“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought
and the thought has found words.”
Emotion in poetry is a tricky thing to make work. It’s too easy to fall into the rut of sentimentality. Like overstatement, being mawkish, mushy, or maudlin are deadly when it comes to writing a poem. There’s a world of difference between true poetic sentiment and sentimentality.
This week’s challenge is to do exactly that. Yes, that’s right. Begin by writing a sentimental, mushy, maudlin poem about a time when you felt a powerful emotion (marriage proposal, wedding, birthday of a child, breakup of a romance, death of a loved one).
Make the first draft of your poem everything a good poem shouldn’t be. Let yourself be carried away on a wave of emotion, and let it all out on the page. Use clichés, tell about the emotion instead of showing it, use dozens of adjectives, ramble on, use lots of almost-always-deletable relative pronouns ( that, which, who, whom), end your poem by telling what it’s about (state the emotion you felt as obviously and blatantly as you can). In short, do as many poetry “don’ts” as you can.
Then, read your awful, emotional, sentimental poem and circle all the traps you’ve fallen into.
Next, rewrite the poem, taking out all the blatant sentiment, mushiness, and all the poetry “don’ts” that you’ve included. Let your emotion find its thought, and let the thought find the right words.
- Don’t: End with a moral.
- Don’t: Close with an “I’m going to tell you what this poem is about” ending.
- Don’t: Go with an expected outcome (especially in a narrative poem). Shake up your readers’ expectations.
- Don’t: Use up all the air in your poem on the last couple of lines—leave the reader room to breathe.
- Don’t: Undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.
- Don’t: Conclude with a sentimental or emotional statement (both sentiment and emotion may be heartfelt but, when they’re blatantly stated, they can detract from the power of your poem).
- Don’t: Close the door on your poem; leave it slightly ajar.
- Do: Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.
- Do: Write beyond the last line, then go back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.
- Do: Resist the urge to wax poetic (stay away from lofty expressions and heavy language). And ... delete adjectives wherever you can.
- Do: Leave your reader something to reflect upon.
- Do: Point toward something broader than the body of the poem.
- Do: Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”
Let both versions of the poem sit for a while (a couple of days) and then go back and read both again. How is the second one better than the first? Did the first version inform the second in an appreciable way?