Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dreaded...

As I've traversed the blogosphere for a few years now, I've noticed something quite tragic, something that I saw in myself a long, long time ago, but a loving professor helped cure: I hated poetry. I hated Shakespeare, too, because his writing was as confusing as poetry. Simply put, I didn't understand poetry. Several college courses later, and an amazing professor, Laura Hamblin, author of "Eyes of a Flounder", helped me understand poetry.

Learning to love, write, and read poetry has touched my soul and permanently changed my writing for the better. I don't think poetry will have the same impact on every writer, but I think any writer who doesn't give it a chance is losing something valuable.

On Thursday I will be doing a post more in-depth about how poetry has changed my writing. For now I will leave you with a poem of mine published in the New Mexico journal, Scribendi. I'm sharing this particular poem because it is a good example of mixing prose with poetry, and shows how poetry does not have to rhyme nor contain a predictable rhythm, nor follow a specific pre-determined pattern.

The Sky Was Bluer Then, and Smoke More White

When my grandfather burned the leaves each late October, he made it a ritual, standing near the pyramid of brittle reds and browns, pitchfork in one hand, cold air in another, wool sweater bunched in creases around arms and waist like the wrinkles on his forehead, like smoke folding to sky. He didn’t like to stand alone.

Wear these gloves when you
go help your grandfather
I used to help him when I was your age.

Standing near his giant frame,
myself only four feet tall—
tall as the burning pyramid,
except it is shrinking.

Grandpa’s hand on my back,
no longer filled with cold,
but my hair as he smooths
it around my shoulders, his voice
deep and warm, his words
constant like fire making smoke.

My grandfather drank coffee in the mornings and sang me songs afterward, his breath rich with hazelnut and cream. When he burned the leaves, he told me stories of shirtless Indians, red under their globe of sun, dancing around their own fires in prayer. The sky was bluer then, and smoke more white. When it rose to the sky in spiraling columns, it carried words of prayers on wings so small they only looked like smoke. If the leaves or wood or corn stalks were ripe, their white wings would lift to gods in praise.

Watching smoke lift
to gods, like steam rising
to Grandpa’s face when he drinks coffee,
surrounded by prayers
and praise, his forehead
a cloud, his eyes stars.

Listening to flames lick
red, devouring the paper
of trees, holding this
image of burning season
with images of Grandpa
commanding fire with a pitchfork.

Come in, get warm
I used to stand out there in the snow,
those leaves burning charcoal-hot and hissing.

When the apples grew ripe on the tree near my bedroom window, my grandfather hoisted me onto his shoulders so I could reach the highest ones. If some were rotten, we threw them in the pyramid of leaves for burning. They were bright points of green in the fire, and their waxy skin spit madly when it grew hot with flame. My grandfather laughed at the spitting and told me it was their song; if they could, they would dance.

Thank you for reading! I'd like to know from all of you, if you have a few moments, if you (a) like poetry or dislike it like I used to, (b) if you currently write poetry/have any published and where, and (c) if you're interested in learning more about poetry and how it can possibly help your writing


  1. I'm a late bloomer. I graduated from college in '03 after 34 years of taking a course here and one there. During my last push, I took several creative writing courses and that's what my degree is in. At the time all creative writing courses included writing poetry. I always made it clear that I was not a poet and that I was doing this stuff under protest. Since the classes usually contained more or less the same students from semester to semester, it became a running joke.

    I like some poety and will even read it for pleasure. However, I only write it when I have no other choice. You know what I mean, that little peice of language that just won't leave you alone until you take it and expand it into something amusing or sad or thought provoking. Fortunately, this is becoming rarer and rarer. Hopefully, it will soon disappear altogether.

  2. I am a bad reader of poetry and I don't have much of an understanding of it. That said, it's still important to me because there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from reading good poetry: the weight of words, the flow of vowel sounds and the rhythms of consonants, the difference between starting or ending a sentence with a vowel or a consonant, the uses and misuses of internal rhyme and assonance and the way some words are the right words purely because of the way they sound between two other words in the middle of a sentence. Shakespeare has also obviously had a big influence on me.

