I’ve told you the success story of the poetry book club I belong to, right? How we grew fond of the more authentic conversations we had, bracketed by poems each of us brought to the monthly meeting. How I ~ a complete newbie in town ~ found a community of like-minded readers & lovers of words.
Much of what we share is hard reading. Not difficult to understand, but sometimes difficult in its content, how it hurts to be brought in to such a tragic situation, landscape, life… This past meeting I brought in poems b;y Jericho Brown, from his first book, Please. They were not easy to live with, dealing as they do with the dark ambivalence Brown felt/feels for his sometimes-violent father, and the mother who stayed with him.
But we read them, and we talked about domestic violence. And about writing what is hard, but true. And the conversation shifted then to another poem, offered by another member — Emily Dickinson’s ‘#314: hope is the thing with feathers…” Talk moved from Dickinson in general (and the movie about her life) to hope, to reading poetry overall.
That’s the beauty of poetry, right there: it starts conversations that matter. Or at least it seems to. I’ve never met anyone — even those who claim to dislike it — who didn’t light up when asked about childhood favourites. Something a grandparent read, or a parent. A nursery rhyme, possibly.
Somewhere along the line, we lose that. More accurately, school often beats it out of us. As a friend of mine (another English teacher!) once said, it takes an English teacher to make you hate poetry. Billy Collins is right: too many people want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.// They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”
We don’t do that at Poetry Book Club. We just share & visit. You don’t always have to “know” what a poem “means” to enjoy it. Just like you don’t have to sugarcoat the ugliness of grief. Which leads to another poetry book review, courtesy of my beloved Nimrod International Journal. It’s a conversation about Colin Pope’s heart-wrenching collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral. I highly recommend it, even if it’s ‘depressing.’ It’s also gorgeous, beautifully crafted, and just amazing. Enjoy!
I’ve never belonged to a book club before. Many (if not most) of my friends do, and sing their praises. But my own reading has always been so eclectic that I never believed anyone else would want to read what I like.
Then I gave a ‘class’ in reading poetry. We read poetry weekly, from 2 different anthologies, but we also brought in poems we ‘found’. Or poems we already loved. A couple of times, even poems we DISliked. It was WONDERFUL! There were poems of love and death; there were playful witticisms; there were social manifestos. There was Shakespeare and Auden and Mary Oliver and Natasha Trethewey and so many less famous life changers.
Six of the 10 people who were in that continuing education class wanted to keep reading poetry together, and two more wanted to join us. Because something happened when we shared poems — conversations deepened, voices became a kind of music, much like the various poetic voices we discussed.
This is a piece on that book club I wrote for much-loved journal, Nimrod International Journal. You can read about the journal (with which I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with for DECADES) at the Nimrod website. And the nudge to begin your own poetry book club is here. You’ll see more from the poetry book club, I’m sure, in the months to follow. As well as book reviews I’m doing for Nimrod. It’s the best way I know to stay prepared for poetry book club. And it’s the breath part of Tea & Breath ~
I watched the most amazing half-hour series yesterday — Poetry in America’s 1st episode in this spring’s offerings. Centred on the iconic Emily Dickinson, and her poem “I cannot dance upon my toes,” it’s one of the few poetry specials I remember to make manifest the links poetry has to other fine arts. Specifically, music & dance.
Yo-Yo Ma ably represents the music side of things, playing the cello as if it was a voice reading. His incredible fingering & bowing turn the simplest rill of notes into something astonishing, much as Dickinson takes ordinary words & creates an image that stuns.
Dancer Jill Johnson, poet Marie Howe, and actress Cynthia Nixon (who plays Emily Dickinson in film) join host Elisa New in unfolding the layered origami of Dickinson’s poetry. It’s astonishing, and so worth watching!
In other poetic business, NaPoWriMo’s prompt today is magick! Seriously — use magic(k) in your poem. It’s good practice! And here’s mine — a fusion of yesterday’s prompt (which I missed!) & today’s:
She finds herself dividing like a cell
Is it mitosis or meiosis ~ she doesn’t
quite remember. Perhaps the brain
is what does not cross over.
Perhaps the cells cannot communicate.
It was never easy.
This cell this one she lives in now
neatly divided borders clean-edged
is the mother the wife the sister/daughter
she from whom the other cells draw energy
That cell the one of brilliant colours
as formless as internal music
pleochroic emerald ruby citrine
is who she might have been
who she is sometimes
in her dreams. Messily bordered
without shape or form.
