Guilt is typically a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some something you've done that's offensive, criminal, or otherwise wrong, and may be real or imagined. Shame is a feeling rooted in conscious avowal of doing wrong (something dishonorable or inappropriate) to someone else. Often, shame and guilt are experienced together. It’s not unusual for a guilty individual to blame himself or herself for a wrong done to another. Sometimes, at the heart of shame is a feeling of inadequacy; and those feelings of inadequacy are sometimes manifested in assigning blame to someone else.
Have you ever felt especially guilty about something you’ve said, done, or didn’t do? Have you ever been blamed for something you didn’t do, or have you wrongly blamed someone else? We all feel guilty at one point or another, and we all accept or assign blame. This week let’s take a look at guilt and blame and write about an actual time in our lives when we experienced either or both.
1. Think about a time in your life when you felt ashamed or guilty, or think about a time when you blamed someone or were blamed by someone else (rightly or wrongly). What happened? How did you judge yourself? How did others judge you? How do you judge yourself now?
2. Free write for a while, and see what happens.
3. Let your free write sit for an hour or so, and then go back to it. Read it carefully and select a dominant or important point that you made about guilt and/or blame. Reflect on that point.
4. Begin a poem based on your memories and your free write.
5. Think about remorse and redemption. Did it figure in your guilt/blame experience? In Stephen Dobyns’s poem “Bleeder” (example below), there is no sense of remorse or guilt. How does this strengthen the poem and make it even more disturbing? Think about how you can you ramp up the power of your poem.
1. The first line of your poem should be inviting, shockingly interesting or comforting—draw your readers in from the first moment of your poem.
2. Write with an authentic voice—the way something is said is infinitely more important than the intellect of what is said. Be aware of your attitude toward the subject matter and how your attitude becomes part of the subject.
3. Create a sense of intimacy in the poem, a revealing of something you’ve never “told” before. Remember that your readers may not have had the same experience, but most will have experienced similar feelings.
4. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create greater immediacy).
5. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).
6. As you work on your poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)
7. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).
8. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.
9. Experiment with line and stanza breaks. This will help expose weak spots as well as unnecessary repetitions and wordiness.
10. Work from the personal toward the universal. Think about how your poem will invite readers to relate to your experience (even if the details are different from experiences of their own). Create a resonance for your readers that extends beyond the ending of your poem.
“Bleeder” by Stephen Dobyns
By now I bet he’s dead which suits me fine,
but twenty-five years ago when we were both
fifteen and he was camper and I counselor
in a straight-laced Pennsylvania summer camp
for crippled and retarded kids, I’d watch
him sit all day by himself on a hill. No trees
or sharp stones: he wasn’t safe to be around.
The slightest bruise and all his blood would simply
drain away. It drove us crazy—first
to protect him, then to see it happen. I
would hang around him, picturing a knife
or pointed stick, wondering how small a cut
you’d have to make, then see the expectant face
of another boy watching me, and we each knew
how much the other would like to see him bleed.
He made us want to hurt him so much we hurt
ourselves instead: sliced fingers in craft class,
busted noses in baseball, then joined at last
into mass wrestling matches beneath his hill,
a tangle of crutches and braces, hammering at
each other to keep from harming him. I’d look up
from slamming a kid in the gut and see him watching
with the empty blue eyes of children in sentimental
paintings, and hope to see him frown or grin,
but there was nothing: as if he had already died.
Then, after a week, they sent him home. Too much
responsibility, the director said.
Hell, I bet the kid had skin like leather.
Even so, I’d lie in bed at night and think
of busting into his room with a sharp stick, lash
and break the space around his rose petal flesh,
while campers in bunks around me tossed and dreamt
of poking and bashing the bleeder until he
was left as flat as a punctured water balloon,
which is why the director sent him home. For what
is virtue but the lack of strong temptation:
better to leave us with our lie of being good.
Did he know this? Sitting on his private hill,
watching us smash each other with crutches and canes,
was this his pleasure: to make us cringe beneath
our wish to do him damage? But then who cared?
We were the living children, he the ghost
and what he gave us was a sense of being bad
together. He took us from our private spite
and offered our bullying a common cause:
which is why we missed him, even though we wished
him harm. When he went, we lost our shared meanness
and each of us was left to snarl his way
into a separate future, eager to discover
some new loser to link us in frailty again.