  3. Beautiful poem, Michelle. I liked the description of the fire and the action of smoothing the hair. The cold air in the man's hand was also lovely. You know where I am with poetry. I've written about ten poems in the ten years I've been writing. I've only shown them to about two people, you being one of them! I'm not exactly afraid of poetry, but I do feel like I don't understand it very much.

  4. My father was a poet (privately published) so I grew up hearing poetry being recited; in Spanish, in his case. I have off and on experimented with writing poetry and indeed sometimes feel that my prose should be held to the standard of a poem’s meter. But as for actual poetry? Only when the muse visits. Lately, that’s been mostly in haiku form. It was wonderful to read your poem.

  5. I like poetry, though I don't read or write it as much as I used to. I have some of my favorite poems posted on my website,/url>. I prefer structured poetry, like sonnets. I don't think I've seen prose and poetry mixed like that before; what gave you to write it that way?

  6. I guess the HTML tag didn't work; my website is at www.sandraulbrich.com if you'd like to look at some of my poems.

  7. I really enjoyed your piece, thanks for sharing.

    Poetry is touchy, because there is so much of it out there. It can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chafe, but when you do find something you like, it is almost sure to resonate in a deeply personal way.

    I write some poetry, more often than not in the form of song lyrics. To me, finding an appropriate rhyme and meter makes it both fun and challenging.

  8. @Rick Daley

    Well, if you're gonna include song lyrics, that there is a whole nuther thang!!

  9. Great poem!

    I haven't written any since my angsty teen journal phase, but do enjoy reading it every now and then. I can't write serious poetry though... I always write humor or rhyming stanzas. No free form for me!

  10. Chuck: Ah, I wonder if any of that poetry writing has transferred to your subconscious for other writing? I didn't realize that poetry had done that to me until later. Of course, if you hate it that much, I won't lead you to believe that is the case. ;)

    Scott: Yes, see, Shakespeare was a poet no matter what he wrote, in my opinion, and we can learn from that. You already have, obviously. I see a lot of poetry in your writing. It flows so well, and the sounds are lovely to say aloud.

    Davin: I will always appreciate you sharing your poetry with me, and I hope you believe me when I say it was finely done. You seem to have a good grasp on what works, even if you don't realize it.

    Judith: I love listening to poetry in other languages that I don't understand. It really helps me focus on the sounds. It's a wonderful experience, like listening to opera.

    Sandra: Thank you for sharing your link! I'll definitely check out your work because I get very excited when I meet someone else who writes and loves poetry.

    What gave me the idea to write the poem I've shared? I'm not sure. I believe I was in a poetry class and also in a fiction class at the time, and wondered what would happen if I mixed the two. I did a lot of experimenting, then, and I'd like to continue that.

    Rick: So true. When I find a poet that resonates with me, it's a divine experience that carries with me for a long time. Song lyrics are poetry, so that definitely counts in my book.

    Chuck: Hmmm, I'm wondering if you realize how much poetry is really around you? I'm afraid that formal schooling has killed poetry for a lot of people, and that saddens me. Poetry is something that I feel resonates with every person, writers or not, and most of the time they don't realize it. That is what my professor taught me.

    L.T.: I think rhyming, formal poetry can be serious poetry. Free form doesn't necessarily mean serious, at least to me.

  11. I've always loved poetry. Particularly the romantics. I write it sometimes but when I'm done I never really feel like it says what I'm trying to say. I'm not very good at staying in meter and finding rhymes etc. I know poetry doesn't have to follow any form but for me that's what fascinates me about it so most of my poetry is of the keep in my journal and never see the light of day variety.

  12. Rick: "Poetry is touchy, because there is so much of it out there. It can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff."

    I think that's true of all arts. Especially if you just look around on the net for poems, most of them are awful, amaturish and filled with the cliches that make people roll their eyes at the idea of poetry. Good poetry, like all good art, is surprising and startles us into a new frame of mind. My current favorite poet is Nobel-laureate (and Irishman!) Seamus Heaney. Some of his stuff is here and here.

    And, like all sensitive white guys who wear glasses and a lot of black clothing, I am also fond of Emily Dickenson.

