Journey into Poetry: Kathryn Neel

My very first experience of poetry began with a First Little Golden Book titled Three Little Kittens. The original work is a poem by Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860). As a very small child I’m sure I was interested in the story, at least for a while, but what was more important to me was how the words sounded when they were read aloud. Perhaps that is why, even today, I prefer to experience poetry that is performed and I prefer to do poetry readings instead of publishing my work.

The Three Little Kittens will always be a spherical memory for me rooted in the rhythm of my father’s heartbeat, breath, and warmth as my head lay on his chest; the cadence of his words as he read the poem to me.

This sojourn to poetry is part of my lifelong awe of the natural world. I’ve always been curious about nature, whether as a child looking up at stars or later as a scientist interacting with the universe via microscope or telescope. But I continually return to the poem, the story, and the sound of the words that describe the experience of events that really only have particular color and texture because I witnessed them.

I started writing poetry when I was very young as well, but for slightly different reasons. I used it as a way to preserve my privacy and test out my hypotheses of the world. It was my way of encoding my views so no one could tell me my observations of people, places or things were childish, or incorrect or–sin of sins–impolite.

Inside my writing I could run wild and naked with no one to call me in to wash up and fold my hands for prayer. Wildly imaginative children have to find ways to defend themselves against the sensible world so their creativity cannot be broken and saddled prematurely.  I have always been much to willful in my passions to ever tolerate having my writing or myself be fully broken. But I can be coaxed with beautiful sounding words, no matter what the language.

When I spent a summer in Ireland and Wales I would listen for hours to the sound of tales being told in Welsh and Gaelic. I didn’t need to know what any of the words meant, it was the tonality and emotion of the telling that attracted me.

My landlady that summer told of being a small child on her way to church one Sunday with her parents. Apparently they crossed a bridge where she observed a very old man talking to the stream below. She turned to her father and asked if the old man was mad. Her father replied, “No, he’s a poet. His name is Yeats.”

There is something comforting in the image of poets conversing with the universe, even if their job title is scientist by day; and whether poet or scientist I’m okay with a little madness either way.

Photo by Alejandro Hernandez. Post by Kathryn Neel.


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  1. Erin Livolsi says

    I’m so glad I can comment here ~ I can relate to this blog on every level….I have been writing since I was a young girl….My writing may not ever compare with the greats, but it is “my” story, my thoughts, my meanderings, my heart, how could it ever be like theirs – after all, it belongs to me. <3

    • Kathryn Neel says

      I think it is useful to remember that there was a time before the “greats” were great and all the best stories are our individual stories, thoughts, meanderings, and heart that were our private stories before we make them public.

  2. says

    I like this:

    “but what was more important to me was how the words sounded”

    And I realize that though I am partially attuned to sound (every writer needs to be), I am also greatly attuned to the visual.

    Recently, I read up on the poet Sappho and it was said that her poems *looked* a certain way in Greek, that entailed hugs and curves and nesting and so forth. And it struck me that that is how my brain works too. I write with the visual in mind, as much as anything.

    So glad to have you here today, Kathryn, giving us a little art and science about your own relationship to words.

    • Kathryn Neel says

      Thanks Laura, I appreciate being here. Funny you should mention Sappho. I spent time a couple of years ago in Greece, specifically in Eressos, the village where Sappho lived. You could feel her spirit in the village and on the island.

      • says

        I was sad to learn that most of her poetry has been lost to us. What remains is quite beautiful.

        I guess at one time she was taught as one of the Greats, but apparently other poets eventually wanted to edge in to that territory and so stopped teaching her work. Then, over time, much of her work disappeared.

        Why do things like that leave me with an inexplicable ache?

  3. says

    “The Three Little Kittens will always be a spherical memory for me rooted in the rhythm of my father’s heartbeat, breath, and warmth as my head lay on his chest; the cadence of his words as he read the poem to me.”

    Glad you have this positive memory of your dad introducing you to the realm of poetry.

  4. says

    I have sent Kathryn’s essay to my students and friends who are poets-to uplift, affirm and inspire.

    Two things I most identify with-preference of live performance to publishing (although I do pursue both-in the interest of legacy building and the prevention of historic erasure) and the universal reach of tone and intention.

    Poetry can be an act of love among strangers when shared with presence and the authentic self.

    I appreciate and celebrate the honesty and intimacy of this essay.

    Thanks to Kathryn Neel for writing it!

  5. says

    I’m impressed by the insights, but even more so by the precision of their description. This is the work of somebody who had already found that most rare of commodities, her own true voice.

  6. Kim says

    Yay Kathryn! Some gorgeous phrases and images in there. I especially like this: “Inside my writing I could run wild and naked with no one to call me in to wash up and fold my hands for prayer.”


  7. Pat James says

    Kathy, you have come such a long way since we met long ago in my first toe-dipping into teaching a creative writing class. Even then I mentioned your voice as one recognizable and unique: I believe some comments about “your Kathyness” were written in the margins.

    Yes, I say, to your recognizing the experiences that only have color because you witnessed them and took them up. The clay and then someday, later…seeing something in the clay that becomes the sculpture. An article charming, original, and … wise.

  8. Charon Luebbers says

    I for one am quite happy to know that you will put up with a little madness in art and science! Perhaps we can even push the limits a little of a “little”!


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