You a Poet? Don’t Blow It

Our man is on a tough mission: To get everyone to release the poet within.
You a Poet? Don’t Blow It
JUL09 OMO imageI can pinpoint exactly when I concluded that poetry sucks. It was 1980 in a high school English class. I was three or so pages into Beowulf.

Despite such useful words-to-live-by as “Drunk, he slew no hearth companions…,” that dense classic was enough to convince this so-so student that poetry was for those way smarter than I—a.k.a. losers. By the time the curriculum got around to Dickinson, Whitman, et al., I had given up on poetry, with the exception of limericks spied on restroom walls. I tolerated a bit more poetry in college, but was pleased to put verse behind me at graduation. Poetry stayed off—way off—my radar for nearly 20 years. Then, at the insistence of a bookseller, I opened up a contemporary collection by Jeffrey Harrison, who just happens to be a Cincinnati native. I randomly read a couple of his poems and a light went off in my head, my heart, my soul. I was immediately and irrevocably changed. Not only is poetry now a hot spot on my radar, it is my radar, my way of making sense of our world. I have become an evangelist for poetry, encouraging everyone—and that means you—to read it and, yes, to write it, too. It’s not an easy gig; many people, like the younger me, would rather gouge out an eye. But I’m up for the challenge.

In a hectic, demanding world such as ours, it’s good to know that poetry is easily digestible. Much of it is short, written in small bits and pieces that don’t even take up a page, which means you can read most poems while waiting in line at Starbucks. Of course, talented poets can pack quite a wallop into a few lines, which means that while poetry may go down easily, it can stick in the gut for quite some time. The philosopher John Stuart Mill was a big advocate of short poems. As he said, it’s “impossible that a feeling so intense…should sustain itself at its highest elevation for long.” Mr. Mill is right. With poets like Harrison and other contemporaries such as Denise Duhamel, James Tate, and Sharon Olds, I often need to set their books aside after reading just one poem. They are that emotionally intense.

Poetry is also readily available. You’ll find healthy selections at Joseph-Beth Booksellers and the chain bookstores, and overwhelming amounts of it online. Some of it will speak to you and sock you in the gut, while a lot of it will leave you scratching your head over what the poet is trying to say. (A lot of poetry these days is more about “being” than “meaning.” Or so it seems.) And yes, a good portion will seem like crap. But wading through the nonsensical, the lousy, the poems that just don’t connect with you, is worth the reward of finding those that leave you gulping for air.

All right, perhaps I am beginning to sound a little breathless. But reading poetry can provide new perspectives on your world and help bring into relief ideas, feelings, and emotions you’ve had but that you couldn’t quite define or express. This is why I encourage everyone to take up their pencils and try writing a little verse. Despite my naturally ornery interior, I tend to think there are poems within everyone aching to get out. It’s a matter of listening for them, for things that stir something from within, like a stranger spotted in a cemetery:

You can see it
In the way she
Trims the grass
With scissors
Pulled from her purse:

If she could dig
Six feet down
And lay next
To him again,
She would.

Let’s be clear: Writing a poem that expresses a particularly resonant sentiment is relatively easy, but writing a poem that others beyond your loved ones or your cat would want to hear is a different matter altogether. Most poems written by most people are lousy, this poet most definitely included. There is no shortage of bad poetry. You’ll find an abundance of it online and in libraries and bookstores, not to mention in my journals and on my hard drive. However, those so-called bad poems still manage to express an insight or emotional point of view of the author. The writing of each of those millions of atrocious lines of verse allowed the authors to take a step, however small, down the path toward greater self- and world-awareness. So while established societal standards, personal tastes, and overwhelming consensus label a poem “bad,” for the author the process of writing it was probably “good.” Allow me to share with you why I think poetry, though often overlooked as a creative outlet for all, is the ideal way to express yourself.

WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT writing poetry is that it requires nothing that you don’t already have or know. The two most fundamental requirements for writing poetry are a heart with which to feel and a vocabulary for translating those feelings into words. I assume you possess both, unless you’re a heartless bastard without access to a dictionary or thesaurus.

