On Writing Poetry, Part 3: Creating Urgency

by Taylor Gianfrancisco

I went to a reading this past February where the author, Bonnie Jo Campbell, said “writing poetry must come from an emotional urge.” To take it one step further, I would say that the best poems have a sense of urgency – or rather, a call of action – them.

In an article that attempts to explain what urgent poetry is, five poets define what the term means to them. One poet, Benito Pliego, says that “urgent poetry is what moves us to write, what leads us to live or commit some act of life.”

Bearing this in mind, the cross-section of art and societal issues is derived from  the poet’s self-perception of themselves and the world. When creating urgency in your poetry, keep in mind your emotional tie to your writing. What is your stake in the poem? What is your underlying urge in regards to this issue, this circumstance, this moment you are trying to capture?

In Ada Limon’s poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” the speaker is connected to “the lady horses” and their power and strength. In the era of the #metoo movement, the timeliness of the poem is what creates the urgency as well as the comparison of women to horses. Here is an excerpt from the poem that shows its urgency:

somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.

Limon is an accomplished woman writer of color that I personally love to read because she mixes urgency with complexity. In “Late Summer After a Panic Attack,” she hints at a panic attack with the interestingly posed question, “what if I want to go devil instead?” Rhetorical questions in poems often seem superficial and barely scratch at what the poem is trying to insinuate, but Limon’s urgency calls for some peace in the storm of a panic attack. It calls attention to the small details (“the pressure of leaves”, “the sea next to the stones from the river”) to reveal the nature of the speaker and their state of mind.

Another poet I admire, Danez Smith, uses their racial and sexual identity to create poetry that smacks you in the heart. In their poem, “alternative names for black boys,” Smith formats their poem in a listicle and suggests romanticized yet impactful images of a black boy in different settings. This poem’s urge is based solely on conviction – do you see me like these images, the poem asks you. He challenges you to discard your ideas about race through images like “ smoke above the burning bush/ archnemesis of summer night/ first son of soil.”

Creating urgency in poetry is a mixed bag. Some journals appreciate a more political tone while others want a more subtle one. As an editor, I would suggest that once you write a poem to your liking – one that reflects your message well enough – to read the literary journals you would like to submit to. You will have a better understanding of what they publish and may even discover a poem or story that you identify with.

Remember that writing involves the constant task of revising. Don’t be afraid to experiment with tone, urgency, and images to learn what you do (and don’t) like. Happy writing and keep on submitting!

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