  13. Don't know a damn thing about poetry. But I'm interested in learning, for sure. Best I can manage at the moment is doggerel (and the occasional foray into iambic pentameter....) :)

  14. I like to read poetry. In my college writing class, we had to study and learn to write poetry. I found it very overwhelming to actually write the poetry, but gained better appreciation for it. I can't wait to find out how it has helped you! =)

  15. I actually just started writing poetry in December. So I'm a little late and I learned backwards... I started writing poems then I started understand what others were saying in their poetry.

    I think it's an intricate part of writing as well. I don't believe that people "can't" do it or understand it, they just have to find the right formula for them. I feel like it's helped me in my writing with prose and with learning to add a more rhythmic quality to my stories.

  16. For what it's worth, I think there's poetry in any great piece of literature. Good writers have a a natural sense of rhythm and listen to the sound of their words, but beyond that they also weave in imagery and sensory details that are poetic in their ability to speak directly to the reader. We improve as writers by reading great literature, and I do think reading great poetry makes us even stronger.

  17. Oh, and yes, I have published poetry-but that's not the focus of my work at all.

  18. Lovely piece, Michelle. :-)

    I adore poetry, though I've never been big on other people telling me how to interpret it (so college poetry classes annoyed me). I started out reading Shakespeare at 12 yrs old, and fell in love with his sonnets. Being brought up reading the King James version of the Bible probably helped a lot in my being able to grasp the language there.

    Lord Byron, Yeats, Tennyson, Rossetti, Poe, cummings - I connect with the flowing, melodic language in a way I really can't describe. It's quite amazing.

    That said, I can't write poetry. Never have been able to, even in simple form. I've never been able to divorce my logical side long enough to tap into any kind of structured poetic flow. I've written some prose I consider to be quite poetic, but it's not something I share. :-)

  19. I think poetry was my first love.

    "commanding fire with a pitchfork."

    This is beautiful, Michelle. Incredibly so.

  20. I detest poetry,
    Insert a Cheshire grin.
    Good God its Wednesday.
    Now how did that happen?

  21. I enjoy poetry, but I have to be in the mood. And, I need time to read it slowly and let it soak in.

    this was so well done, Glam. A story first, I think.

  22. Great post! I too used to have a certain distaste for poetry but recently I've had a change of perspective. Now I'm obsessed with poetry and I'm trying to learn as much as I can about it. I especially enjoy memorizing poems and I recite them in my head when I'm commuting on the subway.

    My high school English teacher used to say we had to memorize poems so that if we ever ended up stranded on a desert island, we could recite them and not be bored. At the time I thought she was nuts but now I think I understand. Poems can be good companions.

  23. Poetry kept me alive during a dark adolescence. I carried my copy of Yeats everywhere. I wrote reams of my own poems, most of which were terrible, of course.

    But along the way I lost my taste for it. Or maybe contemporary poetry lost me. So much bad, pretentious navel-gazing out there. And I find amateur poetry-reading cliques can be off-putting and condescending.

    What brought me back was Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac. Hearing him read a poem every morning, with his marvelous story-teller's voice, made me remember that a poem is a story.

    Yours certainly is. And it took me back to a moment in my own story--those crisp New England autumn days of childhood, smelling that sharp, sweet smoke. Lovely.

    In the last couple of years, I've been writing poetry again, too. The five or six I've sent out have been published, and I just sold one to an anthology. Just a few bucks, but it feels good.

  24. I was the same way. Now I don't mind it so much. I'm not too great at writing it, but that's ok. I'm not published but I do have a lot of poems sitting there on my hard drive.

  25. Thanks for the rest of your comments, everyone!

  26. I agree with Rick Daley that there is a lot of chaff out there; however, when you find the wheat it is worth the search. I've written poetry and enjoyed it, but have been focusing in prose more lately. I see poetry affecting the way I look at revising (trying to fit form requires revision in someways and helps train you to mess with your words) and imagery. I like the images you evoke in your writing and see the same mastery within your poetry that you have in prose.

  27. Aiden: I use poetry a lot when I'm revising. I tend to look at words differently when I have my "poet mind" in gear.


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