Maybe I should study poetry.
I’ve thought this once or twice over the years.
I thought this at least once over a year ago in a used bookstore where I purchased, with good intentions, two compilations of poetry.
In an effort to clear out some space on my to-be-read shelf I picked up one of those books, Word of Mouth edited by Catherine Bowman. I set it on the kitchen counter and read bits and pieces, mini-biographies and poems in between dishes, and breakfasts, and “help me mommy please” and “can we watch TV?” and sweeping the floor while thinking of a friend and making coffee and making yet another lunch of yet another pot of pasta.
I’ve never considered myself a poet. Not even when I wrote poems—or better, two-line rhymes (couplets?) assembled around an evangelical notion—for church competitions. Oh dear goodness, I shudder to think. They were well-meaning efforts. More preachy than the skinny boys that competed after me in the preaching competition and, as my husband often says of my verbal communication style, about as subtle as a Mac truck. Not really poetry. But, I didn’t consider myself a poet.
Even the rhyme schemes I pull together for children stories and “poems” are more like that, rhymes. Fun with words but lacking a certain punch that sets apart rhymes from poems—or rhymers from poets.
I know, of course, that poetry does not have to rhyme. But I’m not sure how to judge the quality of one. Let’s be honest, trying to decide whether a poem is “good” based on whether it all rhymes or nearly rhymes must be about the same as having someone try to determine if a book is good or bad based on whether the author uses “big” words.
In spite of all this, there are blips and bleeps and lines that present themselves in my head that I can only hear a certain way. They don’t have room for leggy sentences and wandering thoughts. Definitely no favor for periods. They require economy, brevity, and word power. When I write what I hear in those moments it doesn’t come out in paragraphs but in structured contrasts or intentional pauses. And I can’t undo it. I can’t put sentences around those pieces. I can’t put paragraphs or chapters on those scribbles. They have to be in that form to some extent—in that rhythm. But, and this cannot be overstated, I have no clue what I am doing.
The more this happens the more I think: maybe I should study poetry a bit more. I don’t know how, but I will start by learning little by little. I will find poets who have a story that interests me and who have ways with ideas and words that startle me.
So in trying to determine “What to read next” the time to start an inquiry presented itself through those books I bought with good intentions from a used bookstore over a year ago.
Word of Mouth is a collection of poems compiled for NPR’s All Things Considered. In reading this I found poets to pursue. I read tidbits of styles and critique. I found inspiration. I read young and old, short and long. I met forms and rhythms. I found a starting point. The collection includes over thirty poets.
I don’t know enough to criticize content, but I can say that the compilation introduced me to a wide range of poets, styles, and ideas. As I venture forth into the murky waters of poetry I can look to Quincy Troupe, Lucille Clifton, Carrie Allen McCray, Charles Harper Webb, Hal Sirowitz, Philip Booth, or Elizabeth Spires because I have been introduced to them briefly, and they compel me further. They have excited me to their medium once; I am certain they can do it again.
The other book I picked up is called The Black Poets by Dudley Randall and chronicles the history, tradition, and legacy of black poetry. It will add to the names I’ve collected already. It sits on my kitchen counter to read while waiting for water to boil, or kids to wake up from naps, or watching the baby monitor until the 2-year-old finally gives up and falls asleep.
So I guess I should say: I am studying poetry. It is a bit ad hoc and unguided, but it has started. Any favorite poets, dead or alive, that are good for a newbie to explore?