Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate, has a humorous poem (“Introduction to Poetry”) that I read as an explanation for why poetry is repugnant to so many people:
…But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really meant.
Collins’ poetry is wickedly humorous much of the time, and being a rudimentary poet myself, I can tell you that writing poems with humor is hard work. Then again, so is writing an eloquently simple phrase about nature with a tight curl to it, one that also leads the reader into a spiritual “ah ha!” the way Mary Oliver does (“In Blackwater Woods”):
…Look, the trees
their own bodies
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
It is likewise stunningly difficult, to write unadorned, casual sentences that nonetheless flow together in such a way as to evoke the reader’s emotions. Marie Howe does that all the time, opening the door to some ghost of human experience as if entering Wegman’s with a shrug (“The Star Market”):
The people Jesus loved were shopping at the Star Market yesterday.
An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout
breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps…
Recently I spent four evenings in a poetry workshop at Writers & Books in Rochester. Twelve of us were prompted and taught each night by a different instructor. We learned about moving time with a single sentence, creating distance with a single word, revising lines without mercy, and changing from first person to third as if hopscotch.
There was a pregnant high school English teacher two weeks from her due date, whose husband gave her the class as a gift. Some of her verses had killer metaphors that left me speechless. I wanted to give her some feedback, which was our job, but some of her lines were so penetrating all I could do was sit there with my mouth open. The youngest member of the class wrote poems about ordinary things like getting out of bed or opening a gate, but then landed on a wisdom I would have thought years beyond her reach. Another woman, with a speech impediment that made her readings awkward, wrote poems that brought tears to my eyes.
You get the drift. A dozen people strained and sweated two hours each night to corral ordinary words into a sentence creating an extraordinary image; who gladly spent hours counting syllables and stacking words until they fell into a fortunate rendering. Wonderful.
I think of poetry as word painting, the art of creating a compelling image that evokes the reader’s own emotions and memories. To read Li-Young Lee’s “Blossoms” is every bit the experience of awe and wonder as is a fantastic watercolor, stunning gouache, or exquisite oil painting. Maybe one day I will render that kind of written painting.
If you haven’t read any poetry lately, check out the poets mentioned above. There is a renaissance of poetry blooming all around us.