Emotion in Poetry
This is the second in a series on Coleridge and poetry. In the first I looked at Coleridge’s well known definition of poetry as the fusion of an unusual degree of emotion with an unusual degree of form, and suggested that a. words in poetry have a value beyond that of conveying a simple meaning (i.e. operate like elements in a painting) and b. poems ‘worked’ by having their constituents operate in different ways, which we might call their ‘functionality’. Once again, this will be a rather discursive post where I put down the points as they come to me. Perhaps, if results warrant it, and I can find the time, I’ll organize this material into a little handbook on reading contemporary and other poetry, but for the present you have an example of ‘I wrote a long article because I didn’t have the time to write a short one’ sort of apology.
I’m going to start by suggesting we look at how emotion is generated in the prose of novels and creative fiction because a. it’s generally simpler and b. has been more thoroughly studied. Much of the material is available in the publishing section of the website (listed below), and I shamelessly reproduce it wherever possible, though recommending readers to follow up the individual references and make their own Internet searches: some of the material may be a little dated now.
The first general point to grasp is that a poem is a dialogue between poet and reader, and the usual ‘rules’ or guidelines in writing dialogue therefore apply. A dialogue should serve one or more of the following. It:
Discloses the speaker’s personality, background and motivations.
Carries the plot, often creating a climax and/or decisive twists in the story.
Heightens tension or conflict between the speakers.
Continually and subtly changes the relationship between the speakers.
Reminds the reader of what may have been forgotten.
Foreshadows events or personality aspects.
Establishes mood or tone.
Stimulates the reader’s curiosity.
Note these aims. Characters speak for a reason, and poems also need to disclose something of an originating impetus or motivation. At least until they know better, people commonly take us at our professed value, and what doesn’t excite us (the implied speaker of the poem) will not wow the audience either. An obvious point but often overlooked, particularly in the more ‘intellectual’ poem that’s apt to string thoughts together as a shopping list – intriguing, provoking and finally exasperating.
Note also the element of plot: the theme of conflicting characters, their motivations, the contests that generate plot, and the basic techniques of suspense and scene. Through stanzas or stanza shape, the poem has many devices to stimulate curiosity, but the underlying differences have to be real to escape charges of being window dressing.
More than that – unless we’re writing mock-seriously or light verse – the poem has to be about something important, or made to so appear. Most contemporary poetry fails at this point, indeed it seems deliberately to avoid saying anything really significant. The so called ‘big’ themes – the rivalry of nations, the well-being of their inhabitants, the gross injustices, world poverty, militarism, surveillance, academic self seeking – readers can make their own list – do not feature prominently in ‘serious’ poetry today, which is to our loss, I’d suggest, and most especially to theirs.
Also note the importance of mood, which is largely governed by word choice in prose but in poetry receives help from metrical subtleties and allusions.
Viewpoint is partly convention (what readers expect) and partly commonsense (you can’t portray what your point of view can’t observe). The second person, where the reader is addressed as ‘you’ throughout, is probably more used in poems than novels, together with the present tense. But all viewpoints have their strengths and difficulties, and a demanding experimental piece is not made easier for the reader by sudden and unannounced shifts in viewpoint.
Good novels have strong openings. So do poems if the reader is not to flip on idly past.
Characters, even the implied narrator of the poem, need to be convincing, attractive and consistent.
Like novels, poems can be driven by plot or character, usually both.
Genres apply to poetry, and different styles may be better accommodated by new collections, particularly if they form some improving sequence.
The second general point is that readers need to identify in some way with the content. Through the characters and situations conjured up, they expect to see themselves in a similar situation (popular fiction) or in greater understanding and emotional depth (serious fiction). The poem may or not immediately deal with a broadly-shared human experience, but the associated emotions have to be evoked in some way – interest stimulated, analogies found, some link found to the ‘human interest’ angle. ‘Fiction deals with emotion, non-fiction with fact’ as writing course tutors remind their students, but even the most factual material has to be made engrossing, accessible and persuasive. The business magazine article finds some aspect of our common humanity to make the marshalling of facts more relevant and engaging. ‘Food queues are growing in Venezuela, indeed queues for most things, as the government. . . ‘
A final point is this: these elements have been found by experience, not theory. They were known in antiquity and extensively studied by practical men. Even Caesar spent months on a small Greek island learning from the greatest teacher of his day. It served him well.
1. Fiction writing: books. http://www.textetc.com/resources/author-software.html
2. Viewpoint. http://www.textetc.com/resources/notes-for-novelists-view-points.html
3. Novel openings. http://www.textetc.com/resources/notes-for-novelists-openings.html
4. Credible characters. http://www.textetc.com/resources/notes-for-novelists-credible-characters.html
5.Plot or character driven? http://www.textetc.com/resources/notes-for-novelists-plot-or-character-driven.html
6. Plot. http://www.textetc.com/resources/notes-for-novelists-plot-and-flashback.html
7. Freelance magazine writing. http://www.textetc.com/resources/magazine-writing.html
8. Dialogue. http://www.textetc.com/resources/notes-for-novelists-dialogue.html