Poetry?

On my blog yesterday a short discussion of poetry emerged in the comments. I’m not all that comfortable talking about the impulses that lead to poetry vs. prose for a writer (I think they are infinitely varied and personal), but the conversation got me thinking about it (again).

I seldom write poetry, but I went through a spell last year during the “lock down” because I had nothing to say that wasn’t weirder or more interesting than the reality we were all living in to greater and lesser extents. I wrote a bunch of sonnets, inspired by Val from A Different Perspective. She often writes poetry on her blog and was, I think, responding to some challenge and had posted a sonnet. I thought, “Why not?” and Shakespearean sonnets filled this space for a short time.

As I wrote, I remembered the wise words of my 10th grade English teacher who said, “If you want to be a writer, write sonnets. That will teach you about language.” One thing I know for sure about poetry is that it will teach you about language whether you write poetry or read it. The next year my 11th grade English teacher entered one of my poems in a contest and it won. That was cool. I got disenchanted with it all at some point — much later, during grad school. I don’t remember why, but it might have been because I wrote a reflective piece about riding my ten speed up Waterton Canyon, a common thing to do now but not back in 1978.

I love poetry and I know a lot of poems. I owe that to my mom and dad. They had memorized many poems and loved many more. That’s a major thing, I think, not just the parental influence, but that poems are memorable. Old-school, highly structured poetry that rhymes easily stays with us. I think of blind Homer sitting on a stone or bench telling everyone the stories of the man who sacked the city of Troy.

In my mind is a little file box of poems and lines from poems I can return to when I need something. Lately it’s been William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis” (A look at death).

To him who in the love of Nature holds   
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   
A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware…

Not only this lovely opening which has always spoken directly to me, but now? ALL of it. I’m not young any more, and, am approaching that age when humans turn the page from “I’m not that old YET” to “OK, now what do I do? Yikes. Right. THAT! OK, but???” The poem has good solid answers. I have always loved it. I love it more now.

That’s just one of the poems in my mental file box. When I see a hawk, Gerard Manley Hopkins calls out,

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

(The Windhover)

It’s pretty hard to hold a novel or even a short story in our minds like that.

I went to a little poetry-writing class a couple of decades ago with a friend, and the “teacher” said, “There are no rules with poetry. It’s just sentences written down differently.”

I wanted to jump up and run her through with my rapier, but I don’t have a rapier, and such behavior is frowned upon in our time (shooting is OK, though). Poetry is a LOT more than sentences written in sloppy grammar. A LOT more. We never went back. We already knew how to write bad sentences. I despise the word “craft” applied to art. A better word to me is “discipline” or “surrender.” I think if a thing is really going to happen (painting, narrative, poem) somewhere along the line the will of the artist has to step back and serve the creation. The artist is not God over his/her oeuvre but its servant. That can be scary at first — what if you actually LET GO and surrender to the work you’re doing? OH MY GOD!!! But that’s when the dance begins. ❤

This morning I woke up with the idea that writing is (for me, anyway) an act of seeing. I learn a lot from writing, not just about writing but about my thoughts, the world around me, stuff I’m studying. Maybe poetry is a chance to look at life and the world through another person’s eyes, or focus our own eyes more clearly. All the magical poetic devices help us do that — both show and tell. I straddle a fence between thinking that poetry is completely irrelevant and that poetry is the ONLY relevant thing we humans have to offer each other.

16 thoughts on “Poetry?

  1. I don’t know what happened, but I read your post and wrote a comment and then poof it all disappeared, your post included! I can’t remember my exact words, but it was something about loving poetry and this post and my wish to be able to recall all the lines or poems that have moved me. I particularly liked your thought that poetry is a way to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

    • WordPress did some strange things when I was editing this post and for a moment I thought the whole thing was gone. Maybe it got lost in that little storm? I ended up editing with the Code Editor. I think one of my favorite poetry moments was when the Boys on Bikes decided they should go hiking with me and the youngest one — 10 at the time — saw a red tailed hawk, pointed at the sky and said, “Look! Martha! Morning’s minion!” ❤ Poetry begets poetry.

  2. Having both written poetry and laid pipe, I agree with John Keating’s (the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society) assessment about judging the two. Or, as John W Gardner said, “An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” (Sorry if this appears twice. I can’t see it from the first attempt.)

  3. I think wordsmithing is a craft, like throwing a pot or building a cabinet. I also think poetry is the highest calling, as far as human go anyway. Right now I’m studying trees. We’ll see what happens.

    I think that I shall never pee
    on anything lovelier than a tree …

  4. Your last 3 paragraphs…they brought tears to my eyes. Surrender. I become so frustrated when the fall-out of my brain injury stumps my surrender. I spent a weekend at a cousin’s house in St. Louis. This was the first “Cousin Reunion” we’ve scheduled. We watched old home movies from the early 70’s in the Back Room (it deserves to be capitalized for a future writing) of Grandpa and Grandma Wilson’s tiny house. At times, we managed over 50 people in that small room. My words seem poetic in my heart. The poems you shared are just beautiful-I always enjoy yours, too. That straddle to which you speak I understand well. I straddle a fence on something too. Do I find the words or do the words find me? It’s as if by magic, my soul will surrender, and they will come when I least expect them. When I TRY TOO HARD there’s nothing. I observe and try to be still. A million words might swirl, but not the RIGHT ones until…I don’t know when it will be. I think that’s why my love for poetry is growing more and more. Love and hugs from me and Finn. 🤍🐶

    • I believe that some poetry is a world where subjective experience might succeed in being translated for others to understand and can transmit a larger meaning. That’s rough. Inspiration is a real thing, but people feel weird around it and excluded and some believe it doesn’t exist and all that. Your reunion sounds amazing and very precious. Love and hugs from me, Bear and Teddy. ❤

  5. Thank you Martha for this post – I ran through the words and then doubled back and slowly strolled. I love poetry and I love prose. And for the reasons you point out. But more than that I love being able to see the poetry in the world no matter if it is mountains or mud puddles, majestic pines or slobbery puppies… I loved your sonnets and hope you find another couple of them pouring from your pen!

    • Thank you, Val. ❤ I personally believe the poetry of the world has inspired the most beautiful poetry, especially inspiration are the slobbery puppies. I think a lot of my favorite poems have happened when someone (the writer) was just over-filled with the poetry of life and was brimming over with it.

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