Sparked by Words

I Am Not a Poet

This is a thank you note to all of you who’ve praised my poetry. I’m humbled by your flattery, but I’m not a poet.

Next to music, poetry is perhaps closest to our souls, arriving on the hem of intuition, in thrall of sensation. Even infants are lulled by poems whispered in their ears, thrummed against their chests. The poems I heard in my own babyhood were often in Yiddish, the comforting sounds of my grandparents, the only language my great-grands knew.

My father recited to my sons and I’m certain to me, Untah da  babuh’s vigola, a lilting verse about an onion under the baby’s pram. Don’t ask why an onion, but probably placed there to ward off the Evil Eye, a nasty creature always lurking around babies deeply loved.

Then there was this one: Fishy, fishy, in a brook/ Daddy caught him with a hook/ Mommy fried him in a pan/ Baby ate him like a man. I can’t remember feeding fish to my very young sons but the sing-song rhythm is a pleasant adjunct to rocking a baby.

I read poems to enchant my sons when they were awake, then until they fell asleep. They were my selections, of course, the poetry I loved to read aloud because that’s the only way a poem can enter your bloodstream – infusion through your ears, via your lips and tongue. We roll the words in our mouths, smacking them against our palates, forcing them through our cheeks, our laughter, our tears.

I never had a poetry class in all of high school. Though my senior English teacher presented a complete course on British literature, she admitted she didn’t like teaching poetry. I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief like the rest of the kids. I wanted to understand its construction, its magnetism, its secret codes.

My only college poetry course was taught by a woman about ten years past her expected retirement. Now that I’m the age she was then, I respect her desire to continue, whether for passion or economic need. But she taught very old poetry – sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth century – much of it founded on Christian imagery and metaphor, reflecting the creed of the Christian Bible, and lauded by the faithful.

Problem was – I’m not Christian. I hadn’t yet read The New Testament, and probably wouldn’t have gotten all the allusions even if I had. The language may have been gorgeous to ears steeped in Christian mysticism, but to me it was tangled in archaic vocabulary I’d never heard and couldn’t relate to contemporary events.

Our last assignment in her class was to interpret a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins, with specific and insistent instructions not to consult Cliff Notes, the literary assistant booklets available at the time.

Chump that I was, I followed the rules, struggled with a lousy interpretation, and earned a well-deserved C-. Then was infuriated to see the glowing A’s on most of the other papers, especially as nearly everyone else consulted Cliff, who told all Hopkins’ secrets for less than $2.00. How did the prof not recognize the same interpretations, one paper to the next?

Now I hated poetry, at least any attempt to figure out what the dead poets meant, steeped as it was in the bowels of a mythology I didn’t own. I wrote essays and short stories, but poetry eluded me. Let’s see, what word rhymes with stupid? Unpopular? Incompetent? How do you fit an entire history about how you’ve failed Human Relations 101 into a pensive, six-line, iambic pentameter stanza, then write a second lyrical stanza brimming with philosophical certitude?

Poetry sits in our sternum, thumping along with our heartbeats, pulsing next to our lungs. But to get to it you have to be honest with yourself, willing to be vulnerable. Open to your fears, hopes, expectations, confusion, wonder. And young love. That’s the stuff of poetry.

Confession: the other part of my childhood was a traumatic, violent history with parents that left me feeling stupid, incapable, worthless, frightened out of my wits. Some people wrest their way out of such misery through artistic endeavor. Me, I hid, convinced I was awful.

In my one and only university poetry writing class (I majored in literature with an emphasis in creative writing and had to take the class,) I was stifled by my inexperience. I might have been in love a few times but it was never returned. I limped through life but saw nothing I understood. I suffered a crippled hand and a locked tongue.

So while my classmates poured out pages of insightful lines that generated admiration, and really, some of it was quite good, I came up with ditties meriting a bonfire. A rag stuffed down my throat. A shove to the hallway where I might find the secretarial classes. Or just start pushing a broom.

About ten years ago I began a serious and difficult journey to understanding and forgiving my parents. To learning to forgive myself, all my failures and foolishness. And found I could write poetry. I would never be such a blockhead to think I’m good at it, but my poetry digs into my recesses and pulls out the required self-examination that infuses poetry. I’ve written about a hundred poems, some ridiculous, many too private to expose, a few that make me proud of my pen. If you’ve read any of my attempts here on my blog, I am deeply grateful for your attention.

