Myth: the essence of a poem is expressing emotion.

The Word Vomit Technique. Illustration by Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings.

Before I get all grr on “emotional poetry,” I want to say this: I’m all about poeming in the diary, discussing heartbreak and daily doings, but that doesn’t make a poem great.  And great poems can express big feelings.  In fact, any good piece of writing should evoke emotion in the reader.  It’s what connects the reader to the work.  But just as in novels and essays and all that prosey stuff, a good poem has a story first.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  A story uses sensory detail, characterization, setting, and narrative to work its magic on the reader.  And why should a poem be any different?  A story is all the good stuff that brings us around to the feelings.  It has to come first.  It’s like Step 1.  And much like Ikea furniture, it’s a good idea in poetry to perform step 1 before trying to install step 2.

So my theory is this: A good poem isn’t about emotions, it makes the reader emote.  It evokes emotion in the reader by using emotive imagery.  And to achieve this, you’ve gotta start at ground level or else your whole poem is going to fall apart just like a poorly furnished college apartment.

Now, emotional poetry is definitely a thing and a lot of writers love it and it’s where a lot of us start as poets.  There’s a reason I recommend Sylvia Plath to many beginning poets trudging their way through the perils of high school.  I think she is the original emo kid — she’s got her heart on her sleeve and she’s not afraid to use it.  But the thing that Sylvia has that a lot of journal poetry doesn’t is the sense of story that I already mentioned, the imagery and sensory detail.  Plus, you know, that haunting voice.  Here’s an example:

“April 18″

the slime of all my yesterdays
rots in the hollow of my skull

and if my stomach would contract
because of some explicable phenomenon
such as pregnancy or constipation

I would not remember you

or that because of sleep
infrequent as a moon of greencheese
that because of food
nourishing as violet leaves
that because of these

and in a few fatal yards of grass
in a few spaces of sky and treetops

a future was lost yesterday
as easily and irretrievably
as a tennis ball at twilight

–Sylvia Plath

SO.  Love or hate Sylvia Plath, we can all agree on a two things:
1. She tells a story with her poem.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. She makes us feel things.

Sylvia Plath leads an emo band. Illustration by Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings.

Imagine if the poem were simply a list of feelings, though.  Would that be interesting?  I don’t think so.  Anyone can list feelings and use a thesaurus to come up with a few extra S.A.T. words for “grumpy” and “tears” and throw in some linebreaks and call it a poem.  What I want from a poem when I’m reading is a reason to feel for the narrator, a sense of what the narrator feels and why.  And, duh, I want that story.

So, Sylvia Plath nails it with that  #2. She makes us feel things.  And she uses all those tricks that I believe make a poem work.  I mean, wow, that first couplet?  It’s dark.  It’s creepy.  And it’s so, so sad.  Even better, in this and in so much of Plath’s poetry, there is space for the reader to go in, suck in the words, swirl them around in his mouth, and taste what he needs to taste.  He may or may not like the poem, but he hasn’t just had to consume word vomit.  Which, really, is what happens if you just let your feelings dance around unhinged while writing.

I’m sorry, folks.  But your word vomit — or soul vomit, as I’ve come to think of some of the more, er, emotional poetry that, yes, even I wrote back in the day — belongs in a first draft or in a journal.

And really, I have to wonder, where does this myth that poetry = emotion come from? Is it our schools, where overworked and underpaid teachers are given a single week in which to teach poetry by the Powers That Be?  Is it the fact that contemporary works are physically inaccessible to young people and are, indeed, less read than, say, Shakespeare’s soppy (if lovely) sonnets?  Regardless, I’d say that emotions in poetry is a good thing, and I’d encourage any poet endeavoring to make his readers feel something to use his words to do just that. Make the reader feel it.

I also drew whale-eating-jellyfish to keep myself sane in the dark days.

I also drew whale-eating-jellyfish to keep myself sane in the dark days.

It’s quite simple: Today is May 4th and I am on poem 28.

Assuming I write two more poems in the next few days, I will have done NaPoWriMo five times. By “done” I mean I’ll have written 30 poems, in quick succession, with no regard for their quality, around April-kind-of-time in five separate years. A NaPuritan might say this doesn’t count. They might decree I have to write exactly one poem, every day, thirty days running starting April 1st, or it isn’t NaPo. Someone a little less hardcore might say that I should, at least, wind up by April 30th. And if that floats their boat then I wish them a good voyage.

But I don’t think it matters. It would matter if, come May 1st, all the grist dropped out of my mill and I a stopped writing. It would matter if, among the wasted days of poetic incontinence, I failed to indulge in an occasional verse orgy. But I’m easygoing. And poetically libidinous. And I don’t mind dragging the affair out.

Embarrassment is part and parcel of the NaPoWriMo business. This year I indulged in love poetry and angst like I never did this as a teen. Obviously I was making up for lost time. For instance:


I don’t just want you to be here

Art by Chris Giles of My Beautiful Paintings

I want to make you be here, tie you
to a string round my wrist and drag you,
not like a puppy,
but like an angry rabbit.


If you always head east, head west,
just drive. Turn up the hi-fi
and try not to think.

You’re thinking.
Don’t think, just keep breathing and blinking,
you’re thinking, you’re thinking, don’t think.

No, don’t blush for me, I’ll own my own inadequacies.

