I’m not a poet…and don’t I know it.
If that didn’t elicit a groan, then maybe a line or two from “Rain,” a poem I wrote in college, will:
The city’s underbelly is growling
All around, the rumbling of the buses echoes the thunder in the sky
I hear the mobile beasts around me
As I wait to be eaten and excreted someplace new
Is your brain bleeding yet?
Despite having written between one and two million words to date, only a handful of them were spent in pursuit of poetry. And whenever I did venture from the comfort zone of fiction, it was typically because a teacher assigned it.
That’s how “Triumvirate”—a three-part poem exploring body, mind, and soul as self-governing entities—came to be. “Triumvirate” is one of my better ones, I think, despite its rhyming, sing-songy nature. Here’s an excerpt from the Mind section (stanza?):
Liaison and foe of Body and Soul,
As real as face-numbing wind;
Tainted by reason, encouraged by spirit
Baffled by blessing and sin.
Not stellar, sure, but it didn’t have you contemplating suicide, I hope.
The aforementioned “Rain,” on the other hand, was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture something very mundane in a melodramatic manner. I don’t think it was a serious attempt at poetry. At least I hope not.
Confession: I don’t understand poetry. I never have. As a child, I didn’t gravitate toward Shel Silverstein’s collections at the library. I just never understood what the fuss was about. And that attitude didn’t change as I got older and studied them as part of junior high, high school, and college curricula.
Oh sure, some poems could be clever or funny or haunting, but they always struck me as somehow…unsubstantial. A treat for the tongue, perhaps, but not the hardy nourishment one gets from digging into, say, a novel.
I suppose I’ve always craved story…
Oh, I know poems can tell a story. But so many of them don’t seem to. Or maybe I’m simply too obtuse to grasp the hidden narrative lurking elusively between the lines. More likely, I’ve been approaching them all wrong, coming to poetry with the same expectations as I do prose.
Maybe poems aren’t meant to be mysteries that can be unraveled by reason. Maybe ambiguity of meaning can be an asset, not a flaw. Maybe getting the reader to simply feel something is a worthy goal in of itself.
Of course, poetry is a very broad term, and I’d be lying if I said that the genre doesn’t appeal to me unilaterally. Epic poems, for instance, combine the creative use of language usually associated with poetry with a plain-faced plot. In fact, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem that explores the climax of the Arthurian legend, motivated me to write an alliterative poem called “Solitude”—the name of which was inspired by another old poem, “The Wanderer.”
In my humble opinion, the best poetry contains something of a story, and the best fiction borrows from the eloquence and expressiveness of poetry. It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Artistic turns of phrase, the rhythm and flow of sentences, attention to sensory details—the finer trappings of poetry certainly can (and perhaps should) be transposed to prose.
At some point I might pick up that book of E.E. Cummings’ poems off our family bookshelf, but I doubt I’ll spend any serious time composing poetry of my own.
So rather than subject you to any more tortured verses authored by my own hand, I’ll end this post by sharing this delightful (if disturbing) poem penned many years ago by someone in my family who’s had more practice with the genre: Kate Williams, my mother. It’s one of my favorites:
Be Kind to Your Brainless Friends,
They Might Have Ants in Their Heads
One night when I was sleeping, but not in my bed,
millions of little black ants got into my head.
They crept in through my ears, my nose, and my eyes
while I lie sleeping under the summer sky.
They chomped, they chewed, they nibbled, they crunched,
they ate my brain like it was their lunch.
Now my brain is gone and I have instead,
little black ants living inside my head.