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