Saturday, April 27, 2013


Hi folks,

As those of you who’ve followed my blog for awhile, from time to time I like to include lessons from the writers in my online class and from private clients as I think the issues they face are pretty much the same as all of us face in our writing and providing them here may help other writers.

And, that’s what I’m posting today.

A few years ago, I served for three years as the writer-in-residence at the University of Toledo. I’ve kept in contact with many of my former students and one of my favorite of those students and I have had a series of communications recently that may be of interest and our discussions may also help inform other writers who may be having similar problems. I won’t name her except to call her “K”. K was an absolute delight in my classes. A highly intelligent, dynamic student, she graduated and is currently teaching in an inner city middle school. She and I hope that I’ll be able to appear before her classes next semester, probably via Skype.

Recently, K decided she wanted to try her hand at poetry. I’d seen her fiction—it was extremely good. She asked me if I’d read a couple of her poems and see what I thought and if I thought they were publishable. If maybe I could recommend someone to send them to. I told her I had a friend who edited a wonderful literary magazine and if I felt they were good, I’d be happy to recommend them and her to him. So she sent me these two poems. Here’s what she said and here are her poems.

Hey Les,
Thank you so much for taking the time to look over my poetry. Even if you find that your friend wouldn't like it, it'd be nice to have some feedback from you. I'm always looking to get better. I have to admit, I have no idea what a publisher is looking for. I chose two poems to attach because I couldn't choose which one to include. I have an emotional connection to both of them because they're both poems I wrote after experiencing a miscarriage. I didn't know if it was too personal of a subject to pass along, but sometimes emotional subjects evoke the most feeling, and someone might be able to relate. If they suck, that's totally fine. Please be brutally honest. If nothing else, it was a good release for me in dealing with a tough situation. The first poem I think is the better one, but it also lacks structure. I struggle with rhythm sometimes. Thank you so much again, Les. You've been so helpful and it's been great to reconnect.

P.S. Did I mention that I'm pregnant? lol- I've yet to write a happy poem about it, but it'll come :)

A Moment Of Recognition

A moment of recognition
As you slowly stroll by
A cursory glance over your shoulder…
Do my eyes defy?

Inquiry lies upon your brow
A slight resemblance amongst the mass?
A hesitant acceptance
Yes… it’s you… alas

Intimate strangers, never having met
Familiar obscurity- finally reunited
No more questioning, wondering, longing
Anticipation and joy ignited

You’ve made it home.
Ever so slowly gaining
Comfort, confidence, acceptance.
But you’ve been waiting…

Idly watching, scrutinizing the crowd
Until God grant me access
Desperate to utter the words,
“It’s you…alas”

Finally the time has come
For our worlds to intertwine
A sigh of relief, utter satisfaction
Now you’re finally mine

The torturous wait,
The brokenness of my soul
It’s finally making sense
I’ve been molded for this… a chance to become whole

Eternity with you… not just a reverie
I will know every inch of you
Every expression, every feeling
My biggest wish has finally come true

You stare quizzically from afar
Love, joy, apprehension
Shall you approach me?
Your feet make the decision
No longer a mirage
A shadow in the distance
You speak the words aloud,
“It’s you…alas.”

It is then that I know…I’ve made it home
You with your mother
And us with our Maker

Consuming Sadness

Sadness knocks at the gates of the heart
First begging for entry, then demanding access
Its persistence is admirable, yet irritating

It slyly slithers in, seeping into the depths of the soul
Every crevice is filled with its thick, black presence
Leaving no spot left unscathed

All of the joy and happiness are strangled to their death
No struggle is needed; the victor is clear
The indomitable competitor has won again

Occasionally, the soul puts up a fight
all to the glory of sadness;
A tease, a mockery- It’s amused by the spectacle

It's all to no avail; there was never any hope
I am its puppet, designed to do its bidding
Just a prisoner, succumbing to the torture

Where is the intervening force?
A light amongst the darkness?
or is the suffering mine alone to endure?

Sadness is all consuming, its presence is everlasting
It stays until I've withered away
No more resistance...eternal submission

After reading them, here’s what I told her:

Hi K,
I looked at your poems and see a couple of things that I think will make it difficult for them to get published, alas.

