Wordsmith Wednesday–Writing about Feelings

This week’s Monday Morning Writing Prompt encouraged participants to write a “feeling” poem or short fiction: not necessarily something that told a story, but rather a piece that evoked a feeling. Last night, I was browsing through a book about poetry before going to sleep. It happened to be “The Poetry Home Repair Manual” by Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the United States and one of my all time favorites, both as a writer and teacher of the art of poetry.

by Ted Kooser

The chapter that caught my eye was “Writing about Feelings” and I couldn’t resist sharing some of Kooser’s insights on this subject. The man is a genius.

Kooser starts the chapter with a discussion about sentimentality which is defined in dictionaries as an excess of sentiment or the affectation of sentiment. Read: gushiness.

Here’s a short quote from a poem by Edgar Guest (IMHO, the king of gushy effusion):

Words cannot tell what this old heart would say of her:
Mother, the sweetest and fairest of all!

But how can you express the sort of affection Guest is addressing in praise of his mother without dipping into the pool of effusiveness? Kooser’s suggestion is simple: avoid generalities and focus on specifics.

So this means, instead of using a slew of superlative adjectives or adverbs, you illustrate an example of a mother’s love. Show her caring for her feverish child during the night or describe how she sacrificed herself for you. This calls to mind the beauty of O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi”–a clear example of selfless love that is not mushy.

Kooser invites the writer to “skate along the edge (of the precipice)” of sentimentality, asking us to give the reader credit for coming up with the appropriate emotional response to a story on his or her own.

The use of metaphor or simile is an effective way to write feeling as well. For example, in a poem about his mother’s last years entitled “In a Nursing Home” he creates an effective emotional response by comparing her to a horse, grazing, that has stopped running, whose boundaries are shrinking.

In summary:

  • Be specific, use description.
  • Avoid generalizations and use of modifiers or superlatives.
  • Strive for balance between expression and restraint.
  • Look for similes and metaphors that will create the desired emotional response.
  • Trust your reader to figure it all out.

While Kooser hones in on poetry, I find this advice serves writers of prose as well.

For discussion, please consider writing a poem or short piece of prose that evokes emotion without sentimentality. Yes, I know, it’s almost the same as the MMWP. Maybe you will want to revisit what you wrote for that prompt and revise it…or not. The bottom line: it’s your work and the final decision is yours!

If you choose to participate in this discussion/exercise, please include your link or writing in the comment section of this post and take a moment to visit other participants. Above all, enjoy the process!

And I strongly recommend Kooser’s book…it’s a must-read!

Wordsmith Wednesday–True Haiku

The poetess Ukon

Image via Wikipedia

Many of us enjoy writing 17 syllable poems that we call “Haiku.” These are divided into 3 lines of 5-7-5 syllables each. To be honest, we often take liberties with this centuries-old Japanese form, which is okay. As former poet Ted Kooser says in his wonderful book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, “Don’t worry about rules.”

There’s another poet who is known for her translations of Japanese poets. In her stunning book Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirshfield presents details of Haiku and other Asian forms. She presents such masters as Basho, Shikibu and Ono no Komachi.

A key element of Haiku (and similar forms) is its focus on the natural world. Using concrete sensory images–tactile, visual–these word artists create a subjective interpretation of objective reality. To me, this Zen-like experience is an example of the poet’s power to observe and translate the mundane into the sublime.

Another aspect of true Haiku is that the poem should always evoke one of the four seasons–either directly or obliquely through description.

In no way do I want to discourage Haiku that adheres only to syllable count. Rather, I invite you to take it a step further and try to compose a Haiku while turning to nature for inspiration and incorporating a seasonal reference.

I strongly suggest adding Hirschfield’s book, as well as Kooser’s to your library. You won’t be disappointed.

This week I will be posting three Haiku on One Shot Wednesday: http://onestoppoetry.com that observe the form as developed by the Japanese poets.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Poetry and Prose

2006 National Poetry Month poster, designed by...

Image via Wikipedia

Since April is National Poetry Month, I think it’s important to pay homage to this sometimes undervalued art. Many prose writers, especially those who write literary fiction, dabble in poetry–either as readers or poets–and find that doing so enriches their own work. Here are a few things to consider:


  • Engages the senses
  • Pays attention to details
  • Uses symbolic language
  • Expresses thoughts succinctly
  • Respects the rhythm and sound of words
  • Makes use of metaphor and simile
  • Uses description to express feelings
  • Breaks the rules!

I invite you to treat yourself to a book of poetry, brew a cup of tea or coffee. Now, hunker down in your favorite chair and read. My personal preference is for poets who are not so obscure that you need a lit professor to help interpret their work. Here are just a few of my favorites, most of them contemporary: Ted Kooser, Kim Addonizio, Jane Hirschfiled, Jane Kenyon, Ellen Bass, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Dorianne Laux. Stanley Kunitz. Consider browsing poetry blogs and websites and sample some of the excellent poetry that is there for the taking.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process…and try writing a poem of your own. If you’d like to post it in comments, I’d love to share it.