And somewhere in the middle
is the space that neither one inhabits
that void of becoming
before the words begin.
So, I have this friend… Seriously — I do have friends! We’ve been friends for more than 20 years…21? 22? A long time, in other words. And we’ve done a lot of cool things together, and seen each other through job shifts, illnesses, promotions, and all the daily events that close friends share. At one point, we were even in a writing group together. Friendship, in other words.
But we live nowhere near each other these days, and haven’t spent quality time together in years. Because she lived where I worked, I didn’t have strategies in place that would remind me I had to make more of an effort when I retired. Sure — she came to the annual Girlfriends Holiday Tea. And I tried to see her when she came to town. But it wasn’t like before, when we dropped in on each other’s office.
She’s one of those friends that somehow manages to encourage you to move forward. I have a couple of those — it’s great. This one seems to always know the right book for the right moment. The right joke when you’re ready to slit your wrists. The right lunch when you can’t face another day of writing. Mostly, though? She’s funny, and smart, and kind, and just my very dear girlfriend.
But like I said, we haven’t had much contact in a while. So she messages me on FB, and asks for my address. Okay, I figure: maybe she has a new book? Or just a card...? Then the mail comes, and it’s… The Poet Tarot!! How cool is THAT?? And how the heck did she know I’ve been returning to my old hippie roots, and had bought several tarot decks as I try to find out which one suits me in this very different chapter of my life…? And that the one she sent me — where e.e.cummings is the Fool, and William Carlos Williams the Magician, and Denise Levertov the World — would be so totally perfect??
That’s the power of real friendship, folks: the ability to listen to someone you love, and give them not only what they want or need, but what will help them grow. As I make time to pick up grandsons, cook for family, clean this beautiful new house, plant seeds to grow into 4 o’clocks my mother loved, water birds, and DO THINGS, I haven’t been writing. You noticed, right?
But this way, with these beautiful new cards (Lucille Clifton, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Emerson…), I can think of writing completely differently. More like what I used to tell students: a kind of practice. Meaning, I don’t have to worry so much about getting it ‘right.’ Much less perfect!
The sheer diversity of writers — Emily Dickinson & Edgar Allen Poe! — is freeing. If all of these wonderful, amazing poets can overcome slavery (Phyllis Wheatley), insanity (Poe), depression (Robert Lowell), and more, I can find my way home to writing. I can do this!
Thanks, Becky. Once again, you nailed it. And I’m so very happy you did!
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??
Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was totally new to me: Skeltonic verse. Never heard of it. Never wrote it. Don’t even remember dipodic verse (which is what Skeltonic verse is written in: two heavy stresses per line). And you’re talking about someone who read pretty much the entire Princeton Encyclopædia of Poetry…
I ADORE finding new poetic strategies & forms. They don’t all work for me (for anyone), but they’re like windows into other ways of being. Kind of like reading poetry from other countries & cultures, they offer this writer, at least, new tools. Who knew I could write a poem I’m not horrifically embarrassed to share that had six or fewer words in a line?? Not a tanka (which friends know is a form I love dearly), but a Western form I never knew before tonight.
What I also learned is that I seem congenitally unable to write funny poems. This is supposed to be a ‘fun’ poem. Sigh… This is, apparently, about as fun as I get. I apologise in advance!
Here’s the prompt:
Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem using Skeltonic verse. Don’t worry, there are no skeletons involved. Rather, Skeltonic verse gets its name from John Skelton, a fifteenth-century English poet who pioneered the use of short stanzas with irregular meter, but two strong stresses per line (otherwise know as “dipodic” or “two-footed” verse). The lines rhyme, but there’s not a rhyme scheme per se. The poet simply rhymes against one word until he or she gets bored and moves on to another.
And here’s what I ended up with:
A broken heart
May be the start
Of the good part
Of life, where art
(At least if you’re smart)
Is more than hobby
Food we should lobby
With gristle & bone
We eat. Alone
We turn from the stone
Behind us deceiving
Tears, years of weaving
Hope to thieving
In a road wending
Away from us
So write it down
Words a crown
Of thorns, redbrown
On a paper gown
And we ride away
(That first day)
In disarray ~
Afraid that life
Is a blade, a knife