hair. Just call me butterfly whisperer.

To Native Americans, the butterfly is a symbol of change, joy, and color. The butterfly was considered a miracle of transformation and resurrection—the perfect symbolism for my journey that day.

To reflect this theme, in the first two stanzas I used specific language that one could also use to describe the process of grieving: “tread lightly,” “need to rest,” “something solid beneath them,” “self-repair,” “damaged,” “missing pieces.”

The third stanza represents a transition with the words “chrysalis” and “live.”

The last stanza is all about renewal and rebirth using the words: “wonder,” “butterflies inside,” “quivering,” “spring,” “new life,” and “free.”

Notice the choice of words—theme specific—and that they are all power words. Did I consciously lay this out ahead of time? No!

And notice the words. They are powerful but not sentimental. When writing about strong emotions, it’s best to use more subtle or simple language rather than words like “heart” or “soul” or other words in this category.

When writing, I usually start with a strong emotion I want to convey and then look around for a theme or an image that will help me relay what I want my reader to feel. Sometimes, I’ll do the opposite—see an image that interests me and write about it. In this poem, both happened simultaneously.

I chose the Butterfly Museum for its theme of transformation and new life and then simply let the power of the day lead me on a journey with words on paper. As the theme emerged, more theme-specific words appeared until I came to the end of the poem and just let my words fly—one wild word at a time—until the final slightly surreal image landed on the page. And I knew it was the perfect ending.

If you’d like to see more of my writing, please visit 

Butterfly House

Pacific Science Center, Seattle
November 4, 2016

The sign says tread lightly
because butterflies might land
on the stone path. I understand
their need to rest, to feel something
solid beneath them.

Another sign warns not to touch them—
they can’t self-repair damaged wings
but can still fly with missing pieces.

I stand still. A black and orange monarch
lands on my yellow hair.
After 9 months in its chrysalis,
the monarch will only live
a few days to a couple of weeks.

Can it smell my wonder?
Does it sense the butterflies inside me—
a thousand wings quivering for spring,
preparing for new life?
I open my mouth to set them free.

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