I didn’t always love poetry; and in fact, for a long time I didn’t even like it at all. In school, poetry was all about iambic pentameter, and fourteen-line rhymes, and roses that represented anything but themselves — things only poets understand. And quite frankly, I didn’t care. I wanted to know what Emily Dickinson did up in that room of hers, after the sun went down and the words stopped flowing, and all she had was the quiet of the night and her own thoughts. What did she think of her life? How did she feel? What was driving all that poetry, anyway? I wanted to know if Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry informed her activism, or if her activism led her to poetry. I wasn’t interested in anapests and iambs, dactyls, and trochees and spondees. I just wanted the bare, un-tortured words, and to understand the minds behind them.
As it turns out, my frustrated relationship with poetry saved my own writing life. After completing a graduate degree in Creative Writing (without nary a poetry class to speak of) I found myself nursing a hefty case of writer’s block. Every morning I woke up at 5:30 (like all the great writers say you’re supposed to do,) to stare at my computer screen for two or three hours, writing nothing and sensing the weight of my family and friends’ expectations for me to write a book, adapt it to blockbusting film, and change the world with words. I couldn't do it.
Weeks went by without my writing a single word of my novel, my memoir, my short story collection, nothing — and then weeks turned into months, and months turned into over year, and I began to wonder if I was actually finished for good. And then I came up with a radical idea: I would write poetry. I would take the most rule-laden literary form and I would break all its rules, disregard all its conventions, and scatter words to the four corners of the page with the intent of letting nobody — and certainly not my mother, or Reese Witherspoon — see it. No one expected me to write poetry, so I couldn’t possibly fail. And you know what? The pressure to produce and succeed lifted. Writing became fun again — sure, still work, but fun work. Liberating work. Exciting work. I even tried out some iambic pentameter. And along the way, I learned a lot — things, I suspect, that only poetic spirits are uniquely disposed to understand.
1. One comma can say a lot.
I know you’ve all seen that meme about the perils of incorrect or missing punctuation. It goes something like: “Let’s eat, grandma,” versus “Let’s eat Grandma…”, text framing a sketch of a smiling elderly woman who looks like she could whip up a mean casserole, but is not in fact delicious herself. Poets are more attuned to this rule than most, I think; partly because in poetry punctuation isn’t only a vehicle for moving a sentence along with clarity. It’s an essential creative element — one that can even stand on its own, if the vibe is right. This is true in life too. For example, sometimes after your partner, best friend, or cat says something really insulting, some well-placed points of ellipsis are all you need to make yourself heard.
2. Poems just… appear.
Let me set the scene here: you’re in a dimly lit bar (or a super cluttered TJ Maxx, pick whichever location works best for you) and your best friend is talking about… well, something (you can’t quite remember at the moment.) And in the course of talking about whatever it is she’s talking about, she says the word asparagus (the exact word doesn’t really matter.) And suddenly, you think: “Asparagus? Hmm… asparagus. Asparagus querulous hilarious... Asparagus, how do I love the? Four syllables, repeating ă sound…” And the next thing you know all the bar stools are turned upside-down atop their tables, and your friend is nowhere to be found, and you’re surrounded by 37 scribbled-upon cocktail napkins and one very perturbed bartender gesturing to the nonexistent watch on his wrist. It just happens.
3. Spontaneous alliteration.
Speaking of repeating ă sounds, is there anything more delightful than talking in tautological terms, or reciting syllables of satisfyingly similar sonorousness? Especially when you don’t do it on purpose, and the sudden musicality of a phrase takes you by complete, delighted surprise? I have a love-love relationship with alliteration.
4. “There are no bad words…”
“…only good words used badly.” OK, so I’ve borrowed this idea from Alexandra Fuller, who is not, to my knowledge, a poet, but is in fact an utterly fantastic memoirist who wrote exactly these words, or something almost identical to these words, in her memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come. This is the ultimate joy of being a poet — there are no bad words. Every word is a tiny, beautiful thing of magic, just waiting to be used well. Even all those four-letter ones your mother forbid you to say until you turned 18.
5. Playing the same song on repeat. All. Day. Long.
So, maybe this is just a personal habit, but I suspect not. I’ve found there are very specific environmental parameters within which I am successfully able to write (and perhaps this is central to my eternal battle with writer’s block.) It cannot be perfectly silent, but neither can there be lots of noise, as I’m nosy and like to eavesdrop on others and then make up poems and stories about them. But the background soundscape cannot be repetitive either — no chugging trains, nor popping nail guns, nor the same three drum beats sounding over and over and over again. What works, at least for me and the handful of other poetry dabblers I informally surveyed, is playing the exact same song on repeat — a song you know and love so well that you don’t even have to listen to the lyrics anymore. If you’re a poet still in search of your perfect writing ambiance, try it sometime. My song is Peace Frog.
6. Blank space (not Taylor Swift’s version.)
What is left unsaid, and the expanse of quiet that surrounds it, is just as important — sometimes more important — than what is said. This is true in poetry, and in life. Poets pay attention to, and understand, blank space.
7. Blank Space (T-Swift’s version.)
I think it’s worth noting here that if you heard the lyric everyone, everywhere misheard as “Starbucks lovers” as “star-crossed lovers” (it’s actually “list of ex-lovers”) then you’re officially a poet. And probably still wondering what the hell is wrong with everybody else.
8. Starring at the same seemingly inanimate object for an inordinately long time.
As long as this seemingly inanimate object is not a blank computer screen, blank sheet of typewriter paper, or immobile pen (unless you’re actually writing a poem about one of those particular things) then starring at the same object all day long is kind of a poet’s M.O. How do you think Walt Whitman got from that single blade of grass to the entire expanse of the universe? It wasn’t through a quick glance and then moving on with his day, I’ll tell you that much. More than most people though, poets understand stillness, and find the value in quiet, unobtrusive observation.
9. Agonizing over every tiny detail is half the fun.
If you’ve ever felt the need to move a comma back, and forth, and back again across a page for upwards of an hour, and understood not only how important the absolutely precise placement of that comma is (see rule number 1) but also had an oddly satisfying time doing it, chances are you’re a poet. Congratulations!
By this I do not mean that poets uniquely understand that rare, spare, Hemingway-esque quality of using the exact, and deliberately selected number of right words — no more and no less — to convey beautiful and complex meaning. What I mean is poets understand concepts like aggregate demand, investments in human capital, and what it’s like to eat Ramen noodles every day for breakfast for a year. Wait… scratch that. Reverse it. You get it.
Images: Carli Jean/Unsplash; giphy(10).