When Bob Stallworthy graciously spoke to the Skin & Stories workshop this past Monday, he really cemented the magic of poetry for me. Bob Stallworthy is a poet, although he was speaking to all genres. Naturally, the first question that flew his way was, “What the heck is poetry, anyway?” With that question I immediately was transported to this place of wondering how I would write poetry if I had no idea how. More importantly, how do you teach poetry to someone who has never dabbled in the genre? After pondering this question for some time, I realized one of the most important things a person can do who wants to write poetry is to READ it! High Schools have ruined many future poets with their boring worksheets on “elements of poetry”: personification, metaphor, simile and alliteration. Poetic devices. No one reads poetry and thinks, “Oh! There is some personification!” Unless that person sets out in search of those devices, they don’t usually surface that way. Poetry works as a whole. Poetry is an experience and we get the pleasure of seeing a poem work the magic of language.
Poetry has been one of those forms that I naturally gravitated towards but never knew what I was doing. Even now, when I workshop a poem (get it critiqued), people will notice something such as a line break or the placement of a word that created an effect I had no idea was there. My unconscious mind wraps itself around poetry quite easily and it isn’t until I rework a poem that I get to ask myself what just happened.
Currently, I am reading a book called, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield which is indispensable when attempting to ask the question: What is poetry? Hirshfield defines it as, “the clarification and magnification of being.” My mentor, Richard Harrison, would define it as “the dramatization of a voice” whereas, a short story as the “dramatization of a character” and the novel as the “dramatization of a world.” For me, poetry is less about emotion and feeling and more about a focus and a dance with language. Poetry gives you very little space to move around in, so everything has a purpose. Every comma, period, line break and combination of words had its own meaning that also works with the poem as a whole. Rhythm emerges in the cadence of the speaker’s voice. Lastly, it is about experience of an event which Bob pointed out to us. I always look at poetry as a ride through someone else’s gaze, someone else’s lens. I get out of my own head for a while when I read poetry. I want to be along for the ride!
If you are attempting to write poetry for the first time, try to abandon everything you were taught in high school and write about an experience…I have the most fun when it is seemingly inconsequential such as your fish swimming around on the mantle or my baby girl kissing the spines of books in the shelf. These apparently insignificant memories trudge up meaning when set to poetry…you might be surprised what you find.