National Poetry Month

poetry month

My uneven experiences with poetry started with Mother Goose.

I admired the little girl who had a little curl; and when she was bad, she was horrid. But I questioned Little Jack Horner’s IQ: with an entire Christmas pie to himself, he ate only the plum?

Then, during a lesson on rhyme, my fourth-grade teacher at Lake Shore Elementary had us write a couplet using the word day at the end of the first line. Inspiration struck:

The sun was shining bright that day
To cheer the birth of Janet Bray

When I read it aloud, my classmates giggled, and I decided to become a famous poet.

I abandoned my career plans in 5th grade, however, when Mr. Ralphs corrected me for saying “poyme.” He told me to repeat his pronunciation, “pome” three times, and then had the entire class chant it three more.

In high school, my exacting English teacher, Mrs. Cornaby, wondered why her students from Lake Shore said “pome” when the word was correctly pronounced “po-em.” “Is there something in Lake Shore’s water?” she wondered with a smile.

A few days later, when I answered a question in class and said “po-em,” she winked at me, and I returned to poetry.

College brought weighty discussions about the symbolism, significance, imagery and universal meaning of assigned poems. Students volunteered ideas until someone said what the teacher wanted to hear. The chosen idea was then expanded on in a lengthy lecture, and the students stopped thinking.

I gave up on poetry again, until my junior year when my roommate, a literature major, rescued me with the poetry of E.E. Cummings. His unique phrases danced with musicality and fascinated me:

“Anyone lived in a pretty how town
and up so floating many bells down.”

I continued to read poetry on my own, but never tried to write it. Then, four years ago, I started meeting with a group of poets whose work made me laugh, reflect, and feel. These good people gave me the motivation to write poems of my own and the courage to share them.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month and my poetry group, I’ve chosen to conclude with one of my efforts. Don’t bother looking for symbolism or universality. To do so would waste your time.

Dismissal

On a sun-dominated day
we hiked in cadenced silence
above a long-nosed jump where
in a ski-town’s season
winter-bright birds swoop then
soar in flashes of neon plumage.

A squared-off snout
led two cautious eyes and attentive
ears through the undergrowth
ahead then peered both ways along the
path like a parent-programmed child.

In the absence of heavy traffic,
the bear’s considered judgment
discarded us as distant-harmless
and launched its shaggy bulk
into a bowlegged shamble
up the path where we held breath.

Before the source of our
amazement popped away
into the far-side cover
of inter-woven brush and tree
the creature sent its disregards
by mooning us for thirty yards.

Attempting Poetics

In past posts I described my failed attempts to be an accomplished pianist and an admired artist: one led to a keyboard fiasco in church and the other to my inability to produce art as riveting as my father’s skinny chicken.

imagesMore recently, I decided to become a poet. Aglow with visions of quill pens and reading to enraptured audiences, I enrolled in a class for would-be poets and nearly quit when I had trouble completing the first assignment.

As I drove home from class, a stingy snow began to fall and didn’t stop, eventually coating yards and trees with insistence, rather than abundance.

Around 5:30, after an afternoon filled with busy work, instead of starting dinner, I turned up the heat and reread my assignment, a simple, twenty-minute exercise designed for beginners: concentrate on a scene in nature, describe what you see in complete sentences, pull phrases and words you like from those sentences, then arrange the selected fragments according to your idea of poetic format.

images-8I wanted to write poems. I wanted the ability to poetically describe the world I inhabited, to use few words to make the scene outside my window come alive for others, to depict swirls of snow on glistening asphalt and a diminished sky filled with persistent, sparse flakes.

I stood at the window, as frozen as the wind-whipped flakes I watched, and tried to find even one satisfactory sentence for my assignment. Twenty minutes later, I gave up: the assignment unfinished, dinner uncooked, and the poet depressed in a nagging, puny way, not the grand depressive state I imagined a real poet would feel.

I decided to start the spaghetti.

No matter how motivated, I find it hard to develop a new skill: work is required, failure is frequent, and — once past elementary school — praise is mostly absent. Too often, I react to my lack of skill and fear of failure by procrastinating or quitting. If I hadn’t had loving cheerleaders standing by offering encouragement, appreciation, and outstretched arms when I first tried to walk, I’d probably hold Ripley’s record as the world’s oldest living crawler.

Now, five years after my first poetry class, I continue to distract myself when I need to have something ready for my poetry group. Prose flows from me; poetry doesn’t. So I resist the effort involved.

Recently, I wrote an apology to the group to explain why, once again, I arrived without anything to share, and did my best to make it look like a poem:

I Hope You Understand

I apologize. I’m not prepared.

I had things to do—
finish a disappointing novel
water anything that drooped
call people
drink coffee and stare
stalk Facebook friends
breathe.

So I haven’t written a poem.

Yet, during the afternoon
I reserved for writing a
poem about crows
strutting like Sumo wrestlers
along my sidewalk,
I alphabetized the spice cabinet
ate rhubarb pie with ice cream
and napped.

After all, one has priorities.