Over the last few months, I’ve been spending more and more time studying poetry.
I’m not afraid to try new things or expand myself in new directions. I’m finding, and I’m sure that this will be news to some of you, that you can write poetry faster than you can write novels! I find this to be especially exciting. Why not try writing poetry?
But the problem is that the more I studied, the more intimidated I became. I still have to work in 10-minute increments, so I’m finding that reading anthologies, listening to the Poetry Foundation’s podcasts, taking my time with this study is not hard to do. Yet, I face the same insecurities I faced as a novelist: wondering if I’m good enough, wondering if I can write a few lines, wondering if my creativity has found a new home.
I’m especially in love with Gerard Manley Hopkins. I can’t get enough Billy Collins. I’m delighted to discover Tony Hoaglund and Hailey Leithauser. And I’m reacquainting my friendship with X. J. Kennedy. I’m also discovering poetry about tough subjects, I’m seeing angry words used to ignite causes and confessions. I find myself considering points of view I would never have considered. I’m figuring out what I love, what I like and what I can live without.
This particular medium of art is like any other: we can have our favorites. We don’t have to justify our tastes to anyone. And we can return to them over and over again.
But then at times it also feels like, with the tools of poetry that I have a new set of crayons, all colors I’ve never seen before. Could I write poetry too? The thought is delightful, now to discard all of the lies and securities that come with a new treasure.
Let’s go through these lies. I imagine they’ll sound familiar to you.
LIE #1 That good poems are too magical for me. When I read short stories or poems, I often assume that there is a secret code the authors know that I don’t. It’s like they understand what it takes to make a phrase beautiful, a narrative interesting, or a twist curve just the right way. I believed, until just recently, that there is this separation between what I see that is published and what I see under my pencil. The truth, I can’t quite explain how revelatory it is, is that there is NO difference.
Okay, there is a small one: published works have been polished and submitted. Mine haven’t. But that doesn’t mean mine can’t be. I can, with some work and determination, smudge out that fake line that separates the art around me. The truth is that I can be a part of the magic. The only thing keeping me back is me.
LIE #2 That art has only one interpretation. This came to me while I was reading one of those literature anthology textbooks, the kind some poor college student bought and then discarded as soon as the final was over. (Found it for $2 at a thrift store. Couldn’t pass it up!)
Early in the book Kate Chopin’s short story, The Story of an Hour was examined and several theses were suggested for a student’s analysis. I read the short story. Then I read the “draft” of what a student could write about and I said out loud:
“They don’t get this story because they’re too young.” (I assume that the intended audience for a textbook like this is a college student. The last time I was in college, Bill Clinton was running for president. The first time.)
This is where the lie comes in: I believed that my interpretation, the one with half a century’s experience, was wrong because it was different. It’s only taken me fifty years to see this truth: with art, there are no right answers.
So I’m telling you all publicly: I don’t want to fear to be wrong with art anymore. I want to celebrate my interpretations. And should I ever write a paper, about a specific short story, I know exactly what m thesis should be.
LIE #3 Most poets are some sort of elevated, drug-using elite. For the last 50 years, I’ve believed that poets were smarter, more sophisticated, and more well-read than me. Poets wore berets. They lived in lofts in Greenwich Village. They have a lot to say about marijuana. They may have a police record. They may have a love-hate relationship with basic hygiene. It turns out that poets do not, generally speaking, pour forth long-winded metaphors, allude to the most obscure mythological reference, or have a Latin phrase for every Chardonnay-sipping occasion. Poets, apparently, can be from the Midwest, wear mom jeans, and get to bed at a decent hour. Poets can be responsible people who go to church. Poets can be so very unpoetically ordinary. What a relief! I’m enjoying this truth! I am an ordinary person who loves words. I can be a poet too!
LIE #4 That poems have to have mystical/dense/esoteric/grandiloquent words that would require a classical education/excessive drug use/New Yorker magazine editor to explain it. Some do. But not all do. In fact, I had to remind myself just today, that if I really want to write a poem about the whimsical, the silly, the fantastic, or the witty, I can. If I fret that my poetry (or any of my writing) isn’t serious/cerebral/wordy enough, then I’m doing it wrong. What a freeing truth!
LIE #5 That I have to have certain life experiences in order to have something to say. For the last 20 years, I’ve voluntarily lived a quiet life, with my attention on the domestic. In some regard, I could dismiss my seeming lack of life experience as a setback. I haven’t pursued advanced degrees. I haven’t traveled the world. I haven’t made any money. I’m discovering, however, that poets are as different as the poems themselves. There have been plenty of poets who chose to raise children and write simultaneously. The truth is that my life experience gives me much to say. I shouldn’t be afraid to say it.
The more I study the creative life of other artists (not just writers) I realize that most of them spent their lifetimes stretching themselves in new and fresh ways. Perhaps poetry is a new way for me to grow. If I believe the lies, then I’m missing out on something beautiful.
I don’t have to be like any of these poets. I just have to sit with my new colors and play and enjoy what I’m doing.
What about you? What lies about your art have you discarded?