Okay, maybe I like a little instant gratification.
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
– Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May 1937”
I shared a poem of mine last week. When I tell people I write poetry, it’s not uncommon to get an eyebrow raise that says “Wow, you can put your legs behind your head!” or “Winning a snail-eating competition is quite the accomplishment!”
I admit, it’s not the most mainstream pastime these days. You won’t see the Shelleys and their friends holed up in their manor taking laudanum and waxing about nightingales on reality TV.
The poet’s cousin, the songwriter, is doing pretty well (the travails of music industry politics notwithstanding). Perhaps music makes a more tangible product. More finite. One song = $1.99. (Try selling one poem for $1.99.) And it encourages multitasking. You can work out to music, dance to music, check Facebook to music. I’d also argue that music lends a certain element of pre-interpretation to the material it’s presenting. At least in the Western ear, there is such a thing as a sad chord, a happy chord, an angry chord. True, especially skilled artists can play conflicting messages against one another, but this isn’t the norm. And music videos add yet another layer of pre-consumption interpretation, making for a veritable buffet of input at the music party.
In comparison, a poem is…naked.
How many times have you given banal lyrics (Baby I love you…I want you back…) a pass, when the guitar riffs just had that perfect energy? Guilty.
When a poem is bad, it’s bad.
(And I’ll just say it. A lot of poems are just as bad as Justin Bieber.)
It’s words on a page surrounded by blank space. You can’t even count on a reader getting drawn into your voice, your world—because you’re not even creating a whole world. At best, you’re carving out a window into some particularly evocative landscape of said world, and hoping the glass is clean enough that people can squint through it and guess what the weather is like out there.
This is not to say that poetry isn’t a part of songwriting. I’ll be the first to say that some of my favorite poets put their words to music.
Poetry just requires a consumer to approach it differently than they would music. It requires intention, patience, and a quiet mind. And since we no longer live in a world where cross-stitching by candlelight is an exciting evening, it’s not something everyone chooses to have time for.
A real Defence of Poesy, huh?
So, why do I write poetry?
I’ll start with the fact that I came to poetry by accident.
I fancied myself a fiction writer growing up. I lobbed short stories at the high school literary magazine. I slaved away at numerous eternally incomplete novels.
In college, I majored in English, with Creative Writing as my focus (because that’s where all the big bucks are). Naturally, a fiction workshop was on my list of requirements. I was ecstatic. I’d shared my work with others plenty of times. I swapped writing critiques with a friend in high school and had fun. This was going to be great! I was going to get down to the business of becoming a Real Writer.
It was terrible.
I expected the discussions to be a stream of pure creativity, discussing imagery and meaning and character development.
The teacher was as commercial as they came, and used the time to advise us on query letters, agents, and contracts. As part of the class, we had to purchase, read, and discuss one of her own true crime novels.
I expected this collection of fellow Real Writers to immediately understand and love my work.
When I shared my first piece, a chapter from a science fiction novel I was writing with a friend, I got a lot of “I don’t get it”s and blank stares.
I sat on the futon in my dorm room with a pile of red-lined drafts edited by my classmates and cried.
Admittedly, I wasn’t the toughest cookie. I felt exposed. I thought if I couldn’t take simple criticism, maybe I didn’t belong there.
Maybe I was a fraud.
Looking back, I certainly don’t think I was right. There were a lot of unhealthy voices in my head that wouldn’t let me trust my own skill. I was also battling an unhealthy level of undiagnosed social anxiety, so baring my soul to fifteen indifferent teenagers was always going to be complicated. And I did need to learn how to take criticism—I just needed to start with something a little less personal.
Nevertheless, at the end of the semester, fiction and I broke up.
But I wasn’t quite ready to give up on my major. Perhaps mostly because I felt like only wayward, indecisive failure kids switched majors. (I was a little judgmental.) Poetry Workshop it was! The professor was a former poet laureate, which sounded like the opposite of sell-out to me. I had written poetry before. I’d just never really considered myself a poet.
We met twice a week, and each class consisted of reading and critiquing a poem we wrote at home, then working on a writing prompt in class and sharing the results. It was basically the exact opposite of slaving for months or years on a long block of text and hoping this random selection of creatives would get it. We produced quickly, without time to overthink anything or get overly attached to particular turns of phrase. It felt risky. Alive. Immediate. The thrill of written improv.
Turns out I like instant gratification.
Poetry gave me an opportunity to get out of my head. It was therapeutic to reach into the void and pull something out, then share and discuss it immediately. I needed the assurance that my spontaneous words were worth something. I also felt intimately connected to my fellow poets, with little curated pieces of their soul in my class notebook.
I may or may not have written a thinly veiled love poem to one of them.
One of our classmates, a fascinating soul who made money on the side designing light-up penis-shaped lollipops for adult stores, started cancer treatment during the semester. We walked with her on a journey of courage and uncertainty and inappropriate humor.
We influenced each other. We taught each other that you can write a poem about anything.
A poem is words and white space on a page.
What isn’t there is just as important as what is.
I learned to love my empty places. I learned to use silence as a weapon. I learned that a pause can say as much as many words.
I found some of my favorite poetic influences. Sharon Olds’ boldness and love of ephemera. Sandra Gilbert’s equation poems written to her elderly mathematician lover.
I let go of an obsession with detailed description, and discovered that this made for even more effective imagery.
I heard the phrase “unicorn placenta” for the first time.
I found freedom in restriction.
For your patience, a poem I wrote recently, in the space of an afternoon, that seems to resonate with this post:
The Singing Place
The doves as round
and still as stones—
a frightful cry—
I am alone.
it does not speak to me.
It blesses rocks,
in my morning hymn.
How shall I
wash away the sin
in a singing place?
My cold fingers
brush my face—
Another fall from grace.
A fence of slate
all chinked with moss
rings round my plot.
The gate is lost.