We are halfway through April, National Poetry Month, so it’s a great time to release any tension you may have bottled up inside. One way to do so is to write confessional poetry. It’s about letting go, tapping into images and sensations, and allowing your emotions to take over. This might mean making a confession about something you’ve never divulged before, or writing about how someone makes you feel. The most poignant poems are written from the heart and are more emotional and less cerebral. Letting go is also about slowing down and pausing while being mindful of what’s stirring inside you.
In his book Risky Writing, Jeffrey Berman says that shame is central to risky or confessional writing. Mental-health workers have often said that women and men respond differently to the shame that might accompany confessional writing—men tend to become angry, and women tend to become depressed.
For some people, beginning a poem is the most difficult part, but with practice it does become easier. For others, like myself, starting to write a poem is the easiest part because I lead off with a sentiment, emotion, or image, and then it all begins to unfold.
It’s best to think of a poem as a bunch of fragments coming together into one. Think of each line as a fragment, and try to keep the focus of each line on one single image or emotion. When you insert a line break, it means that you’re giving a natural pause to your thoughts.
Sometimes, my best poems pour forth when I find myself going into a sort of trance while writing—when the title or image comes to me, and I find myself just writing without thinking or stopping.
Writers dream about moments like this—what is often called “being in the zone”—but if going into this state doesn’t come easily to you when you’re trying to write a poem, consider practicing some self-awareness techniques, which can be quite empowering. Some ways to become self-aware include setting an intention for your day, practicing mindfulness meditation, engaging in guided visualizations, and starting a dream journal that you keep by your bed. Also, it can be productive to write first thing in the morning when your mind is clear and uncluttered.
Sometimes lighting a candle and meditating is a way to invite in your muse, and when you do so, you might find that confessions simply pour out from you. Listening to certain types of music also inspires some poets. I find instrumental music to be best.
You might experiment with a variety of methods in order to tap into your creative side. A friend of mine wrote letters to his father before he sat down to write poetry. Feeling his father’s presence inspired feelings that he wanted to put down on paper.
Duende is a term coined by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and refers to a quality of passion and inspiration. It’s sort of the fire behind creating a poem. In order to feel this fire, poets must be passionate about what they’re writing about. Duende can be the driving force behind writing confessional and/or painful poetry, evoking emotions such as anger, excitement, or profound sadness.
When you write a poem with duende, it means that you’re doing so with a heightened state of emotion—which leads to powerful creations. If you’re in a state of duende, then the poem you’re reading or writing is making you laugh, cry, or reflect. You’re embodying the words, and they’re giving you a bodily reaction of some sort.
Consider reading the works of some confessional poets who elicit duende, such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Sexton has often confirmed the relationship between poetry and healing: “Poetry has saved my life; has given me life and if I had not wandered in off the street and found your class . . . I would be lost indeed,” she once told her poetry professor, John Holmes.
Some songwriters, who are poets at heart, also elicit duende. They include Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen. All good love songs and poems must have duende because love is never free of sadness. The best poetry examines the darker side of life while also acknowledging life’s lighter side. The contrast between the darkness and the light is what brings poignancy to a poem.
Here’s a writing prompt to try:
At the top of your journal page, write “I confess.” Write a poem about something you feel passionate about, incorporating duende. Keep writing and see where the poem takes you.
Berman, J. (2001). Risky writing. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.
Schaefer, E.M. (2008). Writing through darkness. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.