Wow! Good week for poetry from where I sit. On Wednesday I attended a monthly writing group at the American Museum of Western Art in Denver. These events are co-sponsored by Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop, and I always begin the session with a nagging troll in my head who says, “You have nothing to say about visual art.” And that troll is mostly wrong. This month we focused on paintings featuring water and I came away with two pretty solid poems. They still need incubation and revision, but they’re satisfying. Thanks to the museum docents who know their art and share their knowledge. I particularly loved seeing a Rockwell Kent and an Edward Hopper.
Last evening I was part of a happening, happy to have judged a poetry contest for the City of Lafayette, Colorado. Each year this snappy little city hosts sculpture, visual art and poetry in a melange that almost defies description. The sculpture are installed as official Art On the Street and citizens are invited to respond interactively via photography, painting, and poetry. The process culminates in the local library with an evening of good food, good conversation and prizes. This year the city had funds to buy two of the sculpture pieces that were part of the competition. These will augment the growing public art collection of this progressive city.
And another thing: that meeting room was set up with 100 chairs and every chair was taken. Everyone stayed for the whole program, poets reading their work, visual artists being recognized and their work lauded on the big screen. It was a fine thing. Especially, given that we had diversity of age, of gender, and of color. Hooray for Lafayette.
Read and reread, that’s what I did in school when I studied. My anatomy book was dog-eared by the end of the course. It felt like punishment, but rereading got me through all the sciences that I needed to learn as a nurse. Now I read mostly for pleasure, with a good dose of research mixed into my book buying and borrowing. And I reread for the joy of it. The discovery of something I missed in a previous meeting of the minds. For example, I’ve read The Magus by John Fowles at least eight times. It’s a pivotal book for me both as a reader and as a writer. I wrote a thesis based on it and his other mammoth novel, Daniel Martin. Every encounter shows me something I have not seen before. Of course, these are big books, so there’s plenty to see.
I often hear poets apologize at an open mic for having read a particular piece before. Well, shoot, we listen again and again to music that we love. Why would we not take the same delight in hearing again a good poem? It might be fallout from our commercial, consumerist lives where we want a new phone, new car, new spouse. Used is a pejorative that ought not apply in the arts. I’ve heard Orff’s Carmina Burana lots of times and just paid dearly for a ticket to hear it again. It’s in no way “used music.”
Then there’s the discovery I mentioned. I’ve probably read Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” at least a dozen times and found fresh nuances that delight. First, I read it for its irony, a boy delighted to dance with his drunken father, and then for its structure, which is a tidy set of four quatrains, again noticing its unobtrusive rhyme scheme, its compression–a whole family dynamic in sixteen short lines. And finally like a little flame in my dark skull: Oh, it’s about a waltz and it’s in three-four time, three accented beats in each of four lines per stanza! Well, that was fun.
TS Eliot says at the end of “Little Gidding” that “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Exactly.
This question from Fran, in Arizona: When you read poetry, are you mentally taking it apart as you read it or do you reread it a few times after you enjoy the message and then get really impressed with the work as an art form?
I am such a fussbudget about reading poetry. I’ve read a gazillion poems in my life and developed some good and bad habits as a reader. If the first lines don’t hook me, I often quit right away. If I’m overly familiar with a poem and not much in love with it, I quit. Titles matter to me. A great title is like a good handshake and a smile when I meet someone new. It draws me in and makes me want to know more.
So I guess, Fran, I do begin taking the poem apart. But a really energetic, fresh poem overcomes judgmental me and sweeps me along. Any genre of writing does that. We all know about great opening lines in novels, how they hook us. Same thing goes for a reader of poems. The title and first line of a good bit of poetry set up expectations. Then, if the energy and freshness hold, I want to read it again. And reading again, I find more artistry.
Too many people were taught to disassemble a poem to find the real meaning, as if the poet were hiding in the weedy words and making us hunt for the good stuff while he snickers at our confusion. No, that’s not why poetry sometimes defies complete understanding. Sometimes the poet is obtuse and cannot say what she means at all. Sometimes she is caught in the cleverness of language at the expense of significant meaning. Great poems, however, do so much at once that we must go back again and again to get it all.
The promised tip sheet is available. WordPress is being a bit fussy, so if you don’t see a Downloads tab at the top of this page, use the search option, type in downloads and it will take you to a link: poets’ tip sheet. You can print it, double sided, fold in thirds and tuck it into your notebook. I certainly welcome comments on either Fran’s question or the tip sheet. I’ll see you all on Friday’s blog and again next Tuesday on Tip Day.