Back in my schooldays, an English teacher who was also a poet gave me some advice that has stayed with me all these years. He said words to this effect, “It’s fine to bleed on the paper, but afterwards, you have to mop it up and do something with it.”
There are a great many people who use poetry as therapy. It’s a brilliant way to vent troubled emotion and if it helps to get it out of your system that way, then, fantastic. Anything that helps a person deal with life is a blessing. I have written my share of angsty, self indulgent bleed on the paper poetry. I’ve also encountered a fair bit of it online.
There is an enormous difference between writing for yourself, and writing for others. People who read poetry, for fun, will only tolerate a small amount of self indulgent angsty stuff. It has to go beyond that. You have to mop up the personal anguish and difficulty, and turn it into something that is about more than just you.
Visiting Portland in April, I had the pleasure of sitting through two poetry sessions in the city, and catching some poets other places too. Live poetry is incredibly immediate, and to a certain extent encourages writers to go for darker, stronger emotions that will grab the audience. Sex and death, anger, betrayal, rape, self harm… they did it all. One woman offered an almost unbearable account of a date rape. Very real. Very painful. I felt myself (and much of her audience) step back, unable to engage. Overwhelm people with your pain and darkness, and after a while they will become unable to listen.
The best poets I heard, told stories. They might have been from their own lives, or invented, it wasn’t always easy to tell. They contrasted the moments of terrible darkness with lighter touches, humour, compassion, pathos, moving us between emotions, taking us on journeys. Some of the stories were intensely personal and emotional, but the ones that really worked made the audience empathise, not asking them just to witness outpourings of grief, but to make the journey too, learn something, see something. The young man who talked about a lizard he had caused to die in a jar, and seeing himself as that lizard, in desperation, mixing his own fears with empathy for the creature he’d killed. Potent stuff. It became more than a story about a bad thing he’d experienced as a kid. It transcended his own life.
Anyone can bleed onto the paper, pouring out words that emerge like blood from wounds that are soul deep. It’s a good thing to do sometimes. I recommend it. A poem is more than this. It’s what happens when you mop up, reshape, and imagine someone else reading those words. It’s not enough to want to be heard or witnessed – a howl of pain is not a poem. Think about why you want someone else to hear your words, what you want it to mean to them, why they need to hear it. Make them breathless with beauty or startled with inspiration, make them weep over your naked humanity, by all means, shock them with simplicity, seduce them with metaphors and enchant them with rhyme and meter. But don’t just bleed.