Most people will tell you the old joke: you can’t write poetry unless you’re miserable. Not good poetry, anyway. I used to agree years ago, but that was before I trained my muse. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a step-by-step guide to share with you, and in any case that wouldn’t really work. Everyone is different, so you have to sort out your own training methods. What I can do is tell you how I arrived at having my own well-trained poetry muse.
Way back when, I wrote some cool poetry while I was miserable. When I was happy, though, it just didn’t seem to flow. The real point is, it didn’t flow because I was too busy being happy to think about stopping to write a poem. That Doug Stone song hits the nail on the head with the lyric, “I was too busy being in love.” Misery is a whole different ball of wax. You’ve heard the saying, “Misery loves company”? I’m sure it does, but another saying should be, “Misery loves poetry”. Whether you are genuinely miserable for a specific non-love reason, or due to love directly (lost love, unrequited love, etc) poetry doesn’t sit around and wait for you to write it; it nearly crashes out from head and heart, to fingers, to pen, to paper (or keyboard to screen).
The problem arrived years later when I began writing my novel, Grimmie. In the grand tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, I wanted poetry in my book. Like my favorite novel, Watership Down by Richard Adams (read 35 1/2 times to date) I wanted that poetry to be at the start of each chapter. Adams actually has quotes at the chapter beginnings, but you get the idea. My first thought after I decided I wanted my chapters this way was, “How do I write these poems? I’m happy.” LOL. To make it an even bigger challenge, I wanted each poem to have clues to things that would turn up either in that chapter or at some point in the future.
It came down to discipline in the end: I sent my muse to poetry boot camp. First, I had to get into the main character’s head. Then I focused on the mood, theme, direction, or metaphor I wanted the poem to have. Moving into that character’s POV, just like I do while writing him, I just started slapping those words down. I usually let them all come tumbling out and then look them over and perhaps tweak them later. Either way, the real key, for me, is to put myself in the main character’s shoes and let fly.
At first it was a bit weird, but the more I did it, the easier it got and the better the poetry turned out. Oddly enough, the poems at the chapter beginnings of Grimmie sound more third person, in spite of the fact that when Corwin Grimm is “on deck”, so to speak, the book is in first person. One or two sound like they are first person, but most of them don’t. It gives them all a bit of mystery, in a way, though, instead of sounding like Corwin is reading poetry “at you”.
In any event, this technique now works wonders for me. At the drop of a hat, I can pen a poem that fits my angle. It took work, though – the muse of poetry was not easy to train by any means. For instance, it is still difficult to write personal poetry when I’m happy. God forbid I should try to write good love poetry while happy. I can usually pull off decent erotic poetry, but the good swarmy/sweet/sticky variety more often comes out sounding like something a monkey penned with his feet using a broken crayon. Essentially, I don’t worry about that, as I’m not wild about happy love poetry anyway. The only good love poetry (in my opinion) is the unrequited sort, with that sharp angst twist in it, or the straight-up miserable sort. Mind you, I’m talking about MY poetry writing. You may have the talent to write beautiful and touching happy love poetry. I don’t. And that’s okay; because personally I’d rather be “in the moment” while happy. That way, you don’t miss anything. Poetry, by its very nature, is about reflection – and it’s difficult to reflect and be in the moment at the same time!
However, I am deliriously happy that this only applies to the personal poetry. Poems I write for “work” (if you can call doing what you love work) can be anything I want them to be now, with my highly trained muse. So if you’re tired of waiting until you’re miserable to craft good poetry, send that muse to school! Find out what works for you and run with it. Once you hit your stride and figure out your key, poetry can actually become fun again…whether it’s a happy poem or not.
Update: I decided it was time to send the poetry muse to higher education. She’s back now, and I am so proud of her! And now I can write sweet love poetry whenever I want, too. Mind you, my “sweet love poetry” usually ends up having a weird or twisty angle to it. I doubt if Hallmark is going to be knocking on my door any time soon, begging me to work for them….