The advantage of our emotions is that they lead us astray.
– Oscar Wilde
by Ron Hayes
A few years ago my wife and I got into a bit of a fight at Christmastime. For the record, I was wrong. The fight erupted after her favorite uncle’s annual Christmas poem arrived in the mail and I, forgetting his annual ritual, opened the envelope and read the poem before my wife had the chance. Now, in fairness, I should add here that I am an admitted and unabashed poetry snob, a fact of which my wife had long been aware. But I relied a little too much on that admission that day, and the discourteous things I had to say about the Christmas poem (my face abloom with a snide, snickering smugness I knew was wrong) should most definitely have been kept to myself. Did I mention how wrong I was?
In truth, it was an absolutely beautiful sentiment, that poem. Truly. My wife’s uncle is a lovely man and his poetry is always honest and heartfelt—and let’s not forget the courage I neglected to consider that it must take him to share such vulnerability every year. It’s remarkable. I was wrong to dump all over it. My wife was right to point out what a jerk I was being.
Except for one thing.
I was right in pointing out that the poem wasn’t very good. At least not for the level at which I am accustomed to operating. [Insert yet another candid snobbery admission here.] If memory serves, this particular poem arrived amid (or not long after) my MFA work, and those poems, juxtaposed as they were so closely to the arrival of the Christmas poem, reminded me of what I have long felt is poetry’s greatest (and, in some ways, it’s most beautiful) flaw: it is open and accessible to anyone and everyone.
Snobbery aside, I’ll also state here categorically that poetry SHOULD be accessible to everyone. It’s powerful and difficult and rewarding and edifying and ancient and essential to the human experience. Unfortunately, it’s also not unlike the guns-in-America debate: just because everyone has the right to own a gun, doesn’t mean everyone should be actively using a gun. Proof? That abomination of a website which offers poetry publication to anyone and everyone who has access to the Internet. You know the one I mean— it’s where you can literally have a kitten attack a laser pointer across your computer’s keyboard for ten minutes and submit the result as a “poem” knowing full well it will be accepted and published on the site. I hate that site? Why? In part because it’s disingenuous. It both exploits the core of what poetry is and robs poetry of what makes it special: emotion.
This month at 5writers.com we’re using Valentine’s Day as a jumping-off point for discussing the use of emotion in our work. In the anecdote I share here today, the heart of the matter is that my wife’s uncle and his annual Christmas poem encapsulate everything that’s both great and awful about poetry today, and each aspect centers around the issue of emotion. Of all the modes available to us for sharing our ideas in writing, I believe it’s safe to say none can approach poetry as the undisputed king of emotional rendering. Think about it: wouldn’t you take a dollar for every honest, heartfelt poem penned by a pining paramour to the object of his affections this 14th? Heck, I’ll admit it. I’ve done it. Low on cash? Low on ideas? V-Day bearing down hard on you? Yep—dash off a poem dripping with honesty and pretty words and raw emotion and that will definitely get you through on most occasions (as long as you don’t overdo it, of course).
But when poems like that get dashed off and shared with one’s Boo (all too often in a hastily-composed homemade card) that’s where they should end – NOT published on some no-class website with zero standards. The problem lies in what happens as a result of that publication, I think. Absent solid vetting and rigorous competition, poems that tend to apply such rawness of emotion slip into “print” where they die the horrible death of false admiration. That sucks. It’s not the kind of emotion we’re looking for as writers. Why not? Because just as emotion is undeniably at the core of the poems virtually all of us write, subtlety, understatement, craft, and fresh perspectives are the hallmarks of poetry worth sharing with those of us who are not your Boo.
As a poet, I revere the art form. As a reader, I want competence and newness. And the teacher in me demands quality in the poetry I read. Raw emotion too often compromises a poem’s ability to be good. Constraining those emotions when writing poems demonstrates emotional discipline. Discipline then suggests thoughtfulness which, in turn, requires the poet to employ cleverness and creativity (i.e., freshness) if they want to fully explore, expose, and engage the reader in accessing our emotions.
At this time of the year, tapping into our emotions – whether in writing a sonnet to our sweetie or penning a paean to one of the many figures in the pantheon of Black History – gives us a chance to remind ourselves to be careful in how exactly we’re going about that. Emotion is essential to our work as poets, but being aware of your audience is key. In a corny poem to your sweetheart you can be as mushy and gushy as as you like, of course, but that same strategy is not going to serve you well in a work about Black Lives Matter or climate change or the impact your stepmother had on your life. Like any tool in our repertoire, emotion must be wielded with care. Control it as you use it because it’s all too tempting to let our emotions take over what our work says or, worse, how it’s saying it.