But that’s not all! No, this year I wrote about twitter, xkcd, dinosaur comics, Gotye covers and cat videos. I wrote lovingly of the arcane Gloucestershire tradition of cheese rolling, a sport so dangerous it was banned (but has that stopped the free cheese rolling spirits of Gloucester? NEVER).

These are natives of Gloucester chasing a cheese that is rolling down a hill.

These are natives of Gloucester chasing a cheese that is rolling down a hill.

This year I sat on the carpet with my mother at 1:38am watching a storm and discussing matricide, then wrote a poem about sitting on the carpet with my mother at 1:38am watching a storm and discussing matricide. This is how it starts:


I sat on the bedroom carpet
with my mother
discussing matricide.

It continues like this -

A mirth of matricides? she said,
a perpetuation of matricides
would that work?

A legacy of matricides, I remarked.

And concludes,

We were waiting for the lightning
to strike the church opposite,
for the cat to squeal and run for the towel basket,
for grandma to pass on.

So now you know.

(Actually I quite like that one. I guess I’m just lucky enough to have a mum who is insane.)

In all honesty I’ve written reams of total gibberish this month. But I’ve never been one to cling desperately to a dead poem in the hope that a wizard will come along with a spell to make it live. I don’t mind writing a bit of dross to get to the good stuff. Actually most of my best poems I’ve typed hurriedly in a moment of procrastination or in a lunch break, thinking they were awful. It’s only later, sometimes months later, I look back and realise they’ve got something worth redeeming. The poems I labour over always come out laboured.

I expect NaPoWriMo isn’t for everyone. I expect I am exactly the sort of person NaPoWriMo is for. The type of person who gets bored easily; who constantly wants to start the next project, and not worry about perfecting the last one; a goal-orientated workaholic; and the type of writer who only has two settings when it comes to editing, tweak and overhaul.

I will leave you with an inspired piece from day 3:

Pirates! Three of them
on the fo’castle
doing a jig:
knees up knees up
clink hi ho!
Not interested in a
whale like me.

Where does the process for a first book of poetry begin and end? Where do the first threads come together?

Does it start with a word? An image? An experience you’d rather move past but can’t? Does it start when the heart is set on fire?

When my first book of poetry, AMPHETAMINE HEART, was published last fall, readers have often picked up on the personal elements of it. People want to know the autobiographical details, what it takes to roll real life into surreal angst, and whether this book was the outcome of a search for catharsis.

Guernica Editions, 2011.

But I’ve realized I don’t have straight answers about where this book began. Yes, I can tell you the year I got serious about writing poetry. I can tell you what led me to shift my focus from journalism to creative writing.

I can tell you that when I committed myself to poetry, and to the poems that are contained within AMPHETAMINE HEART, I was not consciously working towards a book. I was just working towards becoming the kind of writer I wanted to be.

I can tell you that when I was working on a lot of the poems that are contained within AMPHETAMINE HEART, my foundation was based on a single image. I would bring my mind back to it whenever I drew a blank in getting from one line to the next. That image is hard to articulate, but it was a mental collage of outer space, purple and turquoise, and a triangle with the power of an all-seeing eye, but without the eye.

Is that weird? It might be, but I wanted my poems to be weird. I wanted to draw out everything I couldn’t say about what I was seeing in my mind.

The poems did not end up being about space, but they do have eyes, and through those eyes are the stories of what they’ve seen.

The stories are personal. Some are about things that happened to me. They are about my ongoing anxieties and depressions and my sometimes-sadness and previous loneliness.

Some of Amphetamine Heart’s poems are running commentary on things that happened to people I’ve had in my life at various times. It seems inevitable that I would have used personal experience to shape these poems, because my personal experiences shape everything I do.

So did the process for AMPHETAMINE HEART start the first time I realized I was feeling stress? (I was in Grade 4, by the way. I remember worrying about failing math – I was always failing math – and thinking to myself, “This must be what stress is. I am feeling stress.”)

Did AMPHETAMINE HEART start the first time I cut myself? (I was 13. I remember thinking, “this will take me one step closer to death.”)

I think the more you add everything up, the harder it is to pinpoint an exact moment something started. It all builds up into something else. One book is not the end result – it’s a plateau, a resting place that you’ll build a new foundation from to your next book.

AMPHETAMINE HEART didn’t just start with a stressful situation, or with depression.

It also started with T.S. Eliot’s OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”; Gwendolyn MacEwan’s MAGIC ANIMALSs; and Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron, all of which were my earliest, adolescent tastes of poetry.

AMPHETAMINE HEART started the day I saw the video for the Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” on TV in 1995.

It started the first time I skipped a high school class to read a book instead of listen to a teacher.

It started when I realized it was sometimes more important to pay attention to what was in my own head than it was to pay attention to what someone else thought I had to hear.

Trace any creative process back, and you’ll probably find it has multiple beginnings. It’s not a single thread of narrative, or a solitary influence. Instead it’s many threads entwined to form a thick rope in the end, one that will stay strong as long as you remember where you come from and who you are and how you got to where you are right now.

Writing poetry is the culmination of many small moments leading into explosions on a page.

My small moments have so far led me to AMPHETAMINE HEART, and I’m waiting to see where they’ll take me next.

Where are your small moments taking you?

Liz Worth.

Liz Worth is the author of two books, AMPHETAMINE HEART and TREAT ME LIKE DIRT: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. She has also published three chapbooks, ELEVEN: ELEVEN, MANIFESTATIONS, and ARIK’S DREAM. She can be reached at