Do You Write Poetry by the Heart or by Formula?

Do You Write Poetry by the Heart or by Formula?

As poets we find so many ways to lock horns.  Many poetry editors seem to abhor emotion in contemporary poetry.  Yet, some of the best poets in history were powerfully emotional.  How can anyone read Rumi or Pablo Neruda without seeing emotion rising from the page like steam?

The current Writer’s Chronicle has an article that discusses emotion and power in poetry, specifically looking at B.H. Fairchild and Dorianne Laux.  The article states that the word “powerful’ is not applied to poetry as much as it used to be and goes on to explain that English scholarship has given the word “power”a bad name.  Recently a friend posted an article on Facebook that states that we are all assigned five exclamation points at birth and that is all.  The implication being that exclamation points are too expressive for serious writing.

Lawyers Rarely Use Emoticons in Professional Writing

In a prior life I was a hard charging lawyer writing tons of briefs and opinions.  For those of you old enough to remember ice skating when there was the freestyle competition and the compulsory competition, I always claimed that legal writing is like the compulsory ice skating program.  In the compulsory competition every skater had to do the same elements in the same order and the judges graded each camelback or spin.  The judges knew if a skater left something out and penalized them.
Legal writing is like that.  There are few opportunities to be creative, despite what people think about lawyers.  There are even fewer opportunities to emote in legal writing.  I can’t even imagine how a judge would respond to a brief with exclamation points, though I think they might be good in law!

I never saw an opposing lawyer use emotion in a brief despite the obvious temptation to do so. One of the things I’ve always admired about law is the civility lawyers use, even in disagreements.  Almost without fail, all lawyers across America are taught to state the law, the facts, the analysis and that is all.  We were never told that we cannot dot our I’s with a heart or use an exclamation point, but we know that it is frowned upon. 

No Matter How Tempted They Are

To be honest, being somewhat of a rebel, I was tempted to break all the rules and be the one non-conforming lawyer in all of America that dotted her I’s with a heart.  I was tempted once in writing a response to an opposing brief to use exclamation points to talk about the word pubic used at least forty times in a 30 page brief every time the attorney intended to say public.  It was the one bright spot of lurid mistakes in the otherwise dry and boring world of legal briefs.  It took all of my self-restraint to hold back the exclamation points in my shock and disdain for a lawyer who would refer to my client, a public utility, as a pubic utility.

Are Poetry and Legal Writing the Same?

After a lifetime of restraint, part of what poetry offered  me was the opportunity to take off the restrictive girdle that confined every emotion I had sitting before clients who confounded me or other lawyers who enraged me. I thought I had earned the right to let it all hang out. 

More importantly, I started writing poetry non-stop after the death of my husband at the age of 41 in a freak accident fourteen years ago.  Yes, it was therapy poetry and it was emotional.  When I look back on those years of poetry, I can see that a lot of it is bad, really bad.  I can also see that some of those early pieces are still beautiful, passionate and spot on regardless of what the literary world thinks.

I understand that we all need to evolve from the fifth grade type writing that included I’s dotted with hearts to something more meaningful and mature.  It makes sense to tone down a lot of our emotions, but sometimes it seems like we have engineered the soul out of poetry.  So much poetry today is lacking in feeling, emotion or any sort of something to hold on to and take with you into your tortured and tragic life.

Sometimes it seems like the desire to scrub a poem of emotion is almost as contrived as using end rhymes that don’t really work.  Shouldn’t poetry be more organic than recipe or formula?  Should we strive to leave our emotion on the altar of hidden metaphors and complexity?  Should clever, overtly intelligent poets be prized higher than emotionally deep and real poets?

Are we Afraid to Show Our Real Emotions or See Them in Others?
The author of the article in The Writer’s Chronicle mentioned above stated that in his years of psychotherapy with artists, he found that to make powerful art, an artist much sincerely want to make it.  He continues,

If, like some contemporary poets, you distrust strong emotions, or for any number of reasons are not interested in writing poems that elicit them, you probably won’t…Another much admired virtue, at least in educated circles, is to be nonjudgmental…But any strong emotion required strong judgment. It’s hard to write powerfully, seated on the fence.

Do you think we should only write poetry that is cold and lacks passion?  Is the current habit of writing antiseptic poetry a result of an obsession with rules and standards at the expense of art? Or, is it necessary to curb the poets who do not edit and want to let everything hang out?

Emotional Can be Bad, But Emotional Can be Really Good

I have always loved original local music as opposed to top forty, especially living in Austin.  I love the flaws of the original lyrics and voices.  I also prefer flawed diamonds to flawless cubic zirconias. To me, that is what makes many Austin artists real.  I will admit there are a lot of really bad original songwriters and singers too.  I tend to like poetry real too.  I would rather read an imperfect emotionally deep poem than a poem that doesn’t engage me, other than to leave me with the smell of antiseptic in my head.

Do you write emotionally?
Do you prefer to wring the emotion out of your poem before you share it with anyone?
Who are your favorite poets?
Do they write with emotional power?
I’d love to see your ideas here.

I have one poem out of thousands that has an exclamation point.  Nothing else would do when the old women in the poem yells and cusses at her husband.  Can “Damn it, Stanley, that hurts!” be considered high art? Do you think it will ever have a chance?


Mary Mansfield said...

I've found that the best poems I've ever written are the most emotional ones. I think the primary job of the poet is to touch the heart, and I find that hard to do in the more observational type of poetry that seems to be in vogue these days.

Thomas L. Vaultonburg said...

In general, I think poets descended from the Confessional/Beat Poetry movements feel comfortable using themselves and their emotions as the basis of a poem. Not sure what the unwritten rules are for more academic schools of poetry. I'm not sure how anyone who wants to convey any sense of humanity avoids doing it but when I read modern anthologies I find that they do.