In my household, there are two writers, my husband Milton and myself. We both write essays, fiction, and poetry. How do we know when our ideas should manifest in poems rather than fiction or essays?
Milton is a Wordsworthian. At the turn of the nineteenth century, William Wordsworth transformed the language of poetry from its more formal, elevated diction to the language of natural speech expressing an “overflow of powerful feeling.” For example, Wordsworth’s often quoted poem about loss, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” includes emotionally moving lines about consolation:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
In a post-Wordsworth world, strong emotion, like offering comfort in the face of loss, lives in the province of poetry. Milton knows a poem is being born in him and not a story or an essay when he has a single, urgent feeling to express, either as a speaker himself or as a character to whom he gives speech. In the latter, he imagines how that character feels in a particular circumstance.
Recently, we were studying the famous narrative episode in the Hebrew Bible of Moses coming down from meeting God at Mt. Sinai. Moses finds his brother Aaron allowing the newly liberated Hebrews to worship a golden calf as if they were still slaves in Egypt. The story has Moses say to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Agreeing with Moses, most critics usually see Aaron as a failed leader.
But Milton knew some important powerful feelings were missing from the story. Milton had the irresistible desire to express Aaron’s “overflow of powerful feelings,” the anger he must have felt at Moses’ irresponsibility. After all, Moses spent a long 40 days and nights with God. Wasn’t Moses abandoning his people?
In “Aaron’s Reply,” Milton has Aaron say, in an outpouring of feeling,
Enough of your anger, Moses!
I should have resisted the clamor, you say.
I should have urged the people to be patient.
I should have been a leader.
So many “shoulds,”
and so little of your part in this calamity.
While you were basking in God’s radiance
I faced a frenzied mob
ready to murder anyone in their way —
ready to murder me should I stop them.
Sometimes, a writer might not feel that a strong emotion like anger is appropriate to other genres.
The great writer Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, could have expressed a flood of anger in his various writings: two classic memoirs Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, numerous fictional works and essays. But we only hear his angry voice in his Collected Poems, as in the curse he utters “For Adolf Eichmann”:
Oh son of death, we do not wish you death.
May you live longer than anyone ever lived:
May you live sleepless five million nights,
And may you be visited each night by the suffering of everyone who saw
Shutting behind him, the door that blocked the way back,
Saw it grow dark around him, the air filled with death.
And sometimes the intensity of a writer’s feeling is not easily expressed in a fictional narrative that must account not only for plot, but also for characterization, dialogue, and setting. Sometimes depth of feeling can best be expressed by first-person, confessional poetry. Such recognition came to me after completing a novel about a trauma I experienced as a child.
In the novel, I wrote about my persona Sara and her brother watching their father get high on heroin and accidentally lose a part of his finger when his hand got caught in a swinging door. Indelibly impressed in my emotional memory, the episode was the only time I had ever heard my father cry. My rendering the episode as a scene in a novel was simply not enough. I continued feeling there was something more personally intense about myself that I had not yet expressed. In the novel, I wrote that Sara and her younger brother witnessed the following:
Josef somehow tripped on the threshold of the kitchen door, lost his balance, and
knocked the swinging door loose. The door landed right smack on his left hand as he
carried the tray, and like a sideways slicing machine, the door cut his chunky middle
finger in two. . . Sara yelled. But she couldn’t move; her feet were riveted to the floor.
The poem that resulted from the residue of feeling is “A Simple Afternoon”:
Mama told me to protect you.
She left us with Daddy in the faultless front room.
There was the friendly chair, the dining table,
and the swinging door, the sun through the window,
the TV on, your toy train running round & round its track.
I had the sister’s older eyes, the sassy mouth, the knotted fist
with schoolyard bullies, the wiser foot on shortcuts home.
But such a storm took Daddy’s brain,
such a whirlwind of arms toppled table, chair, and train,
I was thrown, and the door blown.
Not meant for kids to see the unhinged door,
Daddy’s finger sliced, and soar– while TV droned.
Before our four forbidden eyes,
the rush of blood.
Wordsworth knew his poetry came from a different place than prose, a place different also from the epic and occasional poetry of the eighteenth century. He knew that occasionally he could write a poem based on a story, but his most personal writing was an outpouring of emotion. His experience seems to hold true for writers today who choose when to write poems.
The nineteenth century ushered in an age that supported many revolutions, not only political and economic, but also literary and personal. After Wordsworth, and into the twenty-first century, a popular literary voice continues to be the poetic voice of “I,” the first person expressing deep feeling.
Sharon Leder is Professor Emerita, S.U.N.Y-Nassau Community College, English, Women’s Studies, Jewish Studies. Author The Language of Exclusion: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti (1987); Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust (1994) nominated for the National Jewish Book Award; The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search (2017) Best New Voice in Fiction Benjamin Franklin Award; Three Groundbreaking Jewish Feminists: Pursuing Social Justice (2021), and author or editor of poetry, fiction, and articles on women writers, Holocaust literature, and family dynamics (1983-present).