It didn't surprise me how many of you don't like poetry. What did surprise me were some comments that led me to believe many of you don't understand exactly what poetry entails. It's okay, though - you can continue to dislike and even hate poetry. Poems like this often made me shudder before I learned how to read them (sometimes they still do).
A Red, Red Rose
O my Luve 's like a red, red rose
That 's newly sprung in June:
O my Luve 's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune!
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry:
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only Luve,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile.
Great, I'll bet about 98% of you skipped the poem and now you're reading this. That's okay. You can skip most of the poems in here. Poetry is almost always skipped, it seems. Of course, unless, it's in the shape of something we all know and love. Like a song lyric. Yes, song lyrics are a form of poetry. Every time you hear or sing a song playing on the radio, your iPod, you're "getting into poetry." Gasp.
The Long and Winding Road
The long and winding road that leads to your door,
Will never disappear, I've seen that road before
It always leads me here, lead me to your door.
The wild and windy night that the rain washed away,
Has left a pool of tears crying for the day.
Why leave me standing here, let me know the way.
Many times I've been alone and many times I've cried,
Anyway you've always known the many ways I've tried, but
Still they lead me back to the long, winding road,
You left me waiting here a long, long time ago.
Don't leave me standing here, lead me to your door.
If you know what song that is and who wrote it, extra points to you! With my next example, some poetry reads just like prose. Heaney is one of my favorite poets.
Death Of A Naturalist
(line breaks removed)
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart of the townland; green and heavy headed flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods. Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun. Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell. There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies, but best of all was the warm thick slobber of frogspawn that grew like clotted water in the shade of the banks. Here, every spring I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied specks to range on window-sills at home, on shelves at school, and wait and watch until the fattening dots burst into nimble-swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how the daddy frog was called a bullfrog and how he croaked and how the mammy frog laid hundreds of little eggs and this was frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too for they were yellow in the sun and brown in rain. Then one hot day when fields were rank with cowdung in the grass thea angry frogs invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges to a coarse croaking that I had not heard before. The air was thick with a bass chorus. Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked on sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped: the slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings were gathered there for vengeance and I knew that if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
An interesting exercise is to try and put the line breaks back in yourself without looking at the original. The paragraph above reads beautifully as prose, but as a poem, it's about 10 times more powerful. Why? Line breaks emphasize timing, the weight of specific words, rhythm, etc. That's half the magic.
In fact, I could write a very interesting short story about what happens in Heaney's poem above. He gives enough detail and personality that my imagination runs wild.
Definition: Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define. (thank you, about.com)
Well, we won't attempt to define poetry today. Let's just enjoy it. Who wouldn't like this poem by my professor in college? He first instilled in me what magic a poem can really create - and that poetry does not have to be boring and dry.
More Than Ashes to Ashes, Not Just Dust to Dust
In the Old Songs about Washington, if a fisherman drowned
and his body wasn’t found, it brought bad luck;
the salmon vanished too, and all the seals.
Even the deer smelled the badness
and scattered past the ends of the wind.
Even the wind would be creeping, flat-bellied, afraid.
‘Til they’d send for the Sculptor—a woman as beautiful,
secret as the mountains. She’d come from the mountains
to dig in the creekside clay,
to restore with Her fingers,
shaping the fisherman’s figure, the man’s lost face.
And in the Old Songs, this was good:
the people had something to bury now
in the hole She’d opened by the stream;
his spirit could live there, spearing the spirits of fish.
And there would be living fish too . . .
and the rocks alive with barking seals . . .
and they’d thank the Sculptor by shaping Her into a song.
The thing about poetry is this: it is fluid, and it can change and shape to whatever you want it to be. It doesn't have to be boring or stiff or rhyme or whatever. In fact, if you read and study and write poetry, it will most likely improve your prose. I know it has improved mine.
I went to a conference this past Saturday. One of the classes was about description and how to write it better. One of the last things the presenter talked about was poetry and how reading it will help you focus on the right details in your prose. Poetry forces you to narrow your focus. Poetry hones your ability to grab an audience.
I think one of the best examples I have found of poetry in prose is Marilynne Robinson. She spectacularly weaves her language, her prose, her stories, into what feels like one long, beautiful poem. But, it is still entertaining, still engaging, still cohesive enough to be called a novel. Here's an example of a paragraph I've taken from her novel, Housekeeping. I've put in line breaks because, well, I want to show you how prose can contain poetic elements.
In a month she would not mourn,
because in that season it had never seemed
to her that they were married,
she and the silent Methodist Edmund
who wore a necktie and suspenders even to hunt
wildflowers, and who remembered
just where they grew from year to year, and
who dipped his handkerchief in a puddle
to wrap the stems, and who put out his elbow
to help her over the steep and stony places
with a wordless and impersonal courtesy she did
not resent because had never really
wished to marry anyone.
She sometimes imagined a rather dark man
with crude stripes painted on his face
and a sunken belly,
and a hide fastened around his loins, and bones
dangling from his ears, and clay
and fangs and bones
and feathers and sinews
and hide ornamenting his arms
and waist and throat,
his whole body a boast that he was more alarming
than all the death whose trophies he wore.
Now, I don't know about you, but if you can create a character description that reads like poetry, you know what you're doing. Scott left a good comment on Tuesday about poetry:
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.
I think that even though Scott thinks he's a bad reader of poetry, he understands it more than he's giving credit for. The technical details of poetry are splendid and complex and often scare writers away from the form, but poetry is not all about the technical. In How To Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Edward Hirsch quotes Paul Celan:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the - not always greatly hopeful - belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.
The problem is that I can't make anyone pick up the message in the bottle, let alone love or read poetry or incorporate it into their writing. Still, I can guarantee that you are surrounded by poetry whether you're willing to see it or not. I'll leave you with a great comment by Marissa Graff and Martina Boone from the Adventures in Children's Publishing blog (I have no idea which one of you wrote this...)
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.
Here are some fellow bloggers (the list is by no means comprehensive, and I know I've missed a bunch of you), bless their hearts, who love and/or write poetry as I do. If you do, too, and you haven't spoken up, please do. I'm just waiting to discover you.
Sandra Ulbrich Almazan
Adventures in Children's Publishing
Simon C. Larter
Anne R. Allen
credits: a red, red rose by robert burns on wikipedia, the long and winding road by the beatles found on the beatles lyrics archive, definition of poetry found on about.com, more than ashes to ashes, not dust to dust by rob carney found on verse daily, death of a naturalist by seamus heaney found on famous poets and poems.com, housekeeping by marilynne robinson published by farrar, straus, and giroux, new york, 1980