Operation Poetry Dare: I Can’t Dance to It

Poetry and I have spent the past two weeks together, each circling slowly about the other and making tentative overtures. Having admitted out loud and on the Internet that I had a general fear of poetry, the editors dared me to read a poem a day and see if I could make peace with this alien life form. Not wanting to appear standoffish, I extended a hand of friendship and promised to play nice if poetry would.

As is often the case when forming new acquaintances, it’s helpful to have a mutual friend to make proper introductions. Megan Willome and I have been exchanging email messages, each responding to the daily offerings arriving in our inboxes via Every Day Poems. While our interaction may not rank among the greatest literary correspondences of all time, we have been having fun. And Megan has been teaching me.

At first, my responses were crude. I found myself sounding like a record-rating teenager in the American Bandstand days of yore:

Well it has a nice beat, Dick, but I can’t dance to it.

I said things like, “I like it, but I don’t know why,” or “Why is that a poem?”

Megan pointed me toward tutorials and field guides. She shared her own impressions. She told me how certain poems made her feel and what memories they evoked. Megan spoke with warmth and humor, respect for words and, perhaps, even love.

One day she responded to a poem simply by saying, “I resent having to look up words.”

“Me too,” I typed back. Enough said.

Megan gave me permission to like or dislike a poem for any reason, or no reason at all.

Now I’ll admit, what I thought I knew about poetry probably wouldn’t fill a thimble. But I was fairly certain I knew what a haiku was. But then Let the Mosquito came along:

Let the mosquito
land. Then you can
swat him.

— L.L. Barkat

Megan told me it was a haiku, a modern one, which meant traditional rules didn’t so much apply. She referred me to an infographic on haiku, and now I’m beginning to question many of my prior long-standing assumptions.

Next thing you know, someone will try to convince me Santa Claus isn’t real.

These first two weeks have been a crash course in unlearning things I thought I knew, or thought I should know, and learning instead simply to respond. I read A Love Poem by Benjamin Myers. Its rhythm reminded me of the rocking of a porch swing. I began thinking about all the summer nights my dad spent sitting on the one at my childhood home, listening to baseball games on his radio.

Megan said, “You’re doing great! If the rhythm of a poem makes you think of a porch swing, which in turn makes you think of your dad, then that’s a good poem. It was enjoyable in and of itself, and it also led you somewhere else.”

We’ve talked about line breaks and spacing in poetry, but much of that remains a mystery to me. After Megan pointed out the way L. L. Barkat used space to slow the reader down in her poem, Woman, I responded with one of my own. Get ready folks, because this is profound:

Ms. Barkat’s poems leave spaces
In the oddest of places.
Her words read to me like a riddle.
But she invited me one day
Over to Tweetspeak to play
So I wrote words to make readers giggle.

Two weeks into The Poetry Dare, I cannot yet claim this life form and I have become friends. But I believe we are warming up to one another. I’ve patted it on the head a few times, and have yet to have my hand bitten.

Photo by Malakhi Helel, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Nancy Franson. 


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    • says

      When this project was first proposed, it was with the idea that I would have a partner. I immediately thought of Megan and was thrilled beyond words when I found out it was her. I can’t imagine a better guide for this process.

      And who knows? Perhaps we will generate one of the greatest literary correspondences of all time!

  1. says

    “we have been having fun”: reason enough to call your project a success, even in these early days.

    If you find a poem you like from a collection, try to find a review of the book. Others’ insights can open up your own way into the choreography of words.

    • says

      Maureen–this is one of the things I’m discovering as I walk through this poetry adventure with Megan: You poets use the absolute best words (whereas the rest of us settle for more-or-less acceptable words)

      Choreography of words. That is just lovely.

      And thanks for the hint about reading reviews. I’ve received a number of suggestions about poets/titles I should read, and I was thinking I probably ought to start keeping a list. A good idea to read the reviews first–probably easier on my book budget :)

  2. says

    Oh, Nancy Franson–well done. You made ME giggle…. Welcome to the dance.
    (And I agree–you and Megan should publish your correspondence–“Letters to a Non-Believer”? maybe?)

  3. says

    I know nada when it comes to poetry. Unless nursery rhymes count.( And i think they should.) Oh, and occasional times “I am a poet and don’t know it “

  4. says

    Love this a lot. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with poetry since elementary school days and memorizing “Casey at the Bat.’ (Not at all sure that actually fits in the category of poetry, but hey – we all have to start someplace, right?) I’m with Megan: when I have to look up words, I get a little bit antsy. Unless, of course, the poet is Laura Boggess – and I gladly look up words for her stuff.

