Here’s a repost of a blog I wrote for the wonderful, totally amazing literary journal Nimrod, at the University of Tulsa. I feel very lucky to be associated with it. And this is a subject close to my writer’s heart: do you have to suffer to be a writer?
I am heartily sick of the political disaster this country has become. So I am intentionally focusing today on poetry, my 2nd refuge when the world is too much with me. Tea being the first.
In fact, an afternoon pot is steeping even as I write, and ‘biscuits’ – that lovely English name for cookies that are not the sickly sweet American type, but instead almost a slightly sweet cracker – await, in a ruby glass saucer, next to the bee cup & saucer my niece & nephew gave me. Plus I just added to a long email thread, sent to a dear friend who is working on her MFA, in which we’re discussing (among other weighty matters) why it’s always ‘the poets.’ And why folks think poetry is just not ‘using all your words’…???
Sigh. It’s always interesting to me when folks (especially writing folks…who should know better!!) define poetry as merely ‘fewer words.’ Even that famous ‘compression of language’ definition is — to me, at least — reductive and simplistic. Poetry is about images, and the sound(s) of language. It can also be (as fiction and/or non-fiction often are) about narrative. About story, even about character(s). The dramatic monologue that made Robert Browning so famous.It’s about music, really — even so-called narrative poetry has to have certain beauties & elegances of sound. Poetry has to move, which is why many songwriters also do poetry: music is fine training for a poet.
To see poetry as just a ‘shorter’ version of prose is sooo … well, if I were arguing this in person, w/ an academic colleague, I’d say it’s both reductive & dismissive. And uninformed, as well. (Tell them what you really think…!) Only a non-poet would say that, someone who doesn’t understand either the project(s) of poetry, or poets.
You simply CAN’T do Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ in prose, for instance. Imagine this with ‘all your words’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound’s poetic project is not simply compression — although yes, of course he’s compressing. It’s also about the fleetingness of the experience, the way the faces flee past. You could do that w/ prose, but you would lose sooo much! The short, haiku-like simplicity of the form captures the briefness of the faces. And the image that perfect image that has stunned poets since Pound wrote it would be sooo clunky if you simply wrote: The fleetingness of faces seen from a railway car are like white petals on a black tree branch. It’s the cadence: wet. black. bough. And the assonance: crowd & bough. It’s the MUSIC, folks!
Another big sigh. Time to chill out w/ a hot cuppa, and a biscuit. What do you think poetry ‘is’? How do you know poetry, other than by its shorter length and line breaks? Why would someone choose to write a poem instead of a story, or an essay? And who — besides me & my friend, obviously! — cares??
If you don’t like poetry, this probably isn’t going to interest you. Unless, that is, you do like Buddhism. Or education. Or writing. Fair warning, right?
Because it’s a kind of once-upon-a-time story, of sorts. See, when you have an advanced degree, folks often ask you: what was your thesis/ dissertation/ publication/ whatever about? And I always want to say — breathing. In a manner of speaking — and not all of it metaphor — it was.
Poetry is about pause & effect. The poet leads the reader through the lines of the poem, using line breaks, white space, punctuation (if so inclined — a number of amazing poets are eschewing punctuation altogether, these days), and other strategies to focus attention here, and elide attention there. Words at the beginning & end of lines take on more prominence. Rhyme (internal or end-of-line), consonance, assonance, alliteration — all are ways to slow readers down, or drive them forward relentlessly.
In poetry, we talk about the breath pause: that place the reader naturally (or through skilful direction) stops to draw breath, when reading aloud. And here’s an interesting aside: poetry should — at least initially — be read aloud. Or at the very least, subvocalised. In fact, the readers of poetry whom I know ALL subvocalise and/or read aloud poems they’re working on. After all: poetry is a kind of music. It has rhythm (metre), and the same pauses for breath that a chorale arrangment does.
Buddhism, too, is about the breath. We focus on the breath as we meditate. When my brain is overrun with the day’s minutiæ, I turn to the comfort of noticing my breath: in out in out… And soon the day falls away, and I’m quieted. During the day, if the same thing happens (or grief, or physical pain, or anger red&white), I exhale deeply. Slowly. Then pause — like a line break. Then inhale, slooowly. Then pause again. Another line break. Not to mention that the air we inhale/ exhale is us. Our very essence — the infinitesimal molecules from our inmost bodies — floats on the oxygen-depleted air leaving us. We share each other’s breath quite literally.