Because the other quality one must have to write poetry is courage. And I’m just finding my cache.

 

Photograph of woman writing courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

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Comments on: "I Am Not a Poet" (42)

  1. Sharon, I am enchanted by your open and beautifully written story, your love for literature and hunger to learn about poetry. It does seem to me that you already have a very emotional and rich well to write poetry about.
    Reading to a baby or small child it is mainly the rhythm and the sound of your voice that
    lulls. As you point out, some words don’t make much sense … e.g. an onion under the cot.

    You go Sharon, let go and edit later. Stream of consciousness. You are right, you need courage. Every time. I write poetry but am I a poet? Do labels matter?

    With courage we keep writing.

    Miriam

    Liked by 2 people

  2. `made me think: communication-language – spoken, written – is like a convex mask, based on what we ‘are’ and shaping out into the world as we strive to build our identity; poetry – spoken, written – is a concave mask (the mould, maybe), based from ourself-in-the-world and exploring into where we are born from, to find our truer nature

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark, I wouldn’t have thought of anything so complex but I think you’re right. Poetry is still a mask, the words we choose to show, but perhaps a more honest one, caving inward. Thank you for reading.

      Like

  3. Gerald Manly Hopkins–I can tell you he is understandable, given a few months but not in the shortness of a class. Cliff Notes would have been a wonderful idea to get the gyst of what he writes. I grew to like him but not for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fortunately I’ve fallen deeply in love with poetry though I have to admit that Mr. Hopkins still eludes me. Could be that I never tried again after that class. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Jacqui.

      Like

  4. Sharon, have you had a chance to read Robert Bly’s collection of essays from the years he was the poetry critic for The New Yorker? Just curious what you think of them.

    It is strange how being abused in our lives so often fuels the arts. People say we are trying to release our pain, but I don’t think that’s all of it. I think we might also instinctively turn to the arts as a means of finding ourselves after ourselves have been alienated from us by abuse.

    It was fascinating to read how you came to write poetry. The story was intrinsically interesting, but your prose set it on fire.

    I didn’t write a single poem up until about 35. Simply lacked the ability to articulate my feelings, and even some of my thoughts. Well, that and I had no real insight into most things.

    Wrote about 20 poems after that until about age 55 or so. That’s when I began to really write and to take writing poetry seriously.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your observation about art allowing us to find ourselves is true, I think, no matter whether there was abuse or a wonderful childhood. We still must develop our voice and that means knowing who we are. When I taught art, I explained that the finished product was icing but the true value was the journey of creating the art.

      I only mentioned the abuse because it flattened my self worth. There was nothing to “poet” about. I was however an artist in many other ways – I danced, made all kinds of art, wrote stories, played piano and sang, acted. But I was an insecure kid, teen, young adult.

      Your story is similar to mine but I find your poetry far advanced.

      Not familiar with Robert Bly. I’ll see if the library has a collection available.

      Be well, Paul.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the clarifications!

    I forgot to mention, Bly’s collection of essays is called “American Poetry”.

    Thank you for your kind words about my poetry. I’ve long considered myself “very amateur”, but I’ve been wondering recently if I should move that up to just “amateur”. Seems I’m getting the hang of it to an extent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You made me laugh out loud and I’ve been in short supply of laughter so thank you very much.

      Who’s to declare expert or amateur? I mean, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, Jane Hirshfield, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost – yes these are some of the many experts. But I read incredibly insightful poetry on blogs – underviewed but deeply moving. Move your placard over to “amateur” or just skip the descriptive and declare yourself a poet.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, that was beautiful and rather poetic! 🙂 I love the way you describe poetry as straight from the heart. It’s visceral, not cerebral, and I never understood the impulse to dissect and interpret it. I love Hopkins’ The Windhover, not for any interpretation (that I don’t remember at all), but for the way the words feel on my tongue and sound in my ears. Happy Poeting.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Shari, a striking beginning to your post that grabbed my attention immediately. From your declaration of not being a poet you take us on a poetic tour! The Yiddish lullabies sounds mesmerising and how true that the poetry itself is, like music, an art that comes from the heart, speaks to the heart.

    Your school teaching of poetry seems to have been pretty dire; I was blessed with teachers who were enthralled with Keats, Milton, Larkin amongst others and passed that love and understanding of poetry unto us. I was amazed at how often it resembled learning a foreign language, once unravelled the utmost beauty was revealed. Although we used Cliffe notes we had to show original ideas and presentation as well.

