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Poetry Basics: Emotions

Fri Nov 22, 2013, 5:32 AM

Emotions in poetry

Writing, at its very base, is communication. We write to communicate with someone else, with ourselves when we write, we arrange words in a manner that is intended to be read. This is very important because, no matter what or how you write, this one basic fact never changes. If you get stuck at any point, you can come back to this sturdy foundation. I am writing to communicate; what do I want to communicate?

Often, the answer is emotions: how you feel, or how you want your reader to feel. As Gregory Corso wrote, "You must feel! It's beautiful to feel!"

We all feel, but how we express our feels is a matter of perspective. If we are too flippant with our choice of words, our readers will think we are shallow. If we are too brooding and deliberate, our readers may find us incomprehensible. Finding a balance takes work and dedication.

But that work and dedication is what distinguishes a poet from a person who simply arranges words. It requires both self-expression (for what are words that don't say anything? “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare wrote) AND artistic sensibility. Think of this second element as “being creative”.


I have been reading photography tutorials, and one piece of advice I keep running into is “get closer.” When you feel like you have gotten close, get even closer.

In photography, this forces you to simplify your picture. Extraneous details get pushed out of the lens's view, and subtleties become exaggerated, larger than life. There are times when you want a bigger picture, but there are also times where you want to really focus on one thing.

We can take the same approach to poetry.

Rose by saraenbom LAVENDER ROSE by THOM-B-FOTO

Think of the picture on the left as an embodiment of the word “love”. It shows the whole plant, it's prettily composed, it has lovely colors a complete picture of what love is, love for family, love for friends, love for your dog, love for your favorite candy, etc. Now think of the picture on the right as specifically the embodiment of the person you choose to spend the rest of your life with; its closeness and faded colors imply intimacy and the passage of time. You don't need anything else in the picture to show these things. And you don't need to see the whole plant to know that it is a rose. If the picture on the left represents a love story with several plot elements other than the romance, then the one on the right represents a love poem short, clean, concise.

Means and Method

Poetry is bound only by the realm of human experience. Anything you can capture and communicate is fair game, and the possibilities are virtually endless. Your day-to-day life is a fountain of potential poetic raw materials. Whatever you might jot in a journal or diary is perfect fodder for poems.

Here's a little something to practice.

Your teacher is a jerk and your family doesn't appreciate you. The girl at the desk next to yours is always trying to one-up you and your crush still hasn't really noticed you, despite the fact that you go out of your way to be nice to them. You get home and your best friend asks you how your day was. You open your mouth and, before you know it, a torrent of complaints has spilled right out of you and a whole half-hour has gone by. You probably could sit down and write pages and pages about how frustrating your day was.

In fact, if you had to sum up your day in one word, that word might be “frustrating”.

It's Friday night and you're so happy for the weekend. You call up your significant other, but they've already got plans with some friends and although you drop a bunch of hints that you'd like to go along, the conversation ends with no invitation. You feel really hurt to be left out, and spend the rest of the night trying to do things you usually like, listening to your favorite band, watching a favorite TV show, but you just aren't feeling it. The hours drag on and no matter how hard you try to take your mind off it, you just keep thinking about being abandoned. When your significant other calls you to say goodnight, you don't even want to answer.

If you had to sum up your Friday night in one word, that word might be “lonely”.

“Get closer”: practice taking daily situations and stripping them down to their bare bones. Hold onto those one or two words as if they were a key you couldn't forget to carry or else you'd be locked out.

That's the self-expression half of this, figuring out precisely what you want to say. Now, comes the “being creative” part.

No one sees the world quite like you do. We all might experience loneliness, but your particular loneliness is uniquely yours. If you had to describe it to someone else, how would you do it? Think of as many other related words as you can. Think of other things in the world, objects, relationships, that may help you describe it. (“Describe” is a key word here; you don't want to explain it. You want to show someone else what you are feeling using words.) Be creative! How can you say what you want to say without saying it?

