Several months ago, I promised to re-write a poem. I thought it would be easy. I thought it would flow from my pen the way prose can (I often start drafts on paper still). I thought it would fly from my mouth the way an improvised song could in my improv days.
It was not. I got completely stuck.
A weekly newsletter from Canada Arts Connect suggested five books on how to write poetry. I’ll admit, I felt a little childish looking them up. Certainly all artists and creative people continually upgrade their skills, look for inspiration, and basically do what they can to improve their work. But getting a book on writing for beginners…Would a painter by Painting for Dummies or something similar?
But I did it anyways. My local library had a copy of Frances Mayes’ book, The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. I certainly studied poetry in school, and in university I did it in German. (German can sound beautiful!) But something eluded me. Call it my teen attitude, call it my not-yet-fully-developed brain, call it whatever. I never developed a love for the art form and actually came to despise it somewhat. The book arrived at a time when I was finally open again to reading poetry.
Poetry, in a sense, is like joke-telling:
- sonnets -> stand-up comedy routine
- haiku -> one-liners
- ballad -> Weird Al
Poetry has a subtext that varies from poet to poet and of course from poem to poem. Jokes are the same.
Jokes can also be difficult to translate into other languages and cultures. During my years in Germany, I noticed that The Cosby Show seemed to be the only sitcom that I knew of that translated well. As a truly situational comedy focused on family, with familial trials and tribulations that are common to many western families, it wasn’t dependent on one-liners and puns. The Germans I knew, for example, said Seinfeld simply wasn’t funny in German. In English, though, they couldn’t stop laughing.
Reading poetry always felt to me like driving on the wrong side of the road. You know what you’re supposed to do – watch for cars and pedestrians, drive along the lines on the road – but you’re not used to it, because the actions are done differently. I understood the words, but somehow they didn’t make sense.
Mayes refers to her book as a field guide, and indeed, it reads like one. She looks at one aspect of a poem, e.g., words, or images, or the speaker, and explains to the reader how these can be used and why they may be important. She also has exercises at the end of each chapter. These aren’t menial exercises. Nosiree. I’ve been on the first one for almost three weeks: write down your favourite 100 words. This isn’t about writing down the first one hundred words that come to mind. It’s about look for your favourite 100. It took me almost three weeks to get my list together. Here are a few words:
- inspectigator (there’s a story behind that no-existent word)
- duo-decahedron (also not a real word – I was probably thinking of dodecahedron)
These words made my list not necessarily because I liked what they stood for (I have several familial roles in the list, too), but simply because of how they sounded. Interestingly enough, I found a lot words contained an “r,” possibly because it’s in my name. I’m by no means a supporter of marauders, for example, but it is a cool word, linguistically speaking. And duo-decahedron sounds just awesome, even though it doesn’t exist. I think my mind was trying for rhythm. Dodecahedron doesn’t have the same rhythm as my new lexical invention. In the 30-or-so pages I’ve read of this book, I’ve already started to feel a connection with poetry.
I will re-write that poem for you, but it may not be until my next birthday. In the meantime, I have a lot to relearn.