“Poetry is a great way to express your emotions.” We’ve all heard people say this, and while it may seem like good advice, it’s a hard thing to execute.
After all . . . how do you know whether you’re actually writing something good or just contributing to the body of bad poetry out in the world?
Worse yet . . . how do you know that what you’re writing is truly original?
Last week, we talked about some of the myths that prevent people from writing poetry. A big result of the insecurity that comes from these false beliefs is the fear of sounding insincere or derivative in your expression.
However, as we also discussed, poetry brings untold possibilities for writers to uncover their own special brand of self-expression and find ways to use language to share their world views and life experiences with others.
It’s true that there are ways for poetry to go bad. But while it’s understandable to be concerned about seeming insincere in your poems, there are ways to tap into what is uniquely “you” about your poems and therefore portray your emotions in a way that will truly resonate with readers.
Remember: one thing we’ve discussed a lot in this blog is that you aren’t writing for yourself. If you hope that an audience will eventually read your work, you are creating for those people.
This is especially important to recognize if you are sharing something personal and emotional with readers. Your challenge is to take those personal experiences and feelings and make them accessible beyond yourself, to let others identify with them and take strength from reading what you’ve made for them.
This week, I want to share some tips about writing emotional poems that have helped me to be honest with readers in my work. I also want to point out that while these tips are specific to writing poems, they also apply to fiction and nonfiction, even if you are writing about characters whose life experiences are very different from yourself.
All writing needs to emotionally connect with people in a way that showcases the author’s unique world view while still being identifiable and relatable.
Use Potent Imagery
Imagery is what makes your poem’s world real to readers. I have found that the shorter a piece of writing is, the more it needs to be unified around one powerful central image.
That doesn’t mean you have to load it with self-imposed symbolism or meaning. It just means that you need something your reader can see.
The poem “Anger” by April Bernard, which I discovered while doing research for this post, does this extremely well. Assuming that the piece is autobiographical, Bernard creates a series of stanzas that each relate the details of a time when she experienced rage.
In the first stanza, we visit “a farmhouse kitchen that smelled / of old rinds and cigarette butts,” setting the stage for the author’s violent reaction to a horrific act of abuse. From those first lines, I am right there in that house. I can smell the old cigarettes and trash. I can sense her fear over what is coming next.
Because Bernard does such a great job of setting the scene for what happens next, I’m more able to understand and identify with her very personal life experiences.
Try writing a poem that begins with a specific setting where you remember a crucial moment in your life taking place. Before even beginning the poem itself, write a paragraph where you recall all the sensory details of that place. Then, select the most potent details to use as the beginning of the poem.
Be Specific & Active About Your Experiences
Poems become overly sentimental, corny, or unreal when writers speak using abstract terms instead of concrete details. One thing I try to do is avoid the use of any “feeling words” when I write. If a character feels sad in a story I’m writing, I don’t write, “She felt sad.” I instead try to tease out what sadness would feel like and how she would uniquely experience it.
I am aware that in “Anger,” Bernard breaks this rule by using her overarching emotion as the title of the poem. However, because she is describing a series of events in her life connected by this emotion, I think it makes for a fitting title.
By describing these events, she gives embodiment to her anger, and at the end of the poem, when she ties all these experiences together by responding to the emotion itself, we have a clear idea of where she’s coming from.
Use not just specific language, but active language, particularly if you are writing about people doing things. Choose punchy, ultra-specific verbs that fit the tone of the poem and what the people are doing.
You Don’t Have to Use Metaphors
I was in a writing class recently where a woman said she struggled to come up with metaphors that didn’t sound forced. I was glad she asked this question, because I have felt this way about my own figurative language in the past.
Our instructor then offered some of the most empowering writing advice I’ve ever heard.
If you can’t come up with a good metaphor, don’t use one.
There is nothing worse than a bad metaphor. If you try to construct one yourself rather than letting it arise organically from the concrete details and images you’ve already laid down, your metaphors will detract from the piece, not contribute to it.
Telling readers what is physically there is always more effective than trying to set up a comparison to something else. If the metaphor is bad, you’re just asking the reader to do more work.
Metaphors also tend to veer into the abstract, when as we’ve just established, the most powerful poetry fully dwells in the concrete.
This is the most important piece of advice I can give you: just be you in your poems.
Poetry gets corny and oversentimental when readers can sense that you’re trying to do what is expected of you.
Describe your emotions. Describe what you see through your eyes. Tell readers what makes you feel certain feelings in the unique way life has led you to do so.
Readers can tell when you aren’t being honest, and poetry is a place where honesty is expected.
Your life experiences, values, and beliefs have created a voice that only you can express. Being honest with readers and being yourself are the first steps to unlocking it.
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