It’s January first, so a lot of people don’t have much energy right now, but poetry energy isn’t about getting up early after a night out, it’s about engagement and control—in your poems and over your reader. One of the elements that makes the best poems the best is their use and control of energy. I’ll try explaining what I mean and how it works below.
- Energy, tension and suspense can often be used interchangeably is this discussion, and I will use them that way because I’m kind of lazy. Energy is the push and pull you feel as a reader when you’re progressing through a poem. It’s the pull the poem exerts on you to keep reading, and the push it enacts on your response. Energy makes you want to finish the poem. It’s transferred from the page into the reader and changes your temperature—it’s the gasp or sigh or “oh wow” you exhale at the end.
- The strongest energy in poetry is emotion. All emotions are energy—some stronger than others. Some are more efficient (work better, faster, longer) than others. Most successful poems work by managing their emotional energy.
- The easiest way to add emotional energy to a poem is to put a person in it. Poems without any people (dogs count as people, but cats don’t) are at an energy disadvantage. Readers seek things in a poem to identify with, to connect to. Without a person as a subject in the poem the reader scrounges around for something to clutch onto. Often the person is the author/speaker—that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that an unpeopled lyric can’t be successful—its just means that it needs to find another way to rev up its energy.
- Great poems are often downers. That’s not because all poets are depressed. It’s because negative energy emotions are easier to do than positive energy emotions. It’s easier to trigger someone’s emotions with negative things because that connects with our senses of alarm, sympathy, fear and loathing, than with positive things—unless you’re talking about cute dog videos. Joy is harder to do (in poetry and in life), which is probably why there’s less of it, and is one reason I was so thrilled to stumble upon this anthology by James Crews. My own theory on why negative emotions are more common in poetry is that they’re heavier and drive us to action (to write about them, correct them, drown them with wine…), while positive emotions drive us to revel in the moment rather than reflect on how we got there.
- So, to continue from point #4, if you want to add emotional energy, put a person in the poem. If you want to increase the emotional energy then drive home the negative (make the person suffer—poems with people happily sitting around at dinner have more trouble raising emotional energy than poems about someone hit by a milk truck). This doesn’t make you a bad person. It just shows you’re sensitive to the suffering of others and want to explore this aspect of humanity. But don’t ignore joy, celebration, and gratitude as well–when done skillful, those poems also are wonderful, like this one by Barbara Crooker.
- Energy can be increased with rhetorical techniques as well. Anaphora (repetition) is a great way to increase energy because the repetition of a word or phrase triggers our need for recognition and confirmation. Questions increase energy because they trigger the reader’s need for answers. Turns (such as the volta in sonnets) are great ways to manipulate energy because by shifting direction, they add tension, surprise, introspection, and maybe, resolution.
- Line breaks and enjambment can help manipulate the energy in a poem by affecting the pace of the image. Like the use of short lines or long lines, breaks are way to add and build tension.
- Like a spring or a bow and arrow, energy in a poem can be built up and released.
- All poems are triangles. They either start narrow (at the point) and expand as they progress, or they start wide and compress or shed excess to a fine point at the end.
- A simile is a micro example of the energy process. The first part of the simile (the description of the original thing, also called the tenor) is the pulling back of the bow to build energy, then the new thing it’s being compared to (the vehicle) is release. That’s why similes feel so good—they’re these little micro energy moments in a poem.
- I might be wrong about all this. Do your own thing.
Note: this post was slightly updated 6/28/22