Saturday, November 5, 2016

Prompt #267 – Writing from an Emotional Place

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.
— Robert Frost

Emotion is poetry can be a tricky thing that begs the question, “How does a poet convey genuine emotion without being ‘emotional’ or sentimental?”

This week’s challenge will be to write a poem in which you convey an emotion without stating what that emotion is. In other words, your poem will show rather than tell the emotion.


1. Think about a time in your life that was characterized by a high level of emotional response (e.g., marriage, birth of a child, divorce, death of a loved one).

2. Return to that time in memory. What did you feel (joy, happiness, love, anger, depression, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, grief)? How did you express your emotion? What other people were involved? What were others’ reactions to the emotional trigger? What exactly happened (not an emotional interpretation—just the facts)? How did the emotional time return to normal? Are there lingering effects even now?

3. Begin by asking yourself what you want your poem to “do.” Where do you want it to go? You might make a few notes of things you want to include. Importantly, what do you want your readers to fee when they read your poem?

4. Begin writing by setting a time, season, and/or place, and then move your poem forward.

5. After you have completed several drafts, experiment with a stanza pattern (3, 4, or 6 lines in each stanza—don't do this too early in the writing process or you may find yourself writing to accommodate the stanza plan rather than the poem’s meaning).

6. After you’ve written what feels like a complete poem, set the poem aside for a few days. When you come back to it, think about what the poem doesn’t need and remove rather than add. most importantly, is there any overstated emotion that you can work out of the poem?

  • Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).
  • If you're writing a poem about a time that you were angry, remember that this isn't a rant poem. Instead, examine the memory of an angry time and to show it as it was without telling it overtly.
  • Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
  • Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.
  • Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything—leave your readers room to enter the poem and personalize it.
  • Avoid “preachiness.” Don’t worry about what your readers might learn or not learn about the joys or pitfalls of a particular emotion.
  • Be wary of concluding with a sentimental or emotional statement, no matter how heartfelt such a statement might be. Emotions, blatantly stated, can detract from the power of a poem.

Example (a villanelle written by Dylan Thomas to his dying father):

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 


  1. This is great! On the flip side of the prompt, one might take a completely humorous approach and go in that direction.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Jamie! Great idea to take a humorous approach.

  2. The Feral Man-cat

    Go find yourself a spare rib
    Because you are lost without it
    Take your Bible Belt mentality
    with you, too
    And don't forget to hang
    Your diploma from the
    Old school
    On your wall
    So everyone will know
    Well in advance
    How 20th century
    And backward you are
    I'm sure you'll find
    Some lonely woman
    Who will be as impressed
    With your prowess as you are
    And willing to pay for your nocturnal activities
    While deluding herself
    That keeping such a pet
    Is a comfort

    1. Ouch! Sounds like someone deserved that! Thanks so much for sharing, Risa!

  3. The Perfect Woman

    The way you drool
    Over my breasts
    I should serve them to you on a platter
    Not complimented
    But rather
    I feel like the Venus of Willendorf
    It's exciting
    In a primal way
    Then again
    Why not simply
    Cut off my head and limbs?

    1. Another great vent without ever having to mention the word "anger." Well done!

  4. 55 and Older

    Her eyes tearing up
    The elder AARP representative
    With dyed thinning red hair
    Basically said
    "There's no room at the inn"
    There's no money here
    There's no help
    No job
    No hope
    Your only option is to die
    And do it quickly
    Dedicate your body to science
    There are no funds
    To bury you
    At least you will serve
    A purpose then

    1. A sad commentary on treatment of "seniors." Thanks so much for sharing three poems this week, Risa!

  5. Wow, well done, Risa! I can feel the emotion without you ever having to name it (in all three poems). A prompt like this can be healing.

    1. Hi, Adele. These poems were from about 10 or so years ago. And writing them was indeed healing and posting them was even more so!

  6. Adele, here's a laugh for you. When I had my students go to this prompt, one of them asked if the picture was of you! I directed her to the picture of you in the sidebar and she said, "What a relief."

    1. Oh my goodness, that really is funny, Rich! Thanks for sharing. Your students must be fun to work with. I'm so glad to know that you use the blog prompts.