One of my vices lately, akin to the way some people read trashy romance novels, has been to hang around Yahoo! Answers in the Poetry section. It seems like every third poem there is some adolescent, angst-ridden poem written right after the author went through some kind of break-up. It seems to me that these poems easily form their own genre: the break-up poem.
Often the poem is part of the author’s catharsis and a waypoint on their journey to regain their emotional balance. These are the authors I am addressing. I am writing these tips, however, not in an effort to help them overcome whatever emotions they’re dealing with. Rather, I’m hoping they will write better poems. I’m not opposed to cathartic poems that express betrayal and decry lost love. I just want it to be better poetry. Later on, I will describe why I think we can have ‘good’ poems and ‘bad’ poems. It’s not all relative. There’s good and there’s bad and not everyone gets a trophy.
1. Don’t give me conclusions.
If you want me to feel what you felt, I probably need to experience what you experienced. If your poem is written entirely in the present tense, “I am angry,” and “I hate” and “I loathe” and so on, that’s the result. I don’t understand the result. Imagine that I told you that I had a really hard math problem to do, and I worked and worked and worked, and finally I discovered the answer was 204. You have no idea what the math problem was like, why I found it hard, or what it meant for me to “work and work and work.” The number 204 sure doesn’t seem frightening. How hard was the math, really? If your poem only discusses where you are now in your thinking (e.g., how angry you are now, how betrayed you feel now, etc.), it’s like telling me 204.
Let me explain it from a totally different direction. Forget love for a second. Imagine trying to tell a scary story. If the person said “I went into this house, and it was spooky. I got scared and ran home.” Would you be scared? No way. If they went into vivid detail about eerie sights and sounds and smells, and unexpected things happening, they might spook you a little. Then you’d be feeling something similar to what they felt at the time. Same thing for love, hate, and other emotions. You have to build up the scene and explain where those emotions come from.
2. Relive it.
If you loved someone once, there was a reason. Even if you totally despise that person now, you loved them once and it made sense then. Get in your time machine and go back there. Relive that emotion. It was pleasant at the time. Set me up. Get me, the reader, feeling what you felt when you fell in love. I want to fall in love with the object of your contempt. Bring me up to that high level where you were.
3. Include the betrayal.
Whatever the event was that caused this emotional hurt, put it in. For me as a reader to feel the same level of anger, betrayal, rejection, or whatever negative emotion you feel now, I have to start at the same high place and fall with you. I have to hit the same rocky bottom you did to see these emotional injuries and hate the person who pushed you off that cliff.
If it is too painful to relive literally, don’t worry—this is poetry. Make something up that is good enough. Can’t bear to talk about the lies your ex used to cover up philandering? Make up lies your ex used to cover up stealing from you. All you have to do is get me, the reader, to feel your pain. It doesn’t have to be exact. The mistake many writers make is to start off by saying “I used to love you” and end by saying “now I hate you” and they leave out the whole bit in the middle where love turned to hate.
4. Touch the senses.
Tell me how warm his hands were. Tell me what her perfume smelled like and how it made her real and alive in the room hours after she left. Tell me how the sound of his voice vibrated in your body and put your jangled nerves at ease. Tell me about the floppy straw sun hat she wore strawberry picking that she had to keep pushing up so she could see what she was doing. Something, anything that I can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.
5. Remember: this is poetry.
Make !@#%!@ up. It does not have to be perfectly faithful to exactly what you went through. Get the right emotion into the poem. Leave out unnecessary details. Simplify what really happened so you get to the essence of what is important.
Remember also that the person in the poem doesn’t have to be you. It can be someone else. It can be a fictitious character who goes through something similar to what you went through. Don’t feel compelled to bare your soul directly in your poem. Use the poem as a vehicle for the emotions. Create a persona that goes through the situation in the way that you want, so that the right emotions come out.
6. Don’t use trite expressions
There’s too much vague crap out there. “I am empty and alone,” or “I trusted you with my life, but you turned your back on me,” “you were my everything.” All these phrases are fine when they sum up something that has been made clear. These phrases are no good by themselves. They’re conclusions. They’re the summation of the emotions you’ve been through. I won’t feel like you did just because I read one of these stock phrases. They’re also a bit like perfume. Even fine perfume will stink if you spray enough of it. Pick trite phrases carefully and use them sparingly.
Good and Bad Poetry
Am I some literary scholar whose opinion on this matter carries weight? No. In the words of a friend of mine “I bring nothing to the table.” I have a blog and I post my opinions, use or discard them at will. Having said that, yes, I do believe there is good and bad poetry.
I am a liberal believer that capitalization, punctuation, line structure, rime, meter and all these things are up for grabs in poetry. Everything’s fair game in making your poem into a literary work of art. Having said that, it is not a poem just because you break the lines in odd places. If I fix the line breaks and it reads like a really boring paragraph, it’s probably not much of a poem, either.
Good poetry has a point. It uses some of its structure to draw you in, but the words ultimately do the heavy lifting. You know something when you’re done reading a good poem. You know what someone thinks, what they saw, what they did, what they felt. Something.
Bad poetry might have a point, but it is undermined by too many weaknesses. It is trite and belabors old tropes in well-worn ways. It’s structure is either nonsensical, random, or out-of-touch with the poem. The vocabulary is weak, using commonplace words in common ways with no novel effect. Note that you don’t have to use ten dollar words to make a good poem, but you can’t pull a bunch of lines from a bunch of 1980s hair band lyrics and get great art from them.
For those who may wonder what my favorite poems might be, two that come to mind are by Robert Frost. Now, most people think of Robert Frost as a grandfatherly figure who gave us such lyrical and memorable poems as Stopping By Woods on a Snowing Evening and The Road Not Taken. My two favorites, however, are powerful and dark. Out Out, and Home Burial.