Free associate. Write everything down. These are your raw materials. Any stray thought or comparison, any vivid image from a dream, any childhood memory, any passing phrase that catches your attention during a dinner conversation save these things! You can come back to them later, like a carpenter relies on a trusty toolbox, and use them to enrich your poems. What kinds of similes can you use? What kinds of metaphors?

Worried about cliché? If not, you should be. And you can avoid it! You can achieve the universal by being very specific. The more specific, the better. (A little more about this here:… ) Remember, when you feel like you have gotten close, get even closer. These things will help you avoid cliché!

Examples from the Masters

Let's consider some poems by well-established canon poets. They are well-established canon poets for a reason, after all.

We'll consider a very universal human experience: being left by a loved one. We'll look at two different poets and see how they were able to capture emotion in their poems.

Example I. excerpt from “La Figlia Che Piange” [“The Girl Who Cries”] by T.S. Eliot.
( Full piece:… )

Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.

Think about it for a moment; in the young man's presence we see the sunlight, flowers. Only at the end of the second line is this idyllic image broken by “a pained surprise,” her disbelief. And when the young man leaves, it is “as the soul leaves the body torn and bruised, as the mind deserts the body it has used”. You get a sense of the powerful unfairness of his leaving her in these lines, this body that has dutifully carried the soul and the mind is abandoned by them. Eliot uses very simple images and language, but he uses them very effectively.

Example II. excerpt from “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
( Full piece:… )

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it's much too small, because she won't curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!

It would have been easy for Millay to simply have left it at “cats die.” Most of us know what it is like to lose a pet. But she goes on, describing very specifically how she saw the fleas leave the body; she doesn't explain rigor mortis, she just describes how she could no longer get it to curl the way cats are known for being able to curl. We are seeing what she saw, experiencing what she experienced. She makes it real for us with her faithful descriptions. And the way she deals with the passage of time, and the power of grief waking up “in the middle of the night / and weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!” She never has to say it's pain, never has to say the word “grief”. We see the power of the pain in our minds, ourselves in the place of this poet twisting in bed, biting our knuckles and crying because someone we loved very much has been ripped from our lives.

Wrapping it up

:bulletblue: Writing is communication. What are you trying to communicate?

:bulletblue: Simplify; get closer. When you think you have gotten close, get even closer. Strip it down to its bare bones, summing up with one or two key words to keep in mind as you write even if you don't ever use them in your finished poem. (In fact, it's often better if you don't say your key word(s) in your poem!)

:bulletblue: Keeping a journal is good; it keeps your thoughts flowing and is a toolbox of images, thoughts, snippets of conversation, etc. that you can draw from when you go to write your poetry.

:bulletblue: How can you say what you want to say without saying it? What kinds of similes can you use? What kinds of metaphors? Be creative!

:bulletblue: You can capture the universal by being very specific; the more specific, the better. And you don't need to explain, just describe so we can see what you see, experience what you experience.

Now go out and write, write, write!

Add a Comment:
LaBruyere Featured By Owner Dec 4, 2013  Hobbyist
Awesome. "Worried about cliche? If not, you should be." Thank you. That's fantastic.
Rainiila Featured By Owner Nov 25, 2013
Really helpful :3
sun-lily Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2013  Hobbyist
Amazing article!
AgentButt-Kick Featured By Owner Nov 23, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
thanks thanks thanks
fyoot Featured By Owner Nov 23, 2013   Writer
The photography analogy is a good'un.  :)
neurotype Featured By Owner Nov 23, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
SilverInkblot Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
The best poetry tip I ever got was "the more specific you make it, the more universal it becomes." It's never failed me :)
Blue-Midnight-Angel Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This helped.
ForgottenSea Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
I think I know why I have been failing at poetry thanks to this.Thanks for sharing :) Looking forward to other lesson :D
splash-light Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Really good information
inknalcohol Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2013   Writer
I couldn't agree more with keeping a journal.  I actually have multiple journals that I write in, depending on what I'm writing about.  And there is nothing wrong with my CDO.
Rainboopz Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Wow, the "getting closer" teqnique is really something! :dummy: Thanks for shariing~
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November 22, 2013
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