  5. says

    You and this, this and you, the whole thing is more than I can stand…..just giddy over the unfolding and impending romantic liason between you and poetry. A match made in heaven and long overdue. I am on the edge of my seat, holding my breath and every other cliche and tired metaphor I have for beholding a highly anticipated event. :) This is worth a front row seat. Are there seasons tickets available. Truly, I may be your biggest fan and the one desperately in need of fresh descriptors for expressing my JOY at your brave endeavor. :)

  6. says

    I loved this passage from Annie Dillard in The Writing Life that I just came across again last night:

    “On break, I usually read Conrad Aiken’s poetry aloud. It was pure sound unencumbered by sense. If I ever caught a poem’s sense by accident, I could never use the poem again.”

    For me, poetry evokes, suggests, intrigues, but rarely makes sense. I was afraid to admit that for a long time.

      • says

        Megan – I think the experience of poetry – letting the sound and the rhythm and the color and the emotion wash over me – is its own reward. I don’t have to understand poetry. I just have to enjoy it.

        Poetry is one of the very few things I would say that about . . . though I am growing more comfortable saying the same thing about art and music. I love them all more when I stop trying to be so serious about them.

    • says

      I think one of the things I really appreciate about this project is that it is giving many of us permission to say out loud the things we’ve feared or failed to understand about poetry–recognizing there are others who feel the same way. And none of the good people here at TSP are mocking me–at least not openly :)

      • L. L. Barkat says

        mocking? No way. This is exactly what we hope, and not just for poetry: “permission to say out loud the things we’ve feared or failed to understand.”

        I would also add: permission to *love* the things others have feared or failed to understand.

        We are so used to not granting ourselves permission. We have not taken ourselves seriously, which means to take serious whatever it is about us that is our essential gift (yours is wit). I think it is partly how we are educated.

        Anyway. Welcome to Tweetspeak, where all we want (and we mean this in the absolute best of ways) is for people to “become who [they] really are.”

  7. says

    Okay, I admit it. I am an emotional person to the nth degree. This post and comments are being read through tears as I witness so many beautiful and truly poetic miracles unfolding. I can’t count them all. Maybe some day I’ll try. Nancy… your poem made me giggle, and your Santa poem made me grin ear to ear.

    Do you know about wordcandy (see http://www.wordcandy.me)? It’s a little addiction of mine that comes from the genius of the TweetSpeak Team. I wanted to share these two wordcandies with you –

    Let the mosquito land (I can’t think of these words without Claire’s cat anymore!) http://thebrightersideblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Wordcandy%20Wednesday?updated-max=2013-01-30T08:48:00-05:00&max-results=20&start=20&by-date=false

    And my all time number one favorite:
    We all need people: http://thebrightersideblog.blogspot.com/2013/07/my-all-time-favorite-word-candy.html

    :) Donna

    • says

      Donna, I’m so glad you’re enjoying my little adventure into poetry world. And, yes, I’ve been the grateful recipient of a little Word Candy from time to time. Thanks for sharing with me your favorites :)

  8. Larry Bole says

    It saddens me to read people saying things like “I resent having to look up words.” How sad it is for someone to lack that kind of curiosity, that kind of thirst for knowledge.

    Regarding L. L. Barkat’s haiku. It is not so much a “modern” haiku as it is an English-language haiku (as opposed to a Japanese-language haiku).

    Japanese haiku have a tradition of rules, although those rules can be, and have been, broken; especially since Shiki ‘modernized’ Japanese haiku, but even before.

    English-language haiku doesn’t really have rules, except to try to imitate Japanese haiku, unless that becomes inconvenient. When that happens, it becomes a problem as to how a short, haiku-like poem should be labeled/identified.

    As a matter of fact, Barkat’s haiku does follow a couple of Japanese traditional rules: it has a ‘kigo’ (seasonal word)–mosquito (a ‘kigo’ for summer); and it has a syntactical ‘cut’ (in this case, the period), which is the equivalent of the Japanese ‘kireji’ (cutting word).

    Not many people bother with syllable counting in English-language haiku anymore. The current rule-of-thumb is simply to try to make an English-language haiku as reasonably short as possible.

    • L. L. Barkat says

      It’s funny you should say that about looking up words. I was lying here on the couch this morning, enjoying the first cool breeze we’ve had in a while, and musing on this very point.

      What I realized was that Megan and Nancy have a perfectly honest communication going, where they are free to say anything and are free to love (or not love) any poem. Nancy is sharing that with us (such a privilege to listen in).