First, I'm not aware of anyone publishing poetry that rhymes any more as in the first one. Other than maybe Hallmark Cards. Or in some Internet journals that publish anything. But not in legitimate and serious literary journals dedicated to quality. That's just kind of been over for many years, at least with serious poets. The chief reason being that when a poet has to come up with a word that rhymes, she sacrifices accuracy for the sake of the rhyme. The heart of all good writing--poetry or fiction--is truth, and if a rhyme is more important than the exact, perfect word, you're at a remove from that truth. Make sense?

The second thing is far more important. You said they're both about a miscarriage but I couldn't tell that from either poem. It could have been about anything sad. This is really crucial. This is what we usually encounter from beginning poets and writers. It's why we constantly preach, "Show, don't tell." What you're doing is writing about your emotion when as the reader, we haven't been privy to what created that emotion and that therefore makes it telling us instead of showing us. And, telling never impacts a person emotionally. Only by living through the event with the character as it unfolds will the reader ever be impacted emotionally. In effect, such poems are saying to the reader: Trust me. I've had a terrible experience (which I'm not going to share with you) and I'm going to tell you how bad it made me feel.

Doesn't work. Alas, will never work. You’re mostly describing an emotion you felt, but you’re leaving out the most important part—showing us the event that led to the emotion. That’s totally absent and it’s the most important part.

Here's what would work. If you wrote a poem about how you and your partner had wanted desperately to have a child and then, miraculously, you were pregnant. If you told us something about the anxious moments before you got pregnant and then took us along as the pregnancy progressed--how you bought a bassinet, baby clothes, painted a bedroom for the baby, tried to decide if you wanted to know the sex or not, considered names--in short, all the things couples do when they're pregnant. And, then, if you showed the actual miscarriage as it happened. How it came suddenly, how it happened, what went on in the home, in the hospital, how your partner reacted, how you reacted, the physical trauma you went through... in short, if you let us see the event as it transpired... then, and only then, we'd feel the emotion you wanted to communicate with the poem. You wouldn't even need to say how sad or desolate you felt. We'd know, just from living through the event with you.

And, that's what good poetry or good writing is. It's showing the event as it happens. If you give us the event, the reader will experience the emotion.

This is so common with beginning poets. I remember teaching in high school and the usual subjects appear in the students' work. Usually some theme on a boyfriend rejecting the writer or the like. Not putting that down at all--it's very real to the person it happens to and is legitimate. But, the mistake the writer makes is in writing about how she feels and that's simply telling. It doesn't impact the reader in the least. Oh, in a class where people know the person and may even know the circumstances, there may be at least some vocal display of commiseration, but we write poetry and fiction for strangers, not those in our inner circle. At least that's who we write for if we send it out to be published. And, strangers don't know the writer nor the circumstances nor the event, save for what they read on the page. And, to read mostly an account of how the person feels won't elicit emotion. Never, except in a very general and vague way, such as when we hear of a bad traffic accident. We all say: "Oh, my gosh. That's terrible." And then we switch the subject to the sale down at the mall. But we really don't feel much except in a surface, societal way. We certainly don't feel what the reader intended we feel.
This is why at a funeral service when the preacher gets up to laud a person he or she didn’t know, most of the time he will offer up well-worn platitudes in generalized sympathetic terms… and eyes glaze over. But… when the guy’s best friend gets up and talks about all the camping trips they made together and how the deceased kept burning the coffee every morning just like he did at home… and how he'd give his last dollar this morning for a cup of that godawful coffee Joe used to make, especially if it was him serving it... then people nod and shake their heads in agreement and feel something. Don’t be the preacher using Sermonette #93 for the occasion—muttering worn-out platitudes, couched in so-called “poetic” language. That doesn’t work for funeral services and it doesn’t work for poetry.

It's so important to know this when writing. It's what we mean when we say, "Show, don't tell." Anything important in a poem or a story has to be written as a scene. Never by telling the reader after the fact how we “feel.”
Look at the little YA play Shakespeare wrote, titled “Romeo and Juliet.” If he’d simply given us the couple’s “feelings” without allowing us to live through the event of their deaths and all the circumstances and actions leading up to it and afterward, it would never have been performed on the stage and it certainly wouldn’t have lived on as long as it has in the canon. We feel the emotion only because we were witness to the event. Even as great a writer as the Bard was, if he’d only given us soliloquies expressing their grief, it would have suffered the same fate as any poet’s work that only contains the feelings after the fact—which would have been, “Only available in his room.”

