I once had a poetry mentor tell me that if you didn’t feel what you were writing about, deep down in your gut, you probably shouldn’t bother writing the poem. “It’s not just what you feel,” he said, “it’s what you feel to the point of ecstasy or excruciating pain.”
I believe, for the most part, that’s true. That’s what poetry is. It is the pain, the joy, the sense of loss, the desire so intense it burns inside you like a flame, the disappointment so raw that it makes it hard to breathe – the unthinkable – the unbearable – the unimaginable – there, where if you touch it, you bleed, is the poem.
I’ve had students give me their poems to read and while, they may have ticked off all the boxes when it came to technique, using all of the elements that a poem needs: metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, line break/enjambment, meter, rhyme… the poem lacked the honest, gut-felt emotion that energizes the poem and makes it, not only accessible to the reader but also, emotionally relatable.
When writing your poem, ask yourself the following questions.
- How intensely am I feeling right now?
- How emotionally committed am I to telling this story in my poem?
- Has the thing I’m writing about made me laugh or cry?
- Is this something others can relate to?
- Will I struggle to find the words and images to craft a poem about this subject?
- Will I feel better for having written the poem?
- Will reading the poem make others feel better?
- Is, what I’m writing about, a relatable human emotion?
- Am I able to write my poem using simple words, depending on powerful images to get my message across?
- Is, what I want to write about, coming from my head, my heart, or my gut?
It is true that poetry, at its finest, is an intellectual exercise. But, it is also true, that no matter how well written a poem is, if it doesn’t grab us, shake us, lift us up or slam us down, it will be read and then forgotten. Those poems that stay with us for a lifetime, are the poems that, once read, are imprinted on our brains, in our hearts, and burn like a fire, in our gut.
I am by John Clare
I am – yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes –
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live – like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.
For me poetry is the freedom to be me, the freedom to liberate my sorrow, celebrate my joy, affirm my connection to the human family. I am. I feel. I need. And so, I write poetry…