      I began to wonder about myself (an insatiably curious person). How do *I* feel about encountering a word I don’t understand—whether in a poem or in prose? I realized I tend to skip over them or create a meaning from context. Maybe I don’t quite resent them, but I skirt them.

      Now I am wondering… are you are an avid word lover? Are you like my teen eldest daughter, who recently explained to me what a palimpsest is and who actually sometimes sits down to read the dictionary? How deep does your word-love go?

      Mine could maybe go deeper. But that is not quite it. I *do* love words, find them fascinating. Perhaps what I really need is to allow myself the few extra minutes to pursue the curiosity that is actually mine.

      • Larry Bole says

        Forgive me if my reply is a little disjunctive.

        As Jiminy Cricket says in the “Encyclopedia Song” (from the original Mickey Mouse Club tv show), “I’ve got curiosity.” (I still spell e=n=c=y=c=l=o=p=e=d=i=a to the tune of that song!)

        I started learning how to read in a similar way to how Scout learned to read in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In fact, when my Kindergarten teacher found out I could read simple words, the school asked my parents to stop teaching me to read, so I could learn how to read in lockstep with the other first graders in the Dick and Jane era of reading instruction.

        My mother was education-oriented, and bought a dictionary by sections, a section-a-week, from a National Tea grocery store in the 1950s. This dictionary, whose name I can’t remember, which was leather bound and at least six or more inches thick (because it included illustrations) was kept open on a stand, and my older brother and I were encouraged to use it, which we did.

        I was also fortunate to have a fourth grade teacher who gave the class permission to get up at any time and consult a big dictionary that was kept on a stand in the classroom. I was one of the few students who did that regularly.

        I almost always spent time looking at some of the words on either side of the word I was looking up, so I guess in that sense I sometimes “read” a dictionary (and still do).

        When I headed off to college in the mid-sixties, I received a hard-cover Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition, and a hard-cover Roget’s Thesaurus, both of which I still have and still use.

        In the late 1970s, my wife and I joined a book club in order to get a discounted copy of the two-volume compact edition of the OED, which also gets used.

        Looking up words in the dictionary really doesn’t take that much time, especially if it’s a habit. And the internet makes it easy, if you’re online.

        I learned the word ‘palimpsest’ when I first viewed Rauschenberg’s notorious “Erased deKooning Drawing,” but that was when I was in my 20s, so your daughter has a good head start on me!

        I guess I’m old-fashioned because I expect people to say why they like or dislike something, especially when it comes to the arts, and extra-especially when it comes to poetry. In a way, it’s like being in therapy: you sometimes have to really dig down deep inside yourself to find out why you feel the way you do about things. But the digging, although it can be hard work, is worth it in my opinion.

        And to discover why you like or don’t like a poem, I think you have to have read, and be reading, a LOT of poetry, both good and not-so-good. This doesn’t mean you can’t derive pleasure from reading not-so-good poetry; you can, while still understanding why it’s not so good. Some people refer to this kind of pleasure as a ‘guilty pleasure’, although I don’t.

      • Larry Bole says

        P.S. My mother was an inveterate board game player, and one of her favorite games was Scrabble. When she, my older brother, and I played, there were challenges, which meant words were looked up.

        And currently, my wife and I play the daily Match Up game, which is a five-word synonym-matching game, from the “Free Dictionary by Farlex” app.

    • says

      Thanks, Larry, for your thoughtful responses here. Please know that some of my comments are tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself as I wander around in a world which has always seemed a bit mysterious to me.

      And Megan has been an excellent tutor. She often encourages me to look up unfamiliar words within poems, something I’m getting in the habit of doing. I’ve found that when a poem has captured my imagination and curiosity, I’m more likely to stop and figure out why its author has thrown something unfamiliar at me. It feels as though it’s a puzzle piece, a riddle asking for me to solve it.

      The particular poem we were discussing had so many unfamiliar words, they felt like speed bumps in the way of enjoying the flow of the language.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your stories of how you came to appreciate words used well.

      • Larry Bole says

        Nancy, I subscribe to a lot of emails relating to the arts and to poetry. I can’t remember which one contained the link that brought me here. Now that I understand better what’s going on, I feel like I’ve crashed a themed-costume party without a costume, so I apologize for being a party-crasher.

        However, if you are inclined to share it, I’m curious what poem it is that “had so many unfamiliar words.”

        I already subscribe to a poem-a-day from the Academy of American Poets, so I’m not sure if I want to subscribe to an additional poem-a-day at the present time. Are the poems you get here all contemporary, or are they a mixture of contemporary and older poems? If the poems are all contemporary, you are likely receiving a mixed-bag when it comes to quality. Older poetry tends to have had some of the chaff winnowed out by the passage of time, so older poems that are still being regularly read tend to be of a more consistent quality.