So, you’ve got what it takes to get started right away but you hesitate, am I right? Then consider this: No subject, no emotion, no experience is beyond poetry. I have written poems about advertising, arcane civil laws, even an ode to a tag inside a new pair of undershorts. Here’s a little rhyming ditty I wrote about a common, everyday thing. I call it “Paper Clip”:

Silently holding it all together
In the files, not one little mess
Despite the water cooler chatter
About the office going paperless.

If you want to celebrate your love for your spouse, you can do it with a poem. If you want to comment on how beautiful the ocean is at night, you can do it with a poem. If you want to tell someone to kiss your ass, you can do that with a poem, too. No matter what the topic or mood, you can write a poem to fit. I wrote a poem called “Daughter Atop Horse” when I wanted to say something important to a horse:

His big, glassy eyes say
He has come in peace.
He better see the doubt in mine.
If he hurts her,
His galloping days are over.

YOU CAN WRITE POEMS, OR JOT DOWN NOTES AND IDEAS, ANYWHERE AND AT ANY TIME. The possibilities are virtually without limit: Riding on the bus or train, waiting for your lunch to be served, strolling through a forest. I’ve drafted poems on the margins of newspapers, on cocktail napkins, on those pesky subscription cards that are forever flopping out of magazines. I’ve even typed poems using the “Notes” application in my wireless phone. When poetic inspiration strikes, you need not wait to respond. Of course, if you’re driving, working in a steel factory, or about to operate on someone, better to wait and hope your short-term memory doesn’t fail you. Here’s a two-stanza poem that I began in the log of my checkbook at Kroger one day. I’m particularly fond of the title: “A Haircut Before the High School Reunion.”

An inch off the back, some
Texture on top, sideburns gone
What the stylist assures me
Is the fashion of the day.  

A fresh cut and a new sport coat
Should help convince everyone
That these past 20 years
Have been good to me,
Even though mom paid for both.

WRITING A POEM NEED NOT TAKE LONG. Conceiving a poem can easily take months and months, and in some cases even years. But most of us can craft a poem, even if in fits and starts, over the course of several days, sometimes even in hours. In other words, individual poems do not require long-term commitment (though, of course, poetry does). Plus, you can return at any time to a poem and refine it, if not remake it altogether.

For those who claim to have no time to write poetry, you should know that some of our nation’s most celebrated poets have had jobs outside the worlds of writing and teaching. William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) was a doctor, and Ted Kooser (1939– ), the 13th Poet Laureate of the United States, was an insurance company executive. And let’s not shortchange the demands of teaching and writing for those poets who do that full-time. We all lead busy lives, but like any other endeavor, you just need to make it a priority. It need not overwhelm the rest of your life; in fact, I believe poetry can improve it.

MEN CAN WRITE POETRY. Rather than attempt to hopscotch around this topic with politically correct verbiage, let me just lay it out there: In many respects, writing poetry isn’t considered very masculine. I rarely find a guy sitting at one of my neighborhood bars bragging to his buddies that he’s a poetry fan. This is too bad, since anyone can benefit from reading or writing poetry, even so-called “manly men” who like to sit at bars and drink boilermakers. For many, poetry conjures up very delicate and classically “feminine” matters, such as beauty and love. That’s fair, but incomplete. Writing poetry is emotionally demanding. Dylan Thomas likened it to walking on broken glass—with your eyeballs. Now that’s manly.

POETRY IS EASY TO SAVE AND SHARE. You can keep your poems in a manila file folder, in a journal, or on your computer. You can e-mail them off to friends, post them to a blog, or rely on snail mail. We can all appreciate someone telling us, in a creative way, what they think and feel about us and the accelerated world we live in. Not everything can or should be expressed in bite-sized bits, but the ease in which a poem can be consumed (again and again, if one is so moved) is a wonderful thing. It’s also why I always keep a few poetry books in my car for when I’m stuck in traffic or waiting my turn at the dentist’s office.

As for sharing with a broader audience through publishing, be wary. First take a college course or two, join a poetry club, or seek the advice of a pro. The competition is tough; thousands of poems are submitted every year to journals; few are accepted. Good isn’t good enough. But publication isn’t the point; saying something important, even if just to yourself, is.

So what’s holding you back? Grab a pen or jump on your computer and do what I do: Respond to this crazy world with a poem that helps it make sense. At least to you.

Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the July 2009 issue.

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