    I’m glad you’ve found your cache of courage, able to access its gifts … as for not being a poet … who needs labels of what or what not we are. Enjoy your poetic writings, share them if you wish, or not. Find yourself along the route, deeper comprehension of your, at times difficult, life.

    With love & hugs xx❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Annika, I always look forward to your thoughtful comments. You enrich my world.

      I’ve never thought about poetry being related to learning a foreign language, but you’re absolutely right. It involves a different way of employing words, one that accesses imagination, imagery, and emotion but also brevity. I’m going to think about this every time I read or try to write another poem.

      You’re also right about labels being somewhat useless, but our culture so emphasizes labels that it’s hard to escape them.

      Hugs and love back atcha.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m not much into poetry, tho I love yours — but want to comment on how despite your challenging rearing, you were so good to your mom ❤

    Like

  9. I know beautiful poetry when I read it and so admire those like yourself who can write it!

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  10. I can only echo Tracy – Yes! You are a poet!
    I know it takes time being convinced of something that seems so obvious to others though. I often wonder if I can call myself a painter and even though I’m surrounded by my works there’s still lots of doubt. With every new painting I’m afraid I might have lost it, weird I know but that’s just how it is. I wonder how many paintings I must create until I will believe it myself.
    Funnily enough – it only took one poem by you to see the poet inside you, Shari. 😊
    Keep writing your beautiful and passionate poems!

    Like

    • Oops – I may have given the wrong impression here. I’ve written many poems that I haven’t published on this blog. And I’m willing to publish some of them here because I don’t think they’re good enough for anything else. I really started to write poetry to try to force myself to write less and say more – you realize how long many of my articles are.

      But you, Sarah, you are a Wonder Woman! I’m awed by how much you accomplish and how excellent everything is. Yes, you are definitely a painter but you’re also so many other things. Always lovely to read your comments here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Okay – now I want to see and read the poems you think that are good enough for being published, Shari!! 😉 Because I already am in love with the ones you share on your blog – how can it get any better than that?! 😀

        Aww – thanks! You really know how to make me blush. ❤️

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      • I can’t do that, Sarah. Most are very private and have to remain that way. Thank you for your very sweet comment.
        I bet you’re making a wonderful creation today – can’t wait to see it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I understand completely, Shari. Some things simply have to remain with the creator, be it written, painted, composed… ☺

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  11. I don’t like poetry as a rule unless it’s free verse. Even then I’m a little particular gravitating to the ones talking about emotions.

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  12. Sharon, your writing is always so powerful, whether prose or poetry. I’m so glad you write both. Thank you for sharing your journey with us here. I’m so very glad it lead you back to poetry, and I’m so thankful our paths eventually crossed here. ❤️

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  13. Interesting post . .. . how we label ourselves. . . and the consequences of that in how we live our lives . . . That might not have been your primary intent or focus and yet it became mine.

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    • Judy, you’ve identified one of the most important attributes of any creative contribution: what the viewer brings to the product. Without a viewer, it’s merely one hand clapping. A poem, a painting, a composition is only complete with the response from the other hand – the audience. What you gleaned from my article is valid – it’s your part. You did in fact grasp an important part of what I hoped to convey. The other part was finding there is some poetry in me. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Like

  14. A lovely post, Sharon. Kudos on your writing and your courage that will continue to grow.

    Like

  15. That’s such a shame that your English teacher didn’t like poetry and so didn’t teach it- it gets my hackles up as someone who teaches a lot of poetry (I’ll be honest, I take the sometimes unconventional approach of admitting when I don’t like a particular poem, but that doesn’t mean I get to neglect the subject). And that’s something I very much relate to about Christian inspired poetry- it was something I felt disconnected from too for a long time, because it wasn’t something I grew up with in the same way as other people. The one thing I have to disagree with is I think you are a poet- and if your poetry didn’t prove that (it does), I’d say this beautiful post proves it- I think your way with words is exquisite! Thank you for sharing ❤

    Like

    • I was fortunate to have a college professor who listened to me explain why I found his interpretations of English literature in reference to the New Testament so difficult. I may have been the first of his students to point out a different vision based on my religious experience from what was intended by the poet. Fifty years ago, so that says something as well.

      Thank you for your kind comment about my poetry. Still learning at this end of the pen.

      Liked by 1 person

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