Emotions in Poetry—A Primer

How to deal convincingly with powerful emotions?

Two tools I find very helpful are indirection and metaphor (wow, there’s a shocker).

Bear in mind that everything I say is aimed at writing poems to be read out loud in front of an audience; the audience doesn’t have copies. The poets hold all the cards; they release information at their own time, in their own way.

I should also preface this with a word about sentimentality. When I read poetry reviews, I get the feeling that one of the worst sins a poet can be accused of is sentimentality. More, I get the feeling that poets go far out of their way to avoid that charge. I think this is a serious mistake. In my opinion, you get the biggest bang for your buck by skating right on the thin ice of honest sentiment, as close to the edge of sentimentality as you can get—without falling in.

If you’re writing a poem about the death of a child, and you want the audience to experience some immediate emotion, the worst thing you can do is begin by telling them this poem is about a child’s death. Their defenses will go up immediately. Make them think the poem is about something else. Humor is very useful here. Get them laughing—their defenses come down, and they’re listening intently. Then pull the switch.

The switch should be organic to the poem. The audience needs to be convinced that the transition from A to B was legitimate. You don’t want to manipulate them, and they don’t want to be manipulated. So there has to be some thread in the fabric of the poem that leads ineluctably from A to B. It’s not honest sentiment if you don’t get there honestly.

How do you write a poem like that? Sometimes they write themselves. Sometimes a poem blindsides you by taking you somewhere you had no intention of going. But you don’t have to wait for that to happen. Maybe you’ve already decided you want to write a tearjerker (that’s an abysmally disrespectful term for what we’re trying to do, but I use it for want of a better term). Write the emotional part first, then retrofit; find some thread in the language or the images that allows you to back into what will become the first half, the misdirection part of the poem. Strangely, when I write this way, I often find that my best writing is in the A section, and I have to rework the tearjerker part to bring it up to the level of the first half.

If you’re writing a love poem, it’s nice to say “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything in life, more than anyone could ever possibly love you. My love for you will live forever.” Your beloved will be pleased to hear it. But the rest of the audience will yawn. They’ve heard it before.

But if you begin by telling the audience, “This is a love poem,” and if you then go off on what appears to be a poem about something entirely different, like—oh, say, like driving old cars; and if the poem is good enough and funny enough so that the audience forgets to wonder what happened to that love poem you promised them, then at the end when you snap the metaphor shut, a strange thing can sometimes happen: the audience believes in metaphor what they would have rejected had it been presented in simple declarative sentences.

This too can be retrofitted. If you’re working on the first draft of a new poem and you know you’ve got something really good going, but you don’t know how to end it, hey, almost anything can be brought around to love. You’re a poet; you can do it. Then you go back and put in that little pointer at the beginning, the one your audience is going to forget all about until you bring them back to it at the end, and they go home thinking that you knew all along exactly where that poem was going.

When it works, it’s magic.