“A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word.”
I am not an expert when it comes to poetry. In fact, I barely muddled through my college literature classes. I was never able to identify a poem written in iambic pentameter or produce a credible critique of a Shakespeare sonnet. But despite my inability to comprehend the ins and outs of poetry, I have a euphoric love for some poems, the ones that tell a story, the ones that seem to carry a message just for me. Certain lines of poetry hit me so hard–right in the center of my chest–that I’m sure my heart will never beat the same again. As poet Nikki Giovanni explains in her poem “Art Sanctuary”: “Art offers Sanctuary to everyone willing/ to open their hearts as well as their eyes.” (Please read complete poem here. http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/02/17)
Mary Oliver’s exceptional heart-opening poem “Wild Geese” begins with the lines: “You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine./ Meanwhile the world goes on.” (Please read the complete poem here. www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/oliver/online_poems.htm)
I have read this poem a hundred times. I keep it posted on my bulletin board. There is something about the line “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” that is so basic and primal I am shocked into renewal each time I read it.
In the movie “Bright Star,” about the intense but brief love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, there is a brilliant exchange between the two on the subject of reading poetry.
Fanny Brawne: “I still don’t know how to work a poem.”
John Keats: “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of the water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
Keats, who died tragically at the age of 25, wrote poems that fly over my head, but I agree with him that poetry allows us to reach beyond thought and accept that which was previously unknown or unseen. When I stumble upon a poem that speaks to me, it is like being submerged in something that is familiar, yet is experienced from a new perspective that changes everything.
A poem that unfolds a bit of mystery for me is “What the Dog Perhaps Hears” by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Lisel Mueller. “We would like to ask the dog/ if there is a continuous whir/ because the child in the house/ keeps growing, if the snake/ really stretches full length/ without a click and the sun/ breaks through clouds without/ a decibel of effort,” (Please read the complete poem here. www.bio.brandeis.edu/~sekuler/senpro/topic_1_stuff/what_the_dog_hears_perhaps.html)
Although I knew on some deep level that there was an inaudible “whir” produced by my growing children, it wasn’t until I read Mueller’s poem that I could consciously identify this intangible energy that envelops our house. And this recognition was as if I had rediscovered something I had lost. Robert Frost, one of the most well-known and well-loved American poets, said, “Poetry can make you remember what you didn’t even know you knew.”
Frost calls his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” his “best bid for remembrance.” After staying up all night to work on a poem entitled “New Hampshire,” Frost wandered outside and waited for the sun to rise. He suddenly had an idea and rushed back inside to write the lovely lines; “Whose woods these are I think I know./ His house is in the village, though;/ He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.” (Please read complete poem here. www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20519) Frost completed the rest of the poem without pause, “as if having a hallucination.” What was it in that June summer morning over 90 years ago that inspired Frost to write the lines that so easily plunge readers into the depth of winter?
Poet May Sarton wrote: “Perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” If reading poems helps us remember what we already know, maybe writing poetry helps us discover who we are.
Several years ago, I was hired as a writer-in-residence for the California Poets in the Schools organization. I went from school to school and taught kindergartners through high school seniors how to write poetry. Fortunately, I discovered that teaching writing had little to do with what was covered in my college literature courses. I’d give each class a brief lesson in the concept of descriptive language, explain the difference between similes and metaphors (whose definitions I had to look up), and encouraged them to write as fast as they could without lifting their pencils from the paper. Soon, heads would be bent over desks and the room would hum with creative concentration.
Over and over again, students of all ages delighted and thrilled me with their work. I’d read a line such as “today the sky is made of water” or “insanity is spiders crawling over your face at night while you sleep,” and I would be breathless with a sense of wonderment and recognition.
The most memorable poem written during my two-year teaching stint was penned by a seventh grade boy who sat at the back of the classroom. As I introduced the lesson, he slumped in his seat and distracted his neighbors. His teacher shook her head. “You won’t get anything from him,” she told me. “Don’t even try. He’s trouble.”