        I point this out because what may make some contemporary poetry difficult may be some lack of skill on the part of the poet.

        Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on the project you have undertaken when it reaches a conclusion, if it does.

        • says

          I am such a novice in reading in this genre, I have to admit I’m not sure what the ratio is of contemporary to older poetry. Perhaps one of the editors would have a better answer to your question. I’m guessing it leans more toward contemporary. I haven’t seen any Wordsworth or Keats since I began my little experiment!

          And, frankly, I’m glad you crashed the party and stuck around long enough to get the gist of this project. I used to joke with the folks here about not being part of the poetry tribe. In truth, they are a rather welcoming (and fun) bunch.

          As to the poem with all the unfamiliar words, I guess I’d really rather not single it out. I’m more comfortable commenting on the poems I did enjoy–trying to stay positive, even though I so often feel as though I’m in over my head. Thanks for your patience with me as a work-in-progress.

  9. says

    Often I wish that some poetry came with an ingredients listing. I lean more toward the belief that poems are to be spoken by the author, as most are so subjective. The tone of voice, the inflections, facial expressions and body language are poetry in and of themselves.
    This is a mere crack of the eggshell on the topic. I’m bored – sitting here typing with one hand and trying to crack and peel a hard boiled egg with the other.Poetry in motion.

    • Larry Bole says

      I think it’s a good idea, when reading a poem, for the reader to recite the poem as well as read it silently.

      Unfortunately, many poets give rather poor public readings of their work. But I think that reading a poem aloud is a skill that can be practiced and improved through attention given to that purpose.

      Interestingly, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in New York City, offers the Harold Clurman Poetry Reading Series, with the following stated purpose (from its website):

      The purpose of The Harold Clurman Center for Poetry, Poetic Drama and the Spoken Word is to explore the relationship between the actor and dramatic language, to celebrate dramatic and poetic language as a necessary but perhaps under-appreciated aspect of the actor’s art and craft, and to open channels of communication between poets, playwrights, actors, directors, voice specialists and critics in order to better understand issues of written and spoken language and the relationship between them.

      [end of excerpt]

      When I lived in New York City, and attended a number of poetry readings at the Stella Adler Studio, I remember being especially impressed by Molly Peacock who, in addition to reciting her poems, talked about ways in which such recitation can be improved.

      When professional actors recite poetry, I find that they usually do a much better job of it than many poets do.

      P.S. As an interesting aside, some people theorize that Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes in her poetry, often taken for a mere eccentricity, actually serve the purpose of being ‘elocution marks'(elocution punctuation).

    • Larry Bole says

      P.P.S. Perhaps one way to banish boredom is to become totally absorbed in what you are doing or experiencing at any given moment, no matter how trivial it may seem, or how many times you’ve done it or experienced it in your life already. But that kind of total absorption of attention is not always easy to achieve.

    • says

      I agree, Mark. Poetry is beginning to remind me more and more of music, where dynamics, tempo, and phrasing are so important. Perhaps part of my difficulty with poetry stems from trying merely to read print on the page rather than hearing it in the author’s (or another’s) voice. Megan often reminds me to read the poems aloud, and it makes such a difference.

  10. says

    Nancy, I love this. I love that you continue to journey into this world of art that still makes you raise your eyebrows with suspicion. I love knowing your story and knowing that it is love that brings you here.

    I feel very much this way about form poetry, even though L.L. Barkat tells me that it opens me up when I write it. I’m such a free spirit that I rather resent being locked into a form – or even having to learn what a form is. Reading others’ form poetry often puts me to sleep. My attention span simply doesn’t last long enough to fully appreciate it (thank you, ye olde body).

    I did a shoot yesterday that I loved, but that I can’t show anywhere. It delved into some more sensual artistic elements that have me befuddled – you know where I come from! – and as much as I want to give myself over to these new places I am discovering in myself, I am wrestling with this new depth because of my background, because so few of my influences growing up really ever embraced art – again, I think you will understand.

    So I just want to tell you a) that I am proud of you pushing your limits for love, and b) I am incredibly honored to know you and I admire you so much. Thank you for sharing some of your journey here!

    • says

      Oh, Kelly girl! Thanks so much for stopping by. Every time I see one of your photos pop up on my Facebook feed, I am proud of you for leaning into who you really are!

      I feel so privileged to have been invited into this project. How many of us languish in fear of things that are unfamiliar or think may be beyond our ability to comprehend? What a gift to have others take us by the hand and say, “Walk with me. I’ll help you figure it out.”


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