The Relationship between Emotion and Poetry

So a couple of days ago, a reader gave me this prompt for the blog: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1782 to 1822) wrote, “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” Discuss!

Okay, Mr. Shelley, here goes. After reflecting on your thought, I respectfully have to disagree. While it may be true that some poetry by some poets comes out of happiness, I do not feel that the majority of my poetry does, and there is a lot of evidence that a lot of creative people, poets among them, write to handle their less positive emotions. In fact Kay Redfield Jamison has written a book about it, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Given that Jamison is an experienced psychiatrist with bipolar disorder herself, and a gifted writer and researcher, I think that we should listen to what she has to say. (And for those of you who like memoirs, her book, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, will widen your mind on the struggles of major mental illness. Eloquent and a little scary.)

Rather than beginning with emotions, even the negative ones, I think I more often begin with a phrase or an idea. Looking at the poetry coming in my first two books, one to be published later this year and the other next year, these are some of the patterns I see.

Quotation-June-Jordan-poetry-truth-Meetville-Quotes-196042

Didactic/Political Poetry, Serious or Funny: Because I read a lot of women poets, and poets who came to age during the Civil Rights/Anti War/Feminist Movements, I have never had a problem with political poetry, as long as it is good poetry. Neither singsong nor screeching will bring opponents around to be allies, nor potential allies to be activists. But beauty, good imagery, sometimes humor: those are the things that can turn hearts. So yes, I write about body image, domestic violence and war. Having traveled to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki while I lived in Japan, and having done so as an Obvious (Default) American (blonde and blue), I had to consider the damage my country had done to a people I respected and liked. Such reflections can lead to poetry, but it is unlikely to be happy poetry.

Popular Culture, both Appreciative and Satirical: Again, as a woman, I am constantly aware how the things around me, good and bad, affect my perception of myself and other women, and vice versa. And pop culture plays a huge role in that. So yes, I will write about Ken coming out of the closet, Raggedy Ann getting a heart transplant (from I Love You to Hotchacha) and changing into a different type of gal, Amelia Earhart, Lucy Lawless and other real women being general badasses: to me it is all fair game. I do not know that happiness per se is a part of it.

amelia-earharts-quotes-1

Environmental Poetry: Here I am probably lumping one strand of didactic poetry with the more general subject of nature poetry. Maybe I could keep them separate 20 years ago, but now? We are killing the planet, and I cannot ignore this, even when I am celebrating the beauty, generosity and wildness of Earth and Nature. So even when I am talking about bright yellow daffodils, there are likely to be other, darker colors lurking in the background.

Art/Zen Poetry: This is not the best name, but certainly when I look at a static piece of visual art, often in the quiet of my home or a museum, there is the feeling of movement in the people moving in the landscape, the dynamism of their stories, but also a sense, at the end of the poem I am using to capture that, of completeness and serenity.

zen-issa-o-snail-climb-mount-fuji

Occasional Poetry: Something happens, to me or friends and I write a poem to commemorate it. Once, a friend had a month of big trouble from a roommate, including a restraining order. After the judge threw the case out, and the roommate moved out, my friend had an Exorcism Party, and I wrote a series of poems for that, to create a ritual of getting the bad energy out and laying down the foundation for forgiveness and forgetfulness. Important work, I think, but not particularly happy.

There is undoubtedly more, Mr. Percy, but this is all just off the top of my head. Overall, I would say that happiness is necessary to the healthy person but it is not necessary to the working poet. Hopefully, we can be both.

2 comments on “The Relationship between Emotion and Poetry

  1. PJS says:

    Shelley was an extremely political poet, always championing causes, and most of his work is not “happy” in the usual sense. He WAS very optimistic in that he thought man was perfectible and that “the golden age will come,” but his poetry was not “happy” in the sense of “Isn’t life great!” Actually, he thought life was pretty awful and unfair for most people but that the world COULD be a better place, some day, in part through poetry.

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  2. Okay, so define happy for me in the way you think he would define it, because I am working with my own cultural biases.

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