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ur poems

The first poem I ever loved was The Raven.  Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”

Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives.  But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.

A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings.  These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.

It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.

The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.

The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.

What inspires us to write poetry?

I would think that the commonly accepted assumption about poets is that if one is a poet, he or she has always been a poet. The obvious question which should follow this then is “Can someone be a poet without having any knowledge of poetry?” “Are we born poets?”

Let’s begin with this:  Most primary, intermediate, and secondary schools include some study of poetry in their curriculums, and yet for the majority of these schools, this is not the primary focus, nor is it rendered a very crucial one.  I suppose my first encounter with poetry was a poem written in a photo album of my formative years by my father and mother:  “I drop, you catch,/ I cry, you fetch,/I kvetch, you kvetch” (cleverly scrawled next to a picture of me, naked, crawling along the carpet).  Of course, this isn’t Pulitzer worthy by current literary standards, but it is actually a good poem in terms of iambic dimeter and rhyme.  If I learned anything about the music and rhythm of poetry (two essential ingredients) during my first reading experiences, it was almost directly related to that three line poem I read over and over again.  In addition, there were nursery rhymes and clapping-song games that we played early on in elementary school: “Miss Susie had a steamboat/the steamboat had a bell/Miss Susie went to heaven/the steamboat went to hell–/–o operator/give me number nine…” etc.  The clever twist about the Miss Susie song was that the words at the end of every fourth line were words that became other words at the beginning of the subsequent line, simply by sound, and so we didn’t get caught singing crass words and obscenities at that young of an age.

Moving on:  In fifth grade, there was a lesson on limericks.  If we read anybody’s famous limerick, it must not have been very memorable, since I couldn’t right now recite one or provide a poet’s name to help contextualize this point.  But I did learn to write a limerick myself, and incidentally won first prize for the limerick’s address to dental hygiene and its advantages. It must have been a good poem, but my memory is foggy and I couldn’t right now recall any of the lines, except that it was handwritten on the lines inside the shape of a very big bicuspid.

In sixth grade, as a part of “The Odyssey of the Mind” competition, my team and I rewrote and parodied the words to a William Blake poem: “William Blake ate too much cake…” etc.  I turned into a wild dramatic production with me as writer/director and the four other members of my team as actors, set designers, and costumers.

I don’t know the psychology behind how people train for and develop an ear for poetry, but some of these things must have been of the essence.  In the eighth grade, my final project was an assignment to write a book of twenty poems.  At that point, I assumed, like most adolescents do that poetry was supposed to be sad.  So one of the two poems I remember from that book was a narrative about two of my friends who were very close to one another, until one of them (Betsy) was killed instantaneously when the driver of a car hit her.  I thought (at the time) that it was a fantastic poem.  I included details.  I infused the poem with emotional tropes.

The other poem I remember from that book was partially stolen from one of my parents’ inspirational book of love poems from the 1960s.  “Each line in the poem began “Love is”…(with ellipsis, and followed by some simile, and then following an anaphoric structure until the end).  So I ripped off the anaphoric structure, took some of the poet’s similes and then wrote some of my own.  I feel terrible about this.  I don’t remember the other poems, but they were all original poems written by me.  I don’t have any idea why I stole that poem.  I guess because that was the first year that I was beginning to appreciate poetry as a serious craft, and the poem inspired me enough for me to want to have been the one who wrote it.

But poetry really didn’t get me to see like a poet until my freshman year of high school: to read a poem and want to understand all the necessary complexities, paradoxes, and layers of meaning that prevail if that poem is well crafted.   I stumbled upon Rita Mae Brown’s novels that summer at the local library, and read all of them out by the swimming pool at our house.  I wasn’t a lesbian, but found myself oriented toward women.  Part of it was an adolescent phase, and must have been since I am now happily married to a man.  Anyway, Brown’s characters were typically lesbians (“Rubyfruit Jungle,” the most prominent) and the whole idea about a sexuality with which I was not familiar fascinated me, simply for the theory of it.  After devouring all of her novels, I went to the bookstore and promptly bought a book of her poems.  The poem that finally made me want to be a disciplined poet went like this:

The difference between
my little cat and I
is that I know
I am going to die.

It occurred to me after I read it that cat’s are simply not conscious of their own mortality, and that the speaker (or so it is implied) must want to be like her cat, because it is easier not to be aware of things we would rather not think about or consider.  It had me thinking that if humans just died, and had no precognition that it was one day going to happen, it might save us a lot of grief.  So the speaker was longing for this ignorance, which makes implicit a sort of inner struggle between awareness and wanting to remain unaware–wanting to be something other than herself–wanting not to know death as well as she believes she does.  There is a struggle in the forward momentum of life, the idea of further life or long life deflected by her fear of a finality and the ineluctable condition of mortality which guarantees that we are going to die.  She seems to be addressing the idea of inevitability. And the frank way that the statement is made requires that we think a bit about why the speaker would deflect or ignore the frightening details and rather turn it into a philosophical question which forces us to examine our own relationship to our mortality, while at the same time considering the curious manner in which cats exist, without, according to the speaker, the precognition that they are going to die, or the memory of having been born.

So this brief four-line poem made seriously consider writing poetry.  Through the years following my encounter with Rita Mae Brown’s poem, I’ve read nearly all of the major poets (and some minor) in the cannon.  I have made poetry a daily discipline: coffee in the morning, a banquet of words to choose from, and the assurance that my heart is beating for something cats don’t know–to live, to love, and to always have the luxury of defining and redefining a purpose for this, with poetry as the venue to let the speaker speak, because it is no less than vital and necessary.