This article is the fourth and final entry in a series on the subject of writing, “Why do you write (what you write)?” Read previous entries by Michael N. McGregor, Katherine Willis Pershey, and Sari Fordham.
In terms of word counts, I have written and published more prose than poetry. But deep down, primarily and finally, I’m a poet. When I can get away with it, my prose is poetry in disguise, poetry without the line breaks.
Why the disguise? For the same reason that the lyrical weather reports that Kathleen Norris interspersed among the essays in her breakthrough book Dakota were prose. Somewhere I read that Norris originally wrote the weather reports as poems, line breaks and all, but her publisher said the reading public wouldn’t go for that, and had her string them out into sentences that marched dutifully to the right margin. Maybe that was wise and prescient counsel, considering the book’s phenomenal success and major influence on American memoir. But the problem remains: poetry, the mere idea of poetry, commonly gives even seasoned readers the heebie-jeebies.
What is poetry and why is it scary? Why would a writer write in a form people fear and loathe?
Poetry is an art of concentration and focus, noticing and naming, sound and sense, emotion and tranquility, resonance and beat, assonance and shock, contemplation, punch, and song. I write poetry because it’s strong stuff. It’s distilled and refined. In seconds, a good poem, made of well-chosen words and precisely weighted lines, can go to your head like a shot of mescal and heat your belly while it’s at it. Imbibe it. Poems don’t destroy lives. Some have surely saved many with their honesty, beauty, and pull.
To write a mescaline poem, a life-saving poem? Oh, my God, that is holy, spirited business. It pays nothing and you don’t much care because at its best, writing a poem is as close to writing the Psalms or Revelation or the Song of Solomon as a mortal these days is likely to get. Sure, writing prose has its purposeful, workmanlike, varied rhetorical charms. But writing poetry is praying. It’s a searching, risky, sacred conversation. It’s Rumi locking eyes with Shams. It’s Rumi urging you to be still. It’s Rumi warning you you’re drunk and too close to the edge of the roof. It’s listening in on a murmur and a music that prosaic speech too often drowns out. Ask Walter Brueggemann. He’ll read you a page of chiastic prophecy and pray you into a new clarity, and an old, old awe.
When I’m writing poetry, I’m undergoing poïesis, which comes from the Greek term meaning “to make.” This is the heart of poetry’s fearsome power. Write a poem, meet your Maker. Participate in creation. Fall into the hands of the living God. Just read a good poem and you’ll feel the heat from a burning but unconsumed bush. It’ll toast your marshmallow if you’re not careful.
People want to be careful. Apocalypse later, not now, if you please. Incarnation once upon a time, not today. Poetry, with its mystery and wallop, at some later date, preferably. Until then, CNN. Information, ad infinitum. All the news.
But let’s just say, for the sake of argument (and God knows, in this culture, we love argument; it’s about winning!), that poetry is efficient and useful (two of our other favorite virtues). In the hands of a skilled poet, 150 words, or ten lines of language, are more than enough to make a meaning and an impact, to bless or trouble the mind of the reader whose eye has happened to rove to the low-rent bottom corner of a magazine’s page.
There are two square inches of space unclaimed by an advertiser’s budget or lucid, newsy prose. A written thing occupies the square, a self-contained text with undulating white space gracing its right margin. It’s a meditation on a memory, and a list, and a chant of grief, and a description of a day, and a joke, and a word of hope, and a question. It’s all of these compressed into a single, verbal body that surreptitiously gives praise to the Maker and hints that the reader could, too. In terms of efficiency, this made thing, this art and artifact, has made the layout designer’s day. Everything fits! The emptiness is filled. The deadline has been met and we can go to press. But for anyone who stops to read, that small space serves up a potent shot of music and medicine, thanks to the poet.
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