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.

Stress and the Sestina

I’m not going to ask you to imagine you live a crazy life. I’m going to assume you do.

I’m going to assume one or all of the following things: that you work long hours, pay high taxes, argue with your lover, can’t work out, overeat, forget to eat, chase your kids, get stuck in elevators, run out of money, miss deadlines, drop phone calls, cry at job interviews, have a messy car trunk, have a cold that’s turned into the flu that’s turned into bronchitis that’s turned into an unexpected hospital visit, that you didn’t get promoted, that your vacation got rained out, that you saw your ex, nothing fits, and you’re a very horrible writer with no time to read anymore and only watches reality shows to see other people lose. I bet that at least three of these things describe how you feel about yourself and if it makes you feel any better, I feel that way about you, too. I know you live this crazy life.

And guess what? You’re okay.

You’re still awesome. And I’m going to help you see your way through all this stress, and back to your superior awesome self. You can’t run, you can’t hide, but you can find the peace in the place where you stand/run/walk/panic/scream/shut-down/laugh. It’s all about framing and form.

It’s all about the safety of the Sestina.

Some poets and poetry lovers know about the sestina and some don’t. Sestina is kind of a big-shot recluse in the poetry world. Imagine a sestina as a hipster’s favorite new band – most poets won’t read or write or know them, and a few will acknowledge them, and some will go so far as to basically tell you, “You’ve probably never heard of it, but Sestinas are where it’s at, but y’know, it’s kind of my thing. I’m going to a Sestina Festival this Fall but don’t try and get a ticket, ‘cause it’s already sold out.”

So, I’m going to break it down for all of us: why sestinas can bring a sense of order into our unruly lives, why they are an indulgent escape when the world is just too much with us, and most importantly, why the sestina should be defended at all costs.

The sestina is a 39 line poem, consisting of 6 stanzas that are 6 lines each. If you’re good at math, you realize that only adds up to 36. Then the sestina need 3 more lines at the end of the poem which will be in the form of an envoi. Envoi always sounds like an amazing all girl R-and-B group, but really it’s a short stanza that addresses the poem before it, or can be addressed specifically to a person, real or imagined. So, just so we’re following each other, so far a sestina looks like this in number terms:

6 (stanzas) x 6 (lines) + 3 (lines-envoi!) = 39 lines

Why do I lay it out like this? BECAUSE YOUR LIFE IS COMPLICATED ENOUGH! The sestina form is straightforward. You can play with the words, but the sestina is a fixed verse form – don’t let that intimidate you, it’s just a template- and you my friend, don’t need an more complication in your everyday schedule. Let the template work for you.

And then the next part of the equation comes – what do you with these 39 lines? Well, this is where you get a little mind exercise – and because it requires some focus and attention, that means you can’t concentrate on anything else – like laundry, bus fare, and your dreams of delight and despair.

The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. They are usually iambs, but do not have to rhyme internally or externally. Sound crazy making? Maybe. But it can also be fun and relaxing.

The repetition that is found throughout sestinas helps me work out what I can’t let go of – my anxieties, my fears, a story that’s stuck in my brain, the upcoming Presidential election. It’s a way for me to take an idea or event that may play itself out in the middle of the night as a fever dream and pitch it into a form, give it a place to live, and if I’m lucky, find a reader who knows exactly what I’m bitching, moaning, groaning, giggling about and obsessing over day in and day out. Stephen Fry, in his book, THE ODE LESS TRAVELED, writes that the sestina is a place for “repetition and recycling of elusive patterns that cannot be quite held in the mind all at once.”

If you could take just one thing that stressed you out and give it a home that you could always visit but never had to stay longer than you wanted, wouldn’t you at least try it? (That’s what I’m hoping!) And if you don’t trust me, at least trust Stephen Fry. He’s much cooler than me.

So, back to it. You take the last word of each line of the first stanza and use it as line endings in the next stanza. The second-sixth stanzas use a bottom-up pairing. The pattern goes something like this (yes, more numbers here):

And the envoi ends with 3 lines, as we know. Those 3 lines should include all 6 line- endings from the preceding stanzas.

By now, you probably thinking I don’t have time for this counting and checking. I just want to write a damn poem and read some damn fine poetry. And you should. And if the poem you want to write is not in fixed verse form, see if it could fit into those perimeters. See how it feels when you exercise your brain on one task, instead of running in heels to catch a bicycle while juggling a fish and finishing that book on multitasking. And then, see if your poem can work in a fixed form. Try not to fight it – it’s not one more thing you have to do – it’s a choice. It’s going to the Container Store to find the perfect box instead of using your old shoe box that smells like…shoes.

I’m going to write my sestina here, first time-first draft, no corrections. Why? So that you can see it can be done -a controlled and accessible experiment in an imperfect and chaotic world. And because it will make me feel organized, better, and in control, even if it’s all just a delusion. And because I chose stressed syllables over stressing situations. And because I’m not working for perfection here, I’m simply losing myself in writing a poem this afternoon.

There is significant freedom in the fixed word. I hope you find this to be true, too, and that you’ll write your sestina any minute now.


By Kayla Cagan

There are chickens next door who strut and prance
but basically keep it down in the morning
when they know we are just waking from a dark night
of sheet-tangled dreams and twisted limbs
not ready to face the day of choices to eat this
or think that, be aware or still proceed with hope.

And as I brush my teeth glancing out the window with hope
to see the bold one or the shy one or the dotted one prance
I can’t say that I wouldn’t mind being a chicken for this
day when the it starts off as a gray morning
and they aren’t worried about what hurts, which limbs
will be worn and tired by the fall of the night.

When the moon shines and Hummer headlights flash the night,
we will climb back into bed, brains full of urgent hope
that our chests will bursts open, our hearts pulsing prayer to our limbs,
“You’re free tonight of that angry, annihilating prance
the one that keeps sleep-stinging you until morning,
you’ll be free tonight of some, of all, of not all, the thing that is this.”

A new day will happen, we’ll repeat all this,
I’ll stare at the chickens and wonder where they sleep at night,
what their routines are first thing in the morning,
if they eat because they’re hungry or without hope,
if it’s just a way of life in which they’re fatten and prance,
on those little twigs of legs, their scratchy thin limbs.

I’ll take my mat outside and balance on my silly limbs
wishing that the things that mattered were only this,
where the trio of chickens sleep and prance,
if they nosh grass all day and scratch ticks at night
if they are sanguine in understanding they will be eaten without hope
just to fill a fat man belly’s first thing in the morning.

It is this comfort I take in the morning,
knowing that I’m imperfect in my limbs,
relaxing into the hammock of hope,
that there’s really only this,
that I don’t have to worry each and every night.
I will always be filled with this jumpy little heart, my own prance.

I watch the chickens in morning and they know when I prance.
I have hope in all the hours in between, that there is not more than this,
praying our routine will carry us through another night.
And there you have it. A sestina written, imperfectly, in the middle of the day – when I wasn’t consumed about all of the things that weigh on my media-saturated, anxiously- ambitious brain. I actually feel like I went on vacation.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Write a sestina. Have some fun. Experiment. Escape.

Kayla Cagan.

Kayla Cagan lives in LA across the street from a famous tattoo parlor. She is a playwright, dramaturg, and novelist, and is married to the insanely funny and lovable screenwriter Josh A. Cagan. Say hi to @kaylacagan on twitter.