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Susan PlettLean Into the Heat
Copyright©2011 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's tenth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

As an editor, workshop leader and contest judge, one of the things I hear too often is some variation of the phrase “I am sending you this poem that God gave me. I haven’t changed a single thing because God gave it to me just like this.”

Without exception—to date—none of these pieces of divinely inspired writing has made the short list of any publication or contest that I’ve been involved with. It can be a delicate situation to handle; one contest promised a critique for every non-winning entry. It was hard to know where to go with, “God gave me this so I know it’s perfect.”

An off-the-cuff, flippant response to that is: Don’t blame God for this.

A less flippant response is, "Yes, I firmly believe that creativity is a dialogue between the writer and God. There is no doubt in my mind that God is deeply invested in our creative processes, and that the work we create is (or should be) work that He has given us."

Inspiration and hard work are both gifts from God

We are not created as mere automatons. We are created to be in a state of growth and learning. Taking time to polish a God-given germ of inspiration is, in my opinion, more honouring to God than scribbling something that’s just “shown up.”

I believe that God expects us to take the tools He gives us, such as inspiration, brains, a desire to seek His face… and hone our work . When that's done, the poem speaks for itself. It is not necessary to sway an audience with "God gave me this."

Our best efforts can be demanding

Over the past several months, I have discussed many aspects of what your poetic best effort might entail. Taking care with titles, working on sustaining a metaphor and putting thought into verb tense are just a few. One demanding aspect of this “best effort” that I touched on briefly in my “Whatever Gets You To The Page” column is this: when it gets scary, keep going.

A few years ago, while I was in the process of gathering together poetry for a collection, I asked a respected poet to look over my book manuscript. Whatever response I was expecting (anywhere from “Pure gold!” to “Don’t quit your day job”), her response could not have surprised me more.

She said nothing about my collection, initially. She e-mailed me a single question, “Do you write poems that terrify you?”

My immediate reaction was, yes, but I’m not showing you those.

However. As readers of poetry, we want poems we connect to… and where is that connection made? Not in carefully chosen details or finely honed words. Those are necessary, but it is possible to have a technically brilliant poem that is wholly unremarkable.

By way of example, here is triolet that I wrote for a class on form poetry. Triolets have to follow some fairly stringent rules having to do with repeated lines and rhymes, and the result is…well, boring, even though it adheres to the guidelines.

Chinook

gossip of magpies filters through trees
rogue mountain winds soften winter chills
snow runs in streamlets, chased by the breeze

hammer of flickers shotguns through trees
dawn sky and river peppered with geese
black squirrels frolic, play on the hills

chickadees chirrup, flitting through trees
rogue mountain winds soften winter chills

Why does it fall short? Even though it is technically flawless, and is inventive in the variations of the repeated lines, there is no emotional energy in the poem.

Emotional connection requires investment

By way of contrast, consider Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Still Birth.

Still Birth

The Spirit blows where it will.
Life moves among molecules, touching
the baby waiting to be still
born with the same love it lavishes
on the ancient priest whose life
has been sacrifice and celebration.

The Spirit breathes in all flesh.
Love is not long or short.
Every heartbeat adds a note
to a song only God can hear;
when one heart stops, another
takes the melody. We sing
even in our sorrow.

Also well crafted, with the additional value of being emotionally accessible. “Chinook” leaves me thinking, “well isn’t that ...nice.” "Still Birth" makes me want to tiptoe quietly away from the holy place of someone else’s grief to which I have been a witness.

There is no handy trick for injecting emotional energy into a poem. However, there is a place to begin. “When it gets scary, keep going” is that direction.

Invest yourself

When a first draft makes me nauseous, I know I’m on to something. When starting the first draft makes me want to go do the dishes instead, I know I’m on to something powerful.

One of the lines I have taped to my bulletin board is, “Lean into the heat of your voice.” When a campfire flares up, our instinctive reaction is back away. If it gets hot enough, we may walk away altogether.

The same is true of emotion in our writing. When we get to a place that is too close to telling emotional truth, we veer away. Often we are honest and open in journal entries that we then hide away in a box under the bed. Even when searching through journals for seeds of poems, I am personally more likely to want to start with a beautifully executed line (which I then have to delete, as per last month’s column) than an accurately named emotion. As a matter of fact, I am apt to flip a page quickly when I find an accurately named, deeply felt emotion, just in case someone is reading over my shoulder.

It can be tricky to teach yourself to notice when you are backing away. A good critique partner helps—it’s easier to see or feel the waning of emotional energy in work that is not your own—but that’s not always an option. I try to pay attention to how what I consider a finished draft makes me feel—if I’m nervous, or a bit shy about showing it to anyone else, I’m probably close to the mark, leaning into the heat. Telling the truth, the deeply personal emotional truth. God has some good things to say about truth. (John 8:32)

Invest your toil

Inspiration is a gift from God, but so is hard work! Invest yourself in your poem, but continue with the work of crafting that investment. Put in your best effort, and God will be evident in the final result.

The reader will connect with the power of your expression, and you won't need to tell anyone, "God gave this to me." They'll know.

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Copyright ©2011 by Susan Plett