yes, no, maybe: gentle editorial advice for poets
I was sixteen. I’d been dating a man who was on leave after serving in a war zone. He wanted to get married; I wanted to go to college. When he quit calling, I went to his house, where his new girlfriend (most likely someone who wanted to get married) was there with him. I went into a terrific rant saying words that had never come out of my Mormon mouth. My two friends, who had come with me as back-up, drove me home in my own car, looking worriedly at each other as I cried and tested my new vocabulary in the back seat. What I did afterward was totally classy. I took the ring this man had given me, his Air Force ring, and put it in a vice. I crushed the beautiful blue sapphire like cheap glass. Then I put the remains in an envelope and mailed them to him.
I felt better.
Sometimes our poems are like that. We have an outpouring of emotion, we release our fury or grief onto the computer screen, and we feel better. Poets are emotional animals. The poets I know are among the most sensitive animals on the planet. But feeling something and putting that feeling into words, whether grief or love or lust, or pure rage, does not mean the poem you write is going to work.
More than likely the initial outpouring of our emotions don’t work as a poem. The trick is to put the words down in all of their emotional messiness, and then to walk away. Leave the poem alone for several days or weeks, and then come back to it after the feelings have settled down, when we can bring some measured, less emotional thought to it.
Immediately after 9/11, devastated and frightened poets wrote their hearts out. They wrote about missing friends, about what just yesterday was a thriving financial mecca, and which was now a fetid, gutted landscape. They wrote about the debris, the missing bodies, the dust, the smell of it, the taste of it. They wrote because if they didn’t write, they too might die.
Poems written immediately after 9/11 were raw and terrifying, held together with strands of primal fear. If a poet waited, came to the poem with less emotion and more reflection, the poem became more than an emotional reaction to a horrific event. It had the capability of becoming a well-crafted work.
Last year I sat at my desk as The Weather Channel looped the news of devastation in Santa Rosa, California. Beginning in the dead of night, fire had torn through the town taking lives and leaving behind burned out homes and businesses. My husband grew up in Santa Rosa, much of his family still lives there. Watching the video stream across my computer screen, listening to the interviews, I wished I was there to hand out meals, to comfort people, to listen. I tried composing the sparest of forms, a haiku. The final line would not come. I was mentally in the middle of a tragedy. The beauty of the Sonoma and Napa region was being forever changed. I could not imagine a final line for my haiku. Later, when the dust settled, after we'd visited the burned-out parts of town, maybe I could write that last line with more objectivity.
The initial flare of feeling is necessary to give life and breath to our work, but mature poems need temperance and patience, not just pure unadulterated emotion.
How much of the truth do we tell in our writing? Do we allude to it, or do we spell it out, giving the reader a raw view of our very personal life? Are we emotionally naked, revealing all, or are we hiding in the darkened corners of our lives cloaked in subterfuge?
I’ve written poems that are truthful to the emotion, but the facts are skewed. Am I lying? Does lying matter if it’s literature? Prose writers write about themselves within their characters. And poets can choose to do the same.
I’ve heard poets say that everything we write must be truthful. If the tree was a Japanese maple, we can’t change it to a willow. Another argument is that events in our poems must be sequential, linear, or we are lying. I disagree, unless we’re writing memoir, we can change the facts to create a better poem.
More importantly than getting the facts down correctly, is our emotional honesty. To portray our feelings accurately, that is what I consider poetic honesty. The tone, the language, the words we choose to best represent our feelings, that is the honesty that matters.
Consider your audience and your intent. Is it more important to protect the relationships in your life, or your self-image, or to tell your truth? Do you edit yourself right out of your poetry? Do you hold back just enough that you don’t reveal yourself?
If you harbor secrets, are they best left on pages stuffed in the back of your desk drawer? Are there some poems that are just too revealing to share? What is your responsibility to the reader and to yourself? If you’ve written about your mother or your friend, if you’ve revealed something about your partner, can you forgive yourself in the name of literature, or have you crossed an ethical boundary you can’t live with?
And . . .
Ask yourself these questions:
What are my fears about revealing my truest self through my writing?
When have I purposely hidden the truth in my writing?
When have I been the most vulnerable in my writing? What did that feel like? How was it received?
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. Oscar Wilde
And . . .
Emotion is necessary. Objectivity is necessary. If you’re patient, you can use both to craft a well-written and measured response to the most difficult of experiences.
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. T. S. Eliot