Poetry about suffering can be difficult to write. Many of us want to forget our darkest moments, not remember them, or even worse: immortalize them in published form. And writing about painful subjects does bring up more pain. There’s no doubt about that.
Why not simply write about happier times, then? Why not avoid depressing subjects altogether?
Because like it or not, the powerful emotions invoked when we write about our worst moments often make good art. And even better: crafting art about these moments often helps to take some of the sting out of them, at least in the long run.
The First Stage in Writing Poetry About Suffering: Touching Darkness
The first step in writing poetry about suffering is to touch the parts of ourselves we typically prefer to avoid. These can include:
- Memories we prefer to forget
- Stories we would prefer no one heard
- Emotions we associate with negativity or pain
- Images that make us feel sad, angry, or scared
- Events or situations we try to avoid
These are anchoring moments for our poem. They are the juice behind the poem that will connect a reader to a moment in his or her own life in which he or she felt the same things.
The more powerful and memorable they are to us, the better they will serve our poem. It’s hard to write about something that is unclear or indistinct. It’s easy to write about something that is impossible to forget. Start by simply writing down what happened. Describe the scene in which the troubling memory happened. Sketch out the who, what, when, and where. Just use straight reporting. Don’t worry about trying to craft it. That will come later.
A word of caution: as a writer who typically takes on troubling subject matter, I know all too well the fresh pain that can be caused by tackling poetry about suffering. I have built my career as a poet, such as it is, on writing about topics that many poets consider too vulgar or sensational, including:
- child abuse
- even an occasional road kill poem or two
What I have learned from doing so is that some topics are simply too difficult to write about at particular moments in time. When I first started writing about the abuse I suffered as a child, for example, I had to take it slow. There was a lot of emotion there that I hadn’t processed. There’s no shame in leaving certain topics alone until you have sufficient distance from them.
The Second Stage: Turning Darkness Into Light
Once you record a dark moment, you can begin to craft it into a poem. The difficulty here is avoiding cliché. It is easy to fall back on worn-out phrasing like “ripped my heart out” or “tore my soul in two.” This communal language can be useful during a tear-filled phone call to a friend or loved one, but it is the death of all good poems.
Instead, try to use phrases that aren’t commonly associated with your subject matter. If you are new to poetry, it is also best to start with concrete imagery. Abstractions are hard to pull off in poems. Images pull readers in and allow for economy of phrasing.
Consider the following poem by Jack Gilbert about the death of his wife:
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
What is so powerful about this poem is its simplicity. Gilbert focuses on one particular detail: his wife’s hair. He describes the last time he found one of her hairs. This moment becomes a metaphor for the grieving process and for learning to let go. He doesn’t sentimentalize it, though. He just describes it. With powerful subjects like death, it’s often a bad idea to wax too poetic. It’s better just to be simple, plain.
The Benefit: Writing Poetry About Suffering as a Form of Therapy
If you’re anything like me, you will find that writing about terrible things that cause you pain actually make you feel better. The intent is not to be a masochist, rehearsing the same painful moments over and over. On the contrary, as you craft a poem about a painful subject, as you rework it and revise it, you may find that the topic starts to lose some of its sting. Someday you might even read it and discover it doesn’t hurt you at all.
Writing can be healing, which is why so many therapists recommend journaling to their patients. Just be gentle with yourself. Don’t try to take every painful moment in your life and turn it into a poem. Just work with a few at first and see what happens.