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Writing From Heartache…Without Spilling Blood
Better Poetry for Those Who Live With Yearning
Copyright©2002 by Alice J. Wisler

When my son died, I wrote. It saved me. However everything I composed in my journal and computer files was not to be seen by the world. While it was important to me because it was either my raw guts spilled forth or memories of my four-year-old whose laughter echoed down the hospital corridors, it was not what poetry magazines wished to publish.

Recently I reread some of my poems from five years ago. My stomach filled with queasiness. Now I understood why editors rejected my work. My pain was clear, but I could see the blood on the pages.

These days I receive poems from aching parents who hope I’ll publish their creations in my e-zine or bereavement newsletter. These parents are grieving intensely. They yearn for, and love their child. I know writing helps them release a little of the agony so that they can go to bed at night and climb out in the morning.

But often I cringe. I see cliches steal from what they want to convey. It seems cruel to tell broken-hearted mothers or fathers that their rhyming lines can’t be published. Their poetry will never flow on the glossy page of magazines if they don’t follow some simple rules.

The Rules for Writing from Heartache

Following are rules for those who have been through or are living through a difficult season and find creating poetry is the venue for sanity.

     1. Toss away cliches. Yes, we live with cliches and the grief world is full of them. Think of some of these and write them down. Beside each wellworn phrase, come up with a fresh way of saying the same thing. “My heavy heart” to convey the burden of pain, is common. How about changing it to “The sting that grinds each limb”? or “My groaning limbs”?

     2. Stretch your vocabulary. Make friends with your dictionary and thesaurus. Learn new words and how to use them. Write them on index cards and stick them to your refrigerator.

     3. Come up with imagery to show, not tell. One of the best lines I saw was in a poem a friend wrote describing lifting balloons into the heavens at the tombstone of his daughter. The month was January and he penned, “Breathing the frost of pain.” That image of struggle was clear to me and reading it made my lungs ache.

What is pain over the death of a dear friend? What does it feel like? Is it nights with tissues, watching infommercials? Is it fear of losing your mind? How can you show the love you held for this significant person and the hole his loss has made in your heart?

One Unique String of Words

Do not over-do the agony-filled lines. One string of words—a unique string—is enough to convey the pit of sorrow.

I thought about images when I clipped five roses from a gangly rose bush in our garden after a night of rain.

          Five Roses In Memory of a Four-Year-Old

          Yesterday
          into the house
          where you danced
          I carried five roses
          five for the age
          you never knew
          five for the years
          you've been gone
          delicate, pink,
          five for those
          of us left
          tear drops on
          green petals
          glistening.

These lines clearly imply sadness even without the use of words like “sorrow,” “sad” and “grief.” The title also is key because it answers the question of how old my child was when he died. I chose “danced” instead of “lived” (although “lived” may have been fine), because I think that word catches a clearer description to hold in our mind.

Stay Away from Tired Ideas

     4. Search for new themes. Often we read about the same heartache theme over and over. Ponder on how to write new themes in old grief. How about describing a dream you had about your deceased loved-one? What was he wearing? What was the sound of his voice?

Find a single word, reflect on it and go from there. Number. What do numbers signify (as in the poem above)? How do they connect with our pain? Graveyard. How about what graveyards teach us?

When you lose someone special, you want others to ask what he was like, or for those who knew him to share the memories they held with this loved-one. After my Daniel died, I wanted people to freely listen to me talk of a boy who loved “Toy Story” and watermelon.

I came up with poem to help others understand the value of asking—that was my theme—despite their fears of wondering if this is the “right thing” to do. I ended it with a phrase I hope will leave an image in the minds of readers—”the flowers that never die.” Flowers are associated with funeral homes, memorial services and grave sites. My reasoning for creating this phrase was to show that what the bereaved really want given— more valuable than the flowers left at the stone—is the chance to share from our heart the one we miss.

          When You Ask…

          When you ask about him
          leave your fears at the door
          Your questions open each window
          watch the sunlight stream in
          I see his infectious grin
          the soft hand inside mine
          Come, sit, let me tell you
          these times are too rare
          When you ask about him
          you release permission
          And I need this sunshine
          like daily bread
          I can warm these rooms
          with the life-giving memories
          When you ask about him
          you bring the flowers that never die.

So I wouldn’t break my own rule, I deleted this poem of a worn-phrase even after it was accepted by an editor. Originally I had written in line ten, “you grant me permission.” When I became aware of the cliche, I changed it to “you release permission.”

     5. Venture outside. God has created spectacular nature. Even if you live in a city, as I have, a tiny sparrow or the clouds can provide inspiration for new thoughts and ideas. Take a walk with your pad of paper and pen. Jot down words to describe your loved one. Think of color, smells and sights that have to do with your yearning for this person. Is it autumn? Do the colors of the leaves portray any of the colors of your friend’s life? Can you write lines about rust or gold in describing your relationship and/or loss? When you are near a construction site, listen to the bulldozers and backhoes. What do they symbolize to you?

     6. If you use a computer to compose, print your poem. Errors are easier to spot when you have it printed on paper. After you have edited your masterpiece, place it in a drawer. Marinating your poetry is good policy.

     7. A few days later, take out your piece and read it aloud. Poetry is meant to be read aloud; isn’t this what we learned in Poetry 101?

Take Time to Read Good Poetry

     8. Read dynamic poetry. Perhaps you won’t be able to write like Frost or Tennyson, but by reading these literary heroes out loud, you will notice the images and words they use and see what makes a poem work well and why. Don’t neglect the Psalms of the Bible, especially the ones that describe tears and sorrow. They are therapeutic as well as helpful in grief because their raw honesty ploughs through.

Taking the time to learn how to create more effective and poignant poetry will help share your loss and love with the world.

If you read this article, please let me know.