by Elizabeth T. Andrews
American Reporter Correspondent
January 10, 2007
PUTTING POETRY IN MOTION
CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- Let the record show that I don't claim to be an expert in anything except maybe "How to get up again when the world knocks you to your knees, clips your wings, and slaps your dreams into the next county."
But since I am frequently a recipient of my readers' poetry (I enjoy getting it, but rarely have time for a response) I've set aside this sun-sprinkled morning to comment on what is, and is not, good poetry.
I don't have a clue. I know what I like but I would hesitate before calling any poem bad. If the writer enjoyed writing it, how can it be "bad?" It might not meet the standards of the academic elite, but their noses are so far up in the air they need umbrellas to keep from drowning, so who cares what they think.
Seriously, one person's love of "I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree" is another person's nightmare of bad, sad metaphors. I didn't know Joyce Kilmer's Trees was a "bad poem" until Judson Jerome said it was. (I still like it.)
Judson was the former poetry editor of Writer's Market magazine, the author of several books including his gem The Poet and The Poem, and one of my teachers. He declared up front that he didn't like the kind of poetry I wrote, to which I replied I wasn't interested in his opinion about the "kind;" I just wanted him to make me better at it.
He then proceeded to beat me over the head with my own words for about two years and I emerged "bloody but unbowed" (a trite expression). I survived his word-battering and learned to preach less and try to pull, instead, the reader into my world of mists and magic.
I suppose if I absolutely had to teach a class on How to Write Poetry, I would begin by saying that poetry, like most informal writing, is just learning how to talk reasonably well on paper. And in order to "talk well," you have to look beneath the coat of your own and society's superficiality, find out what you really think and feel, and dare to say it.
Sure, there are a lot of rules - things like a breath pause; knowing what a stressed (male) and unstressed (female) syllable is; what a "foot" is; what a trite, hackneyed expression is; whether to look inward or, as one critic put it, "For God's sake look outside your heart and write!" And, and on a far more practical basis, why you want to dabble in a profession that pays you about 10 cents a line for a good, strong poem while your garbage collector makes a "fair to middlin'" wage.
The "fair to middlin'" expression falls into the cliche, trite, overworked word-world which is anathema to serious writers and literally means we have stolen someone else's once clever phrase because we're too lazy to invent one of our own.
I would also recommend getting honest with yourself and learning the difference between sloppy sentimentality and genuine emotion. Judson Jerome defined sentimentality is "crying over a dead horse like it was somebody's brother" and that good poetry "shows" but never "tells". It doesn't preach but calls the reader to pondering; doesn't conclude for the reader but makes the reader want to read the poem again for some insight into what you were trying to say.
Anybody can write "The moon is blue and so are you and I am too." It takes a little effort, however, to turn that into: Nights like these remind me... the smell of damp Southern jasmine... our pallet by the creek... too much cheap wine... and you saying "It's over," etc.
Don't say, as I did once, "The weary postman walked down the long sidewalk on tired legs, headed home ..." but make the reader feel instead the rain dripping off the brim of his hat; the weight of his steps; his sense of being able to smell the spaghetti sauce and feel the warm welcome he'll get as he opens the front door of his home.
I've won a poetry prize or two, had a small book published, and had a lot of single poems published, but I'd like to remind myself and you that the first poem I ever wrote, at about age 13, went something like this: "I love the land of freedom dear. The land that God has made to be. And all the things that he put here. Oh, blessed land of liberty!" Sigh.
So, you see, there is hope for you. Look under all the rocks in your life for your poems. Forget "Honey, will you be my special Valentine?" and make her/him see instead the empty dark of your room when he/she is not there; the way the wind lifts the limp curtains; the way the pillow smells of his/her shaving lotion or perfume.
Good, strong poetry comes from being very still and listening to the conversations of faraway gods, and then daring to reduce it to your own vernacular. And contrary to popular belief among the elite, I think political poetry - poetry depicting the horrors of war; poetry that makes us feel the guts and the glory of the human experience - has a far better needed place on our library shelves than "I'm so blue when you're gone."
But write what you will. Find your own life rhythm in your words. Dare to sing a song, whether low or loudly, that is your own song. Get a few rules under your belt ... and then dare to break them. It's called "style."
AR Correspondent Elizabeth T. Andrews, a former columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, lives and writes poetry in Cartersville, Ga. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 816, Cartersville, GA 30120.