Hope this makes sense! You have a gift with language and if you grasp this, your poetry will soar.

I'll bet good money that when I was laying out the actions in a miscarriage above, you felt emotion, and perhaps even intense emotion. If so, that's because you would have been reliving the events as they happened to you. That's what you need to do in your poem(s). Deliver the event. Not the emotion you felt after the event. That's not for you to furnish. The reader will furnish that if you but provide an account of the event.
And, provide a dramatic account, not a melodramatic rendering. That simply means lowering the volume. Let the event itself dictate the emotion elicited. What’s more powerful—the woman whose child has just been run over by a bus who runs out, prostrates herself over her dead body, raises her face to the heavens while shrieking and tearing out her hair by the handful, cursing against an unfeeling God and even (this is a particular yuck for me) showing “a single tear coursing down her cheek,” or, simply having the woman slump to the curb and affecting the thousand-yard-stare soldiers who’ve been in heavy and sustained combat affect? One is melodramatic, loud and brassy and full of clichés while the other is a truly profound reaction to a tragedy. Opt for drama, not melodrama. If told honestly and truly, the event itself will furnish all you need for the reader’s emotion.
Finally, you said you sent these poems because you had an “emotional connection” to them and that “I didn't know if it was too personal of a subject to pass along, but sometimes emotional subjects evoke the most feeling, and someone might be able to relate.” Well, K, that’s just about the only reason to write a poem. That’s what poetry is—it’s expressing to the world what happened and how it affected the writer emotionally.
That isn’t entirely true. There are perfectly frivolous poems, poems designed to provide a political or social statement; in short, a poem can be about virtually anything that interests or impacts the writer in any way. But what all good poetry has in common is that it’s not a recitation of the writer’s feelings couched in some elevated, melodramatic, “poetical” language. It’s about the thing that created those emotions. Trust the reader’s intelligence—that he or she will “get” the same emotion you did after experiencing the same thing you did. You don’t need to tell us you’re “sad” or that you laughed out loud or that you felt pissed off. We’ll get the same feeling you did if you write the events that led you to that state.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,
K replied:

Hi Les,
Wow, Thank you so much for such detailed comments. They definitely help a lot. The first poem is about a woman (me) meeting my child in heaven for the first time. Since I've never seen him/her, I don't know for whom I'm looking. I see the child and finally realize that there's a family resemblance there and it must be my child. I then go through the emotions of waiting for this day to come and how it might feel for the child too... to embrace someone and dive right into a relationship that is unfamiliar. I thought the ending probably gave clarity to the story line by saying, "you with your mother and us with our maker (God)." I guess you're right though... maybe the ambiguity isn't a good thing and I should make it more clear earlier. I guess I thought it added suspense. I also appreciate the comment about rhyme scheme. That sucks because I originally didn't have it rhyming, but I changed it so that it would. I'll change it back. I see how people feel confined by rhyming and they don't effectively get their message across because they're so worried about finding a word to rhyme.

I like your suggestion about the content of the second one. It does leave the reader in the dark about the situation that caused the sadness. I wrote that one for my students to study personification and other literary elements, so that one was vague on purpose because I didn't necessarily want to share something so personal with them. I see how it doesn't really work.

Again, thank you so much for helping me. It's hard to know how to get better when I don't know what publishers look for.


I replied:

Hi K,
I'm so glad you took my comments in the spirit intended--with professionalism! You haven’t changed a bit since our days in the classroom, which is why you were one of the best students.

One thing you said—“I didn't necessarily want to share something so personal with them”--I want to comment on. Any writing--poetry or fiction--that isn't intensely personal--to be honest--isn't worth sharing, imo. And, it’s not poetry. Even with kids. Maybe especially with kids. If we don't expose them to things that are intensely personal, what kinds of models are we providing? In my mind, pretty much meaningless things. If we leave out passion, what is really left? And, not telling passion but showing where it comes from and how it was created.

