January 4, 2021
Perhaps fittingly, the poem that started me down the path of loving poetry was Pablo Neruda’s “Poetry”. Or maybe I have led myself to believe this; to retroact my life into something more aesthetic—like some curated social media personality. Still, I distinctly remember reading Neruda’s poem in high school and then rereading it aloud, sinking into the words
I began to read more poetry, thinking (in my pretentious high school fashion) that I was walking in Neruda’s footsteps—that poetry had arrived in my life and I would discover the universe. I looked at the lines,
and I wrote the first, faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing;
and suddenly I saw
And I thought “I want to do that.” And I wrote my own first faint line and discovered—nothing. Poetry would have to be something I appreciated from afar.
I continue to return to poetry on a regular basis, and am always looking out for new (or new to me) poetry books. I have even tried writing some poetry in the past few months. But as this new year begins, I have decided to commit to learning how to write poetry instead of hoping it corners me in some back-alley.
So, with the help of someone far more qualified than I am, I would like to make a case why 2021 should be the year of poetry. But first, some groundwork.
What is Poetry?
My first inclination is to say that I’m not touching this question, but even though I think everyone reading this has an idea in their head of the answer, it is worth teasing out. I am going to forgo dictionary definitions, which all offer some variety of “manipulation of language”, “intentional style”, and “feeling”. This is a fine start, but more evasive than engaging. In a previous post, which can be found here, I offered Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, and while I like this definition, it is too philosophic for what I want to get at.
I believe that poetry is more akin to visual art and music than the novel, and just as there are debates constantly raging about what makes something “art”, there are debates about what makes a poem a poem.
Is this art?
It has been hung in galleries, and recently sold for $85.8 million in auction. Is that enough to make it art?
Is this music?
It has been performed in concert halls. Is that enough to make it music?
Is this a poem?
This Is Just To Say
It is often placed in anthologies alongside renowned 20th century poems.
I could give further examples, including some poems that seem more in place on Twitter than in a published work. The point I am trying to raise is that, like art, part of what defines poetry is its audience. As long as there are people around to call it a poem, it is a poem. Then you have to get into the argument of “how many people?”
The problem with looking at poetry in this way is that it can be very discouraging, particularly if you are like me and setting a goal to begin writing (more) poetry. Besides, poetry is perhaps one of the more personal forms of artistic expression, and thus, defining it by its audience is, at best, counterintuitive.
A Better Answer to What is Poetry?
Laurie Anne Fuhr is a musician and poet among other titles. She is also an instructor with the Alexandra Writers Centre and will be teaching Poetry Basics this month, information on which can be found here. She was kind enough to provide a quote, elevating my amateurish take on the subject.
“Learning how to think about [poetry], first of all, helps us write. Natalie Goldberg, who wrote the famous writing guide, Writing Down the Bones, is both a student of Zen and of poetry. I love what she shares in the piece called “We Are Not the Poem”: ‘We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you.’ Realizing that poetry is ephemeral is freeing; it’s okay that not every poem is perfect. Goldberg suggests it was a moment of you, and you are now, not then. That’s a Zen idea, and now a poetry idea, but it’s one that can assist any writer in getting past mental hangups to write in any genre. […[ I’m convinced that the best moments in fiction, especially literary fiction, are moments that use the best elements of poetry to reach us.”
While I love everything about this, I want to start with the last line: I agree that it is true that the best moments in fiction (and I will extend that to certain types of non-fiction) are those moments that draw from elements of poetry. I believe that these elements extend beyond meter, form, rhythm and rhyme, and devices. These comprise the “language” of poetry, but this is the medium, not the message—sorry Marshall.
I resonate with the temporal nature of poetry that Goldberg highlights. First, as Laurie points out, this is far more encouraging to writers. Fundamentally, all writing should be deeply personal, even if you are not the subject of the piece. If there is no strong emotional resonance within the author, it won’t come across on the page, and the reader will not form as strong a connection as they could. However, if you (the writer) only see the work as an extension of your person, you may be too harsh in your judgment of your work and yourself, or be unwilling to create the piece in the first place. There is a paradox here. What is poetry? A deeply personal form of writing written by a you that is not you. Ultimately, this is a reworking of Wordsworth’s definition, but I like it.
I would like to conclude with a call to action and a few recommendations.
Call to Action
Make a plan to include poetry in your reading rotation this year. Search for works of award winners (not always the best work, but a decent starting place). If you can, go to your local bookstore and search the poetry section for something that catches your eye: I discovered many new poets by picking their book off a shelf on a whim. Seek out virtual poetry reading events. And maybe, just maybe, write that first faint line (or second, third, or thousandth).
*I am providing Amazon links to these books for convenience. I am not affiliated and encourage you to check your local bookstore first if you are interested in one of these titles.
Full disclosure—I’m just starting to read this. Still, it’s been a good shot in the arm after a year that has been…. This is a very motivational book that tells you what you already know but need to read/hear.
A valuable reference book for familiarizing yourself with the language of poetry, written by an amateur for amateurs.
Exactly what it sounds like. This specific edition contains some of the more esoteric concepts in literature. I have the Kindle edition on my phone and like having it as a quick reference.
My Collection of poetry
Below is the poetry section of my bookshelves. There is plenty more that I would suggest, but I would recommend any of these.
Finally, if you are interested in partaking in this poetic journey, check out Laurie Anne Fuhr’s upcoming course, where can be found “wisdom around poetry from very good sources.” As mentioned in her earlier quote, this course caters to more than just the poet.
*Please note: since writing this, the course seems to have filled. You can sign up for waitlisted spots if you wish, or keep an eye out for other poetic opportunities.
I hope your year is starting off down a fruitful path, and as always
Thanks for reading!