So my dissertation — which was a look at my own work, which (surprise!) grows from the fertile soil of Southeast Asia & the Southeast Asian Buddhism I knew as a child — looked at how these two perspectives on the breath intersect. Become words, then lines, then poetry. Hopefully shared.
if you’re not bored out of your socks, you can see where I was going when I said I mostly want to say my diss was on breathing. Here’s another reason: to me, poetry is (almost) as necessary as breathing properly. Sure I can ‘breathe.’ We need no class in what sustains us moment to moment. And yet… To breathe ‘properly’ is to draw in from the gut, pull through the diaphragm, fill the lungs and almost the entire upper body. The shoulders relax, rise & drop. Exhaling is then a long, slow, reversal of the process. None of the quick, in-your-head pants we do when stressed! Far more respectful of the worlds each breath contains, right?
Poetry is like that. Like waiting for tea to brew. Like watching the sky darken slowly towards nightfall. Like a long inhale that calms & energises. Both a luxury and a necessity. I recommend you revisit it.
This really is the last poem for my NaPoWriMo month. Initially, the prompt stymied me. But it turned out to be fun. One of the (several) reasons I love NaPoWriMo. 😏 I’ve tried so many different poetic strategies this past month. Not every one of them has worked (one I flat didn’t follow!), but many have. And I’ve learned so much! That’s the best reason to invest the month in poetry: you learn. Are all the poems good? Not even most of the poems are good. And that’s okay. That, too, is what NaPoWriMo is about.
So here’s my last prompt:
Have you ever heard someone wonder what future archaeologists, whether human or from alien civilization, will make of us? Today, I’d like to challenge you to answer that question in poetic form, exploring a particular object or place from the point of view of some far-off, future scientist? The object or site of study could be anything from a “World’s Best Grandpa” coffee mug to a Pizza Hut, from a Pokemon poster to a cellphone.
And the poem:
In the next year of the water dragon ~
A boy will find a wooden box
Holding in its belly the fine blade
Of a fountain pen, the glass bowl
Of an inkwell, a piece of blotter
He will open the smooth lid
Sliding the handmade black hook
From its catch, and lift out
The golden nib, the crystal cup
He will wonder at the black ink
Touch his finger to the dark liquid
Wipe it on the heavy paper, a smear
Of blue and black without meaning
Reversed upon the blotter’s surface
Are letters he can almost call to mind
A broken word, the trail of a line
Nothing he can understand
Holding in his hand pen & ink & paper
He wonders why they rest together
Who made the perfect box, who filled it
And just what these totems once were used for
It turns out I still have two poems to catch up completely. Sigh… But that’s a quasi-happy sigh, as I probably will not write a poem daily for a while. Maybe not until next April!
The two days are 25 & 26. This is the NaPoWriMo prompt for day 25, an interesting one.
In 1958, the philosopher/critic Gaston Bachelard wrote a book called The Poetics of Space, about the emotional relationship that people have with particular kinds of spaces – the insides of sea shells, drawers, nooks, and all the various parts of houses. Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that explores a small, defined space – it could be your childhood bedroom, or the box where you keep old photos. It could be the inside of a coin purse or the recesses of an umbrella stand. Any space will do – so long as it is small, definite, and meaningful to you.
Here’s the poem:
The space between
An infant’s focus
Is the space between
Our faces, as he lays
Within the cradle
Of my arms
His dark wide eyes
Following my own
The infinity of facing
My focus is the years
From now until I shatter
My glass absorbed
His eyes holding
Within the space between
I so love being forced (voluntarily, I realise) to write poetry. I will whine, procrastinate, kick the wall, shine some more, and even then skip engire weeks if left to my own (writing) devices. But give me structure & a deadline, & I’m down.
So here’s my last (I think?) NaPoWriMo prompt, day #18:
Today, I challenge you to write a poem that incorporates neologisms. What’s that? Well, it’s a made-up word! Your neologisms could be portmanteaus (basically, a word made from combining two existing words, like “motel” coming from “motor” and “hotel”) or they could be words invented entirely for their sound. Probably the most famous example of a poem incorporating neologisms is Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, but neologisms don’t have to be funny or used in the service of humor. You can use them to try to get at something that you don’t have an exact word for, or to create a sense of sound and rhythm, or simply to make the poem feel strange and unworldly.
I found it immensely freeing to write with made-up words. I strongly recommend it as an exercise. Here’s the poem:
In the blithful momus wey
The sunby frogs sang luffabees
And all the glitwinged startleduks
Swanneled through the melomy.