I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight … it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself. — Pablo Neruda
I feel a great deal of affinity with the statement above, but not just because it aligns with my business and writing life model of “write you.” When I began offering workshops, I noticed there was a significant belief system about poetry. Such as poetry must rhyme. It must take a metered form. That you have to be an academic to write and understand poetry.
Nope. None of this is true.
Poetry is not the rigid concepts that are often taught to children. It is also not an academic pursuit composed to be purposely inaccessible to anyone without a degree in the humanities. (It is unfortunate that this myth still perpetuates and as a result alienates a wider readership.) It is not one voice for all persons.
I believe poetry is the people’s art form. I believe it belongs to all of us, that whether we are readers, writers, or listeners, poetry’s vast world has a little nook for each of us.
I am a huge advocate for poetry because I believe it is in all of us, naturally. Every culture around the world has some sort of poetic tradition, be it oral or inscribed. These traditions continue to cross borders of storytelling, song, performance, visual art, and other forms of creative expression. And this is what makes poetry hard to define.
Poetry, by its very nature, is the deepest form of human expression in language. Even Sign Language. It elevates our experiences, whether uniquely or collectively, because “good poetry”, in whatever shape or form, creates connection.
So then, what is poetry?
I kind of think poetry is like Star Trek: The Next Generation. It boldly goes where no poet has gone before. Except, it doesn’t while it does. Confused? Me too, and I teach this stuff. When my masterclass course participants ask me “OK, then, so what is poetry really? What does it look like, what does it say, how does it live on the page?” I usually respond with, “Isn’t it a better question to ask what your poetry looks like, how would you like it to evolve, and what kind of presence does it impose on your page?” Although I am notoriously Maritimes when I offer a course (despite my courseware’s academic structure, I very much take a kitchen table approach to how we engage with writing as a group, and how we interact with poetry as writers), I do my best to showcase a diverse range of poetic expression, to show that limitations in writing are often imposed on us. The world of poetry is vast, which is why there is a necessary place for every poet.
An important lesson I learned from my own work was that when I let go of the academic beliefs that had been imposed on my writing, when I began saying, “Well why can’t I?” I began to really elevate my experiences to art. I was making emotional connections with complete strangers. Isn’t that the most complimentary thing we could achieve as writers? I believe so.
I think that my journey into poetry was indivisible from the vast accounts of human experience that leapt up at me from the photographs in National Geographic. My family had stacks of Nat Geo magazines piled in living room corners and spilling out of bookshelves. I could read most of the articles, yet my comprehension as a young human was limited. My father had traveled widely so he could hand me a globe, move my finger to the correct country and region, and then give me a bit of cultural and geographical context. My bedtime stories were tales of my father’s travels and I made him tell them to me over and over.
We had the volume that featured Steve McCurry’s famous photograph of Sharbat Bibi, a Pashtun refugee child, who is more widely known as the Afghan Girl. I knew Dad had been to Afghanistan. I peppered him with questions of who she was and how the photographer had captured what seemed to be the girl herself. He said something that stuck with me. He didn’t rightly know, but he thought that the photo didn’t just capture Sharbat Bibi, but a moment in her time. He felt the photographer would have had to be in the right place at the right time, have a deeper understanding of the events unfolding around him, a genuine engagement with local culture, and the knowledge of how to artfully exploit his skill at all stages of the photographic process.
So, when you replace film with words, how is that different from poetry? Doesn’t fine poetry do that too—capture a unique and perhaps fleeting moment in time in addition to culture, politics, indefinable complexities or feelings and personal qualities? Something that can only come from one individual with their own particular life experiences.
My friend, photographer David Sosmena, told me of an ancient courting custom from his home country the Philippines. Until the mid-twentieth century, in certain villages in northern Luzon and the Visayas, men would write love poems in the earth outside the homes of their beloveds using Baybayin script. My understanding is that metaphor and euphony were as inherent to these poems as were the fleeting forms and materials that captured them. A woman could choose a suitor based on these things and how accurately she felt he had captured her.
Poetry, reading and writing it, is my first love. When I read poetry I connect with, it is as though I am falling in love over and over again. Who inspires you or makes you feel that passion? The poets you love are an important part of your personal journey. Some of my first loves were Forough Farrokhzad, Sei Shonagon, and Pablo Neruda. I first read Pablo in Juneau, AK when I was working on cruise ships when a bookstore clerk ordered his favourite translation of Isla Negra for me.
My passion to find more first loves, and to help other writers find their first loves, drives me. Passion is infectious. It can create great things for us as artists of the written word.
During this long journey I found the necessary components for the making of the poem. There I received contributions from the earth and from the soul. And I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature. And no less strongly I think that all this is sustained – man and his shadow, man and his conduct, man and his poetry – by an ever-wider sense of community, by an effort which will for ever bring together the reality and the dreams in us because it is precisely in this way that poetry unites and mingles them. – Pablo Neruda, from “Towards the Splendid City”; Nobel Prize in Literature Speech 1971
I often put excerpts of Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Prize speech on my masterclass poetry courses. I do this because I want to hear from each participant. I ask them, “Tell me what this means to you.” and often they cannot verbally express what Pablo has articulated for them. Each writer says to me, or nods in agreement, “I can’t tell you, but I feel this, I know it is true.” Good poetry does this too. Even if you can’t say what it is, you feel it, and you know it as a truth inside you. That you, like many others, also feel that poetry, among many things, is also resilience and faith. As you move forward on your writing journey, leaving behind what you’re “supposed to write” or “how you should write” and engage with what you feel you’re called to do, when you write you, you live this truth.
I wish all poets and aspiring poets, a happy National Poetry Month.