In High School I remember class mates complaining about how hard it was to read and understand Shakespeare. I will be the first to agree that Shakespeare's language was a different kind of English than that which we speak in America today. I don't believe that is the real problem though. I believe it is a lack of familiarity- because other than what we are assigned in Junior High and High School, we just don't read him and because we are uncomfortable with him, we don't go back and try to get to know him better. For many, it is the same with Scriptures or any work that hasn't been written in the last ten years.
This doesn't just apply to reading poetry, but also to writing poetry. I recently attended the ANWA Writer's Conference in Mesa, AZ. There was a class taught by Angela Morrison, a YA author and an excellent teacher, about using free verse poetry to improve prose. What was funny to me was some of the people who had chosen to attend this class were complaining about having to write a poem. I even heard someone say that they didn't write poetry it "wasn't their thing." By the end of the class, we had all written a poem and used it to create a powerful scene in prose. I think everyone left with a new perspective on poetry. I know for sure there was some powerful writing done in that class and we all have another technique to improve our writing.
Because it is National Poetry Month, I would like to take the opportunity to hopefully inspire others to give poetry another chance, maybe put more effort into getting to know it better, maybe make at least some of it their thing.
Lets take a look at poetry. My 1980's American Heritage Dictionary defines a poem as, "A verbal composition having the suggestive power to engage the feelings and imagination, typically through the highly structured patterning and movement of sound, rhythm and meaning characteristic of verse."
Cadence, rhythm, the beating of drums, clapping of hands, meter, symmetry, flow. Not all poems rhyme but they all have rhythm, they all flow they all have imagery that evokes some emotion in us. I like rhyme.
How does your garden grow?'
'With silver bells
And cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.'
'Mary had a little lamb
whose fleece was white as snow
and every where that Mary went
the lamb was sure to go.'
These two poems are Nursery Rhymes that I was taunted with on the play ground in Elementary school. The funny thing about them is that I AM quite contrary and always was and I have always loved gardens though I have never been able to make silver bells grow and have no idea what a cockle shell is. I also raised a bum lamb that I fed with a bottle. These are still two of my favorites.
During this same time in my life, I discovered a poet who understood me on a level no one else did. His name is Dr. Seuss and his wonderful hero Horton heard a Who and declared for all to hear that "A person's a person no matter how small." What a relief to my bruised ego and fists. Being named Mary, being short and contrary is a lot to deal with. This was the time I wrote my first poem.
I am a river.
I have fish in me.
The fish dance in me.
Now what does a third grader know about symbolism? All I really knew was that the teacher told us to imagine being something else and asked what it would be like. So I didn't know anything about symbolism then, but I do now. So who is to say that those fish aren't ideas? Ideas do dance in me like a fish would in a river- sometimes fast and constant, sometimes lazy and slow.
Later when I was beginning to make some important decisions in my life, I met Robert Frost and he taught me about choices.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Another poet taught me about hope at a time when I needed it. Emily Dickinson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet never in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
I have had my children memorize that poem. Some of them don't understand it because they are too young, but some day, it will be there for them.
My sixteen year old son asked me if we had any national poems. I told him that we certainly did, one is now our national anthem- it was originally a poem- perhaps a prayer of gratitude that we had not lost the battle of Ft. McHenry in the War of 1812. I would also submit that the Gettysburg address is a form of poetry. If you have never read it, I would suggest that you find a copy and read it. What do you think- poetry or not? Abraham Lincoln wrote many poems. A good number of leaders in history did, King David for one. Check out the Psalms in the Old Testament.
Poetry is a great way to express feelings. How do you feel today- throw down some words on paper, images that come to mind. Don't worry about order or meter or form, just put them down. Let the words carry you. It may not turn into anything earthshatteringly brilliant, then again it might. I hope I have inspired you to try out some poetry this month- reading and writing.
One last poem, a silly poem because laughter is as good for the soul as poetry.
By Gelett Burgess
The Purple Cow
I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.
Till next month!