Ordinary Genius: Entering Poetry (part 2)

My entry into poetry did not happen in a night. Oh, sure. It may look that way. One day I was calling poetry “cryptic nonsense” and practically the next, posting a lengthy poem on Facebook about lumberjacks, kitchen knives, Twinkies, and the persuasive powers of semi-colon eyelashes. Now, she’ll never take the credit for it—no, she’ll tell you it was something I must have needed to do. But L.L. Barkat, the managing editor around these parts, has a gentle way of incremental invitation that is difficult to resist.

While she might point out a favorite French expression, petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid (little by little the bird makes its nest), as a professional negotiator I saw a pattern, whether intentional or not, in her disarming approach that seemed to mirror an age-old negotiation technique known as Slicing the Salami. In its practice, one achieves the whole not by asking for a massive, impossible move from the other side of the table, but by slicing off one small piece at a time until the whole stick is given. Or perhaps in my case, received.

I suggested as much to her one day, but it was agreed that her approach is less slicing and more folding and unfolding, rather like origami. Like this, I said:


She plies cold cuts
without slicing,
presses a crease
into a bent wing.
Now the crane
lifts away with
my sandwich
in red-backed

However it was that I got here, one thing is clear: poetry gives me something I deeply need. A few months ago after reading a particular poem (I’ve now forgotten which), I complained quite bitterly that for so many years I’d cut myself off from these words that have long existed and seem to explain my very soul. Yet I’d never known them or dared call them my own.

In this week’s reading from Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio recounts her own discovery of poetry.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to write poems yet. I had discovered the thing that I wanted to keep close to me for the rest of my life, and if I did that, my tutelary spirit would watch over me, would teach me what I needed to know. This is your genius: your profound desire to write. Your love of words and language, your attempt to get to what poet Donald Hall called “the unsayable said.”  …Forget wondering, Am I good enough? Can I do this? The only thing you really need to ask yourself is: Is writing my genius? If it is, then apprentice yourself.

It’s easy enough to be unrealistic about what we can do, or discouraged when it seems harder than we expected. Addonizio assures us that it will be work.

Did you think writing great, or even good, poems would be easy? What feeling of accomplishment would you get from doing what is easy, what anyone can do without trying? Athletes train relentlessly… Dancers attend class every day… Actors memorize thousands of words… If you thought poetry was different, this is your wake-up call. Poetry is a bitch. It wants your energy, your intelligence, your spirit, your time.

In return for what poetry gives me, I’ll gladly give her those things, a single thin slice at a time.


As a beginning poet, line breaks are one of my greatest challenges. Addonizio devotes a chapter of this first section to lines and rhythm, one I’ll be going back and spending even more time with. She suggests in one exercise to “take a poem you’ve written  in conventional left-margin lines and explode it onto the page” using a variety of techniques. I played around a little with my Origami poem above.

For starters, I made a small change to the first two lines, for an interesting turn of thought between “cold cuts” and “cuts without slicing”:

She plies cold
without slicing,
presses a crease
into a bent wing.
Now the crane lifts
away with
my sandwich
in red-backed

Another option would be to play with the spacing, creating “white matter” between the words. It’s not perfect, but  I left a space after “presses” to give the sense of the action of placing the crease in the paper, and the jagged spacing of the next two lines hopes to work with the shape of the origami folds.

She plies cold
without slicing,

presses        a crease
             into a
                       bent wing.

Now the crane lifts away
my sandwich wrapped
in red-backed washi.


So. Your turn. How do you determine your line breaks? Do you write first in prose, then break into lines, or do you compose line by line? Did you try something new with line breaks this week? Or what other prompts did you try?

Perhaps you’d share your poem(s) in the comment box. Heck, you can even play with rebreaking the lines in my poem in the comments if you’d like. If you post at your own blog, please include the link in the comments as well so we can share with you.

And to help you catch up and plan for the coming weeks:

September 26: Part I: Entering Poetry (through Chapter 4)
October 3: Part I: Entering Poetry (Chapters 5-10)
October 10: Part II: Inner and Outer Worlds (Chapters 11-21)
October 17: Part III: The Poem’s Progress (Chapters 22-27)
October 23: Part IV: Toward Mastery (Chapters 28-36)

Photo by Eugene, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist 


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  1. says

    Lyla, this is beautiful. I am always thankful to you for how openly you share. I especially love this: “poetry gives me something I deeply need”.

    Whether I am sliced or folded I am not sure, but I do know that something is happening here.

    I borrowed from wordcandy this week and found that using white space added the emphasis that I didn’t have any room to say with words. I didn’t want more words. I wanted to preserve the rhythm and the rhyme. Funny how ‘nothing’ can be ‘everything’ you need sometimes. Or maybe it’s funny that nothing really is nothing…. or both.


  2. says

    Excellent examples about line breaks and meaning!

    In this month’s Poetry, Christian Wiman published an edited version of his Introduction to the new anthology “The Open Door”. In it he talks about line breaks. Referencing a Levertov poem, he says, “… if you don’t read it the way its line breaks dictate – don’t feel its form happening viscerally in you – then its effect is not simply diminished but actually distorted….” He goes on to note how the way our mind wants to read lines can change the poet’s meaning and effect, adding that what might seem awkward or random is not at all, and that we have to learn to read poetry consciously, the way the poet means it to be read.

  3. L. L. Barkat says

    This I love…

    “It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to write poems yet. I had discovered the thing that I wanted to keep close to me for the rest of my life”

    and how you took (and are taking) the challenge, one slice at a time.

    It’s an interesting way of drawing something close, isn’t it? A gentle, steady taking-in that is perhaps more lasting.

  4. says

    I think it was Mark Twain who said the secret to giving speeches was knowing when to pause.

    I had read poetry in high school and college, but it was speechwriting that brought me back to it in a lasting way. I began reading poetry with the purpose of writing better speeches, but soon left the purpose behind, and read poetry simply to read poetry (although I think I did become a better speechwriter because of it).

    My exercise was to do the photograph – and then describe what it meant. Here’s the result: http://faithfictionfriends.blogspot.com/2012/10/sign-of-harvest-moon.html

  5. says

    I’m age 64 and felt the urge to write a poem just over a month ago. Twenty two poems later I am mystified by the experience. It’s like a muse took possession of my soul. I even wrote a poem about the sudden urge to write poetry. I titled it “strangely healing”. All 22 poems are posted on my blog: garycleave.blogspot.com

    • says

      Gary, welcome. :) Glad you stopped in to share your story. I’m finding poetry close to the “second half” as well, and wondering at what I missed all my life. Strangely healing nails it.

      Stopped by your place and found this:

      Something to say
      Not well suited for an essay.
      Better said with metaphors

      Yes, that. :)

  6. says

    I really enjoyed seeing the evolution of this poem, Lyla. I liked it at first, wasn’t sure about the second, but then, the third, and it was like discovering a treasure: oh, that’s what it is!

    Because my primary medium is prose, I don’t think outside of the box unless a poetry prompt forces me to play with things like white space. Without a little stretching, all my poems end up looking the same.

  7. says

    Lyla, I love what happens to your poem with the different spacing. It’s beautiful either way, and amazing what a difference pausing in the spaces makes!

    I’m hoping to get some poetry time this weekend, but I’ve been playing around with the “article, adj., noun, article, adj., noun, verb, adverb” suggestion and really love piecing things together that way. So far, this is my favorite:

    The wide-open prairie, an anchoring willow, weeping dutifully

    I like how this simple construction can at least get things started…now just need to keep going! :-)


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