At the end of the day, each student picked one poem for me to read to the class. This was his, probably the most lovely description of toilet papering a yard ever written in the history of mankind: “The white roll sailed through the air/ Like a dove flying through the dark night./ It wrapped itself around the tree trunk/ Like a mother wraps her arms around a child.” His teacher was almost as surprised as the young poet to discover what was within him.
In between writing exercises, I read poems to the students. Not poems written for kids, but poems that spoke to me. I always started with my favorite poem by Gary Soto. “The first time I walked/ With a girl, I was twelve,/ Cold, and weighted down/ with two oranges in my jacket./ December.” (Please read complete poem here. http://www.Akoot.com/garysoto10.html ) Soto’s description of adding an orange to his nickel on the store counter when the chocolate bar the girl picks out cost a dime is such pitch perfect writing that it never fails to crack my heart wide open.
I would also read the poem by William Carlos Williams called “This Is Just to Say,” a poem about why he ate all the plums that reads like a note taped to the refrigerator. “Forgive me/ they were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold.” (Please read complete poem here. www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15535) Williams was not only a poet, but a pediatrician. He said that he could not have had “one without the other,” and that his two professions complemented each other.
Poetry does complement our lives, whether we are reading it or writing it. I am a huge fan of The Writer’s Almanac on National Public Radio. Every morning Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame reads a poem. Since my early hours are now busy with getting lunches packed and children off to school, I often miss hearing the Writer’s Almanac, but have discovered that I can have it delivered daily by email. (Go to http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/)
Now, each morning, I turn on my computer to find a new poem waiting for me. Sometimes I skim the first line, feel like I am back in my college lit class, and hit the delete button. But more often, I find myself reading the first few lines and then returning to the beginning, to read the whole poem through more carefully. As I sip my coffee and the first light of the day touches the windows, I have been changed unexpectedly by lines such as these:
“If you stare at it long enough/ the mountain becomes unclimbable./ Tally it up. How much time have you spent/ waiting for the soup to cool?” (“Against Hesitation by Charles Rafferty. www.laferle.com/2010/02/against-hesitation/)
“But I didn’t know I loved the clouds,/ those shaggy eyebrows glowering/ over the face of the sun.” (“Things I Didn’t Know I Loved: After Nazim Hikmet” by Linda Pastan http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/05/27)
“You are a warm front/ that moved in from the north,” (“You and I” by Jonathan Potter http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/02/28)
“I don’t know why so much sweetness hovers around us./ Nor why the wind blows the curtains in the afternoons,/ Nor why the earth mutters so much about its children.” (“The Blind Old Man by Robert Bly http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/02/16)
“I love mankind most/ when no one’s around./ On New Year’s Day for instance,/ and I’m driving home on the highway alone/ for hours in the narrating rain” (“Be Mine” by Paul Hostovsky http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/12/30)
Poet Billy Collins says, “I don’t think people read poetry because they’re interested in the poet. I think they read poetry because they’re interested in themselves.” Within the lines of a poem, I search for a sanctuary, I search for what I already know but have forgotten, and I search for myself.
Mary Oliver concludes her poem “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–/ over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.”
The last time I wrote poetry with much concentration was fifteen years ago in a creative writing class. I’d just moved to town and was looking for a way to meet people. I succeeded in making new friends, and I also found unexpected bits and pieces of myself. One of the last poems I wrote concluded with these lines: “This is how I am. A firecracker/ rubbing against the edges of strangers,/ watching for an occasion to lean/ into their heat. A quick burst of blue diamonds/ shout love love love then fades/ into the dark grass of early dusk./ I would be foolish to hunt for anything/ else. To look for water, silence, or small/ gray stones when all I need is a flame,/ a lit match to send me screaming/ into the open stride of sky.”
Certain poems are also my flame. They are the sparks that send me joyfully, gratefully, screaming with a splitting heart into the open stride of sky.