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.
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.