Thursday, April 25, 2002
Photo: Traci Hukill
Much of what''s written and published today by America''s poets is written in free (non-rhyming) verse. If a poem doesn''t rhyme, you may ask, what makes it a poem?
A poem is concentrated language that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It''s writing that gets alchemical and enters the realm of mystery. American poet Donald Hall has called poetry "the unsayable said." A poem takes words nearly beyond the bounds of themselves, almost to where they cannot go. If the soul could speak, we would hear poetry. It''s a mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Perhaps our best poets are really sorcerers. They take words and spin them into fire.
When I read poetry, there''s a three-punch response I''m after. That''s what determines if I''m reading a poem or if it''s just words on paper broken up into cute little lines. First I get it in my body. I may swallow hard and have to catch my breath. As poet Emily Dickinson wrote, "I know it is poetry when it feels as if the top of my head has lifted off."
Then it needs to make me feel something I couldn''t have anticipated. Sandra Cisneros catches me by surprise in her poem "Little Clown, My Heart," when she refers to her heart as a "Paper parasol of pleasure." Without thinking about it my heart opens wide, suddenly able to keep sadness from dampening joy. But then, in her next line, she makes me feel the heart''s vulnerability with this line: "Fleshy undertongue of sorrows," and I touch on loss right then.
Finally, I want the poem to give me things to think about. In his poem "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine writes, "...Some things you know all your life..." It makes me think, "What have I known all my life?"
The way a poem does these things is through the particular. Levine''s poem goes on to tell the reader that the simple truth "must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker..." A poem is better equipped to hold a teacup or a fist than it is to hold such words as love or wonderful. It''s not that a poem can''t be about love or that one might not be wonderful, it''s that a poem works better when it contains the particular: breath, run, watermelon, things you can apply one or more of your five senses to.
Abstractions are (mostly) too vague to be poetry. They wilt there. If a poem is about an idea, it needs to put bones and flesh on the idea so that the reader will consider it too. Bring the idea home, here, where we live in days made of people and places, hardship and surprise. The poem should tell us which people? How do they move? And, with just what difficulty?
A poem also works through sound. Though it may not rhyme, poetry doesn''t ignore sound. Each poem has a rhythm that''s its own. It may not be a drum-banging rhythm, but, it has a pattern of sound, perhaps resembling the quiet in-and-out of breath.
As surprising and magical as good poetry is, it isn''t created by mixing magic potions together. Poems don''t usually find their way into being, as if the poet just sits whistling at the side of the road, waiting for the Muse to come by and offer a ride.
Our current U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, in a poem titled "Purity," says, "I am concentration itself." Yes, that''s it. The poet becomes concentration. Through writing, the poet loves the world-all its subtleties and contradictions. And that love works words, builds with them, much like a mason makes a wall from bricks and mortar. The poem''s got to stand on its own. Just like a wall, it needs to be strong, and it won''t do if there''s mortar sloppily running down the brick.
In fact, if a poem''s not a well-wrought thing, it''s really not a poem at all, but something trying hard to be what it may never be, like a man trying to be a god but looking sheepish in the regalia, and not able to perform even one small miracle.
Potentially, anyone can write a poem. The tools are basic-pen and paper and a frame of mind that opens one to the self and the world, and some uninterrupted moments. It''s not that everyone is a poet. That''s the result of devotion, time, and talent (in that order, I think).
The pay-off for writing is great. Through writing poems, you have more of your life. Even if you think closely about a particular experience, you won''t have that day as completely as you will by writing about it. You might try it, and see where the words take you. Surprise yourself. And remember, it doesn''t have to rhyme. It just has to feel as though the top of your head is rising.
Patrice Vecchione is the author of Writing and the Spiritual Life: Finding Your Voice by Looking Within. She will be reading for the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation Series on Saturday, April 27, at the Pine Inn in Carmel. For more information, call 624-5725.