School has started, and I’m teaching again. My tenth grade English classes and my grades 9-12 Creative Writing class have not yet begun to look at me with abject skepticism, but then I haven’t asked them to write a lot of poetry yet.
When I was in high school, I detested poetry. My instruction had been confined to the episode in The Odyssey when Odysseus outwits the Cyclops by telling him his name is Nobody, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold and a few other poems about World War I, some Shakespeare, and maybe a little Emily Dickinson. While all those things are great, there wasn’t really a sense that poetry was something still-living people did. Poetry itself did not live. The most contemporary poet any of my friends knew of was Sylvia Plath, and her caché was having tried so many times to kill herself. And by the time we were aware of her, she was also already dead.
Is it any wonder I considered myself a fiction writer only? In stories, for me, there was peace. There, in stories, was the world as I dictated it, a haven for a girl who felt invisible more often than not, silenced not by malice but through the daily machinations of the 20th-century Texas in which the accident of her birth had placed her.
And, much like the progressive French women authors who write comte de fée (fairy tales) centuries ago were able to make female characters into empowered heroines with agency and active motivations by couching those characters in the realm of children’s fancy*, stories allowed me to reshape the reality of the world as I knew it.
When I got to college, I knew I would be a fiction student. (I went to the University of Houston for Creative Writing.) And then halfway through my degree, I had to take some cross-genre classes. Poetry workshops were my new experience: I made friends with other student-poets; learned from living, breathing, author-poets; tried writing poetry myself. I read the works of the poets of my own time, I learned how to see the world around me in short bursts of lyric. The rain-drenched courtyard outside my dorm became leaves “on a black, wet bough.”**
I wrote nothing but poetry for several years, and through this practice what I learned about language, about the relationships among words and between word and meaning, completely changed the way I worked. When I came back to fiction afterward, my writing style was wildly different, dramatically improved. My stories had become worth reading, all because poetry had taught me language.
When my students tell me they don’t want to read or write poetry, when they confess it freaks them out, I remind them that poetry is all around us. We practice with short form debriefs about mundane things, focusing on turning a single image into two or three sparkling lines of metaphor and comment.
My friend Chris Noessel, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, takes Casual Carpool to work and sometimes posts on Facebook his impressions of his varied carpool experiences. One day this summer a line from one of his posts caught me, felt like it had rhythm, and I turned his post into a poem. Not a great poem, by any stretch, but something fun to work with for half an hour while I sat, otherwise unfocused, procrastinating my novel revisions.
In this immaculately aging sedan, my feet intrude upon
a floor mat bedecked with red and pink hearts, a riot of
affectionate color in a gray, gray mechanical world.
A plastic key fob boasts a picture of the driver and
children, witnessing a moment of joy on a roller coaster, but
. now fastidious,
. brake – accelerate – brake – like
dressage. A full ten car lengths separate us from the white van
ahead. The driver’s back, ramrod, doesn’t rest against her seat,
stiffens against the radio’s latest testimonial: a man lamenting
his thug life full of guns, dope, and, oh yes, bitches.
. The driver taps
her index fingers – da dum, da dum – in time on the steering wheel.
doot doot do do, doot doot do do, doot doot do do, doot doot do do…
Find the lyric in at least one moment of your day, every day.*** It’s like meditation without having to meditate: this forced daydream of language, your moment of Zen in a chaotic world.
* For more discussion of this idea, see Jack Zipes’ When Dreams Came True.
** This line is paraphrased from the imagistic poem “In a Station at the Metro” by Ezra Pound.
*** I currently have a contest running on Twitter: the first three people to reply to me with a one-tweet-long poem about school starting up again will win a free copy each of my new ebook FINIS. You won’t be the first winner (that spot has already been claimed this morning), but will you be the second or third?