See the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project to read the poems for March 17, 2014 by scrolling down to “Day 17/Poems 17” and of course, to read my poem: My Heart Breaks to Tell You / by John C. Mannone
Backstory to “My Heart Breaks to Tell You”
“My Heart breaks to Tell You” is a letter poem. And being St. Patrick’s Day today, I was inclined to write something Irish. Before she passed, Elsie, a very good friend of Irish descent, decided to “irish” me, by dubbing me Ian O’Mannon(e), with a silent e. My Sicilian sensibility did not seem to mind at all, I love the Irish.
I thought what would it be like to have lived in Ireland, and then to immigrate to this country. I thought a poem about being homesick, but nothing fresh seemed to come out of it; I added a sweetheart, but that left me with the same problem.
So I imagined story, I thought about the time of the Great Potato Famine (1845-1852)  when many Irish emigrated from their home to the United States. Many men would go ahead of their wives or fiancées to make a way. In my fictional poem, I imagined a young man (the narrator) and his fiancée’s brother coming to New York to do just that.
Choosing names was more work than I realized, but the narrator’s was easy. It would be my “Irished” name, Ian. His sweetheart’s name came from a couple memories: the song “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” ; the fact that there were three ladies with the name Bonnie who died in the 9-11 terrorist attack—they have no link to the poem except place, New York; and my former wife, who remains a very close friend, would’ve been named Bonnie had her father not insisted on her current name. Choosing Bonnie and Ian gives a subtle emotional texture to the poem because this poem is about loss. The bittersweet is amplified by placing the poem on Valentine’s Day.
But what about the year? The potato famine was suggested, but slightly later is better because 1851-1860 was the peak period of Irish immigrants coming to the United States (914,119) . But when I recalled the movie, “Gangs of New York” (2002) , I was reminded of that bleak period in American history preceding and including the Civil War, and the draft riots in New York . I settled on 1863, when gang and draft tension was high. That vivid, bloody opening scene in the movie influenced my allusion in the poem.
To heighten the contrast of the tragic ending—the death of Bonnie’s brother—and to deliver greater poignancy, I misdirect the reader into thinking this poem is simply a love letter: a miss-my-sweetheart, miss-my-home type of poem, especially by the use of refrain or obsessive verse, coupled with the Valentine’s Day date. Notice that the letter poem isn’t signed as a love letter, but rather just with the name of the narrator. It would have been tacky to sign it in the usual way (Love/Ian), or redundant if it were apologetic (I am sorry/Ian). The last line (the one before Ian) is really the sign-off; the condolences are expressed there in the refrain.
The verse structure is basically a 4-line verse merged with the refrain (or something like it) giving the impression of 5-line verses. I think the elegiac letter comes through better with the repetition.
The line breaks, especially in the last two quintets, are important and effective as the tragic disclosure is made. I have been tempted to use soft half rhymes and adopt a variation of the ballad. Perhaps I will in a future revision.
In conclusion, I want to mention two things: (1) letter poems can be effective because the implied intimacy between the narrator and the reader (who is eaves dropping) because the reader can put himself/herself as the recipient of the letter. (2) Research for the poem can occur during the drafting stage, especially in pursuit of literary depth to the poem. What I don’t recommend is to start research first before you put something on paper, even if it’s nothing more than brainstorming notes.