There are two things that make any writing work. Make it clear and make it interesting. When you say you wrote it for your students to study personification and other literary elements, alas, it doesn’t do either. Personification is when it’s… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… personal. And, if it’s not interesting—and, laundry lists of emotional terms isn’t remotely interesting—then there are no literary elements. Literary elements are techniques used to communicate emotion. They’re not something in and of themselves. They only exist to inform communication. If you’re not communicating, then they’re not literary elements.

What happens in many classrooms is that when kids write anything at all, as teachers we’re overjoyed. Even if it isn’t very good. It’s so difficult to get kids to write or read at all that any effort is welcomed joyously. So, we end up accepting less than what they’re capable of. We also end up not showing them what poetry is really about. We end up assuming they can’t understand or appreciate good writing. That they have to take some kind of “first steps” or something. Ease into good writing gradually. That’s such a major piece of b.s. but many buy into that mindset, unfortunately.

The truth is, the only thing kids do appreciate and understand is good writing. We do them a disservice by thinking they’re “not ready for quality writing.” We end up dumbing down things for them. On a subconscious level, people (including kids) always resent that. The vast majority of people are pretty smart, no matter the age. They know when they’re being talked down to. Or “taught down to.” When they write a poem that’s only about the emotion and don’t give the reason for that emotion, they may bask in the praise on the surface, but kids know what’s phony and what’s not. Most of them have a perfectly good and reliable b.s. detector in their backpacks and know when they’re being shucked, even when the shuck consists of praise. In fact, that’s how most con games are run—by appealing to the mark’s ego. Often, when we’re the ones delivering the praise, we don’t really feel the work is that good either. We’re just ecstatic that little Janie or rambunctious Mark has actually written something that we don’t offer realistic and honest comments for the work, but more for the fact that they actually put pen to paper and got something down. It’s a first step, we think. Except…it’s a first step on the wrong path.

Watch some of the other kids when someone writes a poem about his or her “feelings” without a word about what created those feelings. I’ll bet at least three kids will be rolling their eyes. Another one will be pantomiming gagging. Usually boys. Our response is to chastise the miscreant, but we might be better served in figuring out that they’re just being honest critics, albeit a bit rude. These are folks whose b.s. detectors are on and in working order.

But, have little Janie stand up and read her poem about how her mother never cooked supper and how she spent an hour every night hiding the liquor bottle from Mom and I’ll bet any amount of money there will be a lot less eye-rolling going on. I’ll bet the audience will be transfixed. And many of them relating to their own experiences. And, they’ll learn what real poetry is and I imagine at least some of them will become excited when they see one of their peers can write something that others pay attention to and feel something when they hear it. Especially if Janie never uses a word like “sad” or “desolate” or “sorrow.” Janie won’t have to. The listener or reader will feel all of those things from the event itself. Just like Janie did.

Or, in a different kind of school that you teach in—say a school nestled in a wealthy suburb. Where the Janie there stood up and read her poem about a father who was never there as he had to travel for his job and how he’d missed her dance recital and her twelfth birthday party because of “business.” That Janie doesn’t have to say a word about how bad she feels about not having an active father. The poem does all that and many of her peers will relate. There will be a lot less eye-rolling than if she read some fuzzy piece about her “feelings.” Make sense?

Poetry, just like fiction, is about trouble. Even the poem you told me you plan to write—the “happy” poem about your present pregnancy—will be a much better poem if you include the miscarriage that came before.

K, I'd like to use our email exchanges on my blogpost if you'd consider giving me permission to do so. I wouldn't use your name at all. I think it would help a lot of other writers. If you don't want me to, no problem. I won't!


Blue skies,

Hi Les,
You're right about sharing emotional things with people, especially our writing. I guess I just wasn't ready to do so because it was still so recent. I could tell them next year when I share it with them. I also wanted to ask your opinion about adding poetic devices (sound devices, figurative language, etc...) in the poems. When I spoke with my Masters professor, she encouraged me to use more. That's why in that second poem I use personification, alliteration, metaphor, hyperbole, and a couple other things. Is that something you suggest I focus on, or do you think people really look for that?

In response to your question, you can definitely use my poem on your blog. It's very humbling to have it on there for what not to do- haha. I'm just kidding. As a writer, I would welcome advice and examples like that in whatever medium I could get my hands on. So, if I can help with that, then I'd love to. You can share my email too.

