April is National Poetry Month. How I did not know this before April 1 is a mystery, but never mind – I know now. And while I won’t take up all my posts for this month with poetry, I absolutely must make some space for it because I LOVE poetry!
Oddly though, I didn’t always love it (I can’t even imagine myself that way, but it’s true). I had some absurd notion that it was boring and too difficult to understand. And possibly residual bitterness from being forced to recite poetry in some elementary speech meets but never winning. But – it gets weirder – at one point I didn’t think I liked literature or English or anything of the sort. Which makes no sense whatsoever because I have always loved to write and I have always loved to read. Granted, elementary and junior high English largely consist of grammar rules and miserable things like diagramming sentences (gag!). Somehow there was a disconnect that those wretched, boring parts were the essential building blocks and tools for crafting the words I did love (can I blame my teachers for this?).
Some well-intentioned person told me I would love English so much more come high school because there would be less grammar and more literature. Can I just say – if there is to be any truth to that statement, maybe the freshman reading list shouldn’t include Great Expectations or The Red Badge of Courage? I know there were other things we read that year, but I can’t even muster an idea of what other books were included because the misery of those other two overshadowed everything! Ok, and there was Romeo & Juliet, but – meh.
All this to say, I went into my sophomore English class with great trepidation. Not only had the subject proved disappointing again and again, but the teacher at our school who taught sophomore and senior English was notorious for being the most difficult teacher ever. Students referred to her as “Hitler”, and she thoroughly enjoyed giving them all a reason for perpetuating the nickname. If you were in the hallways between classes, you could be guaranteed someone, if not several someones, would be out there bemoaning the cruelty and impossibility of Mrs. Spradling’s latest project or assignment. In particular, there were rumors of a dreaded poetry project reserved most especially for sophomores, with bonus pains included for the honors class, which I was in.
Make no mistake – the poetry project was a mammoth beast. We were given a list of 50 literary devices and were given the task of finding each device used at least twice in different poems. You couldn’t count two uses of that device in one poem. You couldn’t use one poem for more than – if I remember correctly – 5 devices. We had to define each term and include a glossary. We had to analyze 7 different poems – two with a very detailed method. We had to write our own poems. There was probably some other piece I’m forgetting. Translation of all this? I read hundreds of poems for this project. Hundreds. And do you know what happened?
I fell in love. Head over heels, hopelessly devoted, stars in my eyes in love.
As a matter of fact I fell in love with all things literary that year. No doubt about it – Mrs. Spradling was the hardest teacher I’ve ever had in all my born days (don’t even get me started on my senior AP English project where I had to analyze the writing style of C.S. Lewis and then write a paper as if I were him speaking and defending himself on something he was criticized for). She kicked my tail! But she unlocked a love of words I didn’t even realize existed in me.
(For the record, I still have my poetry project. It’s a masterpiece. Except the original poems I wrote. I got a lot better.)
Poetry is like music. Sometimes I want to sink my teeth into all the things the poet was trying to say. Sometimes I could care less – it’s simply about enjoying the flowing sound of the words. Sometimes it isn’t even about precise meaning – it’s just about playing with combination of words until they evoke the emotion you are trying to express. You get to break all the rules in poetry. You can be cryptic or you can be explicit. You can be long-winded or to the point. Sometimes form matters; sometimes it doesn’t. It’s magical.
Throughout this month, I’d love to share some of my favorite poems with you and share some of the ones I’ve written. And who knows? Maybe it will ignite a spark in you or at least a new understanding.
So for now, I will leave you with the words of Pablo Neruda who says it best of all:
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.