Would it be ok to revise the first poem and send it to you again? It probably wouldn't be for awhile, but I want to see if I change it for the better.

Hi K,
I’d love to see a revision on the poem! Let me comment on a couple of things you said.
First, you have good instincts when you said you “weren’t ready to do so because it was so recent.” That’s a very legitimate concern. Most writers need some distance from truly emotional events to be able to write coherently about it. Unless, they’re the writer Graham Greene spoke of with that “piece of ice in their hearts.” Just wait until you have enough psychic distance and then write it. But, when you write a poem or a story, I’d make sure you had an emotional attachment to it or it may not end up particularly well.
As far as your professor’s suggestions, I would take exception to some of the things she advised. For one thing, alliteration is much in disfavor these days. It’s considered somewhat archaic and draws attention to the writer overmuch by making the reader aware that there’s a writer at work behind the words, thereby interrupting the fictive dream. Years ago, we used to see newspaper headlines that used all kinds of alliteration. No mas, as Roberto Duran famously stated. A reporter using alliteration these days would probably be fired unless he was working for the Stumpy Hollow Gazette. Considered very amateurish and just too “cutesy.” I would also eschew hyperbole, at least in a serious poem. It’s really a synonym for melodramatic. If you lower the volume, the effect is infinitely more profound than if you raise it. Let the events speak for themselves—don’t “help” it out by hyperbole. As for metaphor, those are fine. One thing you didn’t mention was symbols. Good. Good writers don’t purposely employ such devices, but let any symbols arise organically out of the work itself and don’t strain to include them. The best symbols and the ones that work are the ones that are original to the poem or story and arise naturally. The ones that don’t work are the ones that are consciously inserted. These are things deconstructionists look for. The artist doesn’t. The artist simply writes a good poem or story.
Quality poetry and fiction is always about affecting the reader emotionally, not intellectually.
The thing about professors is that they have to have some kind of criteria to judge something. Most of them look for surface things like the aforementioned. It’s what they’ve been trained to do and perhaps all they’re comfortable with. That kind of exposes such a teacher as someone who doesn’t have much faith in their own acumen to judge the quality of work, but depends on these kinds of things. They’re looking at the work in an intellectual light instead of an emotional one. I suspect such a person as being one who hasn’t published much herself, and if so, mostly in obscure places. That may be unfair or even incorrect, but I kind of doubt it.
The thing is, writing is based on living languages, English in our case. And, living languages change, mutate, as do tastes in literature. While alliteration, for example, was, at one time, considered a very clever technique, today’s readers are too sophisticated to buy it. It’s like transitions in fiction. It used to be something taught avidly. Today, transitions have adopted movie structure and aren’t signaled like they used to be. Just a couple of examples how both the language and the literary tastes have changed. And continue to change. The problem is, educators in higher education are often behind the times. Just the nature of their jobs… They spend a lot of time, energy and money to learn their body of academia and they’ve invested in it. Makes it difficult for some of them to change sometimes…
Hope this helps, K. Thank you so much for letting me use our exchanges.
And, send me that rewritten poem! I have a feeling I’m going to want to recommend it to my friend.
BTW, I don’t write much poetry, but here’s one I had published in The Blue Moon Literary and Art Review about a year ago. I wrote it shortly after I got out of prison.
My Father and Robert Frost/Les Edgerton

            One day I found a volume of poetry by Robert Frost in the prison library at Pendleton and checked it out.
            Back in my cell, I read: Home is the place where, when you want to go there, they have to take you in.
            When I made parole, I called my mom to tell her my good news. I found out that my dad had never read Robert Frost.
            At least not that poem.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this, folks, and that you find it helps inform your own writing.

Blue skies,



Sarah Faurote said...

Now hold on a minute! I've sent concrete poetry to you, Les, and you said you do not "do poetry." Now it seems "K" got a wonderful, constructive response. I've been published! You are gonna get it, Mister. I will say, K has beautiful possibilities. My favorite instructor for poetry is Walt Whitman. Thank God for the "Father" of free verse. Love you, Les. K sounds like a great person.

Les Edgerton said...

Got me, Sarah. That was then, this is now... I have one poetry day per year and this was it...

K is a great person. And, so are you.

Plus, I don't like poetry about concrete or cement...