Poetry Was in My Soul
Like most writers, I was drawn to language early. Mrs. Noonan, our librarian at Harry M. Fisher Elementary in Mohawk, New York read us magical books, creating a storehouse of images and sounds that brought distinct pleasure. In third grade, I read The Three Investigators series, discovering what John Gardner called “the vivid and continuous dream” of story. I knew there was more to books than escape—that good writing somehow increased me. Books offered order and meaning while wrestling with the deepest ambiguities of the self and the world; books brought me hope and put me in touch with idiosyncratic reality like nothing else did. I learned that through reading, I could, as Emily Dickinson put it, “dwell in possibility.”
I was a poor student in high school, preferring sports, girls, and motorcycles to mathematics or chemistry. Yet poetry was in my soul, if buried. English was my strong suit, and I excelled in it when I—as all my teachers liked to say—“applied myself.” Senior year, I read two books that gave me direction for my future: Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and WP Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. Works like these offered the best answers to perennial coming of age questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What should I do? Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” That rang true in my town, and I wanted to avoid such a fate. I would go to college to study English. And I would come to poetry.
Poetry Seemed a Natural Choice
As I began writing, poetry seemed a natural choice. I felt overwhelmed with the sustained richness of novels I read, magnificent books like Jane Eyre and One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fathers and Sons. The long form intimidated me; I felt that if I would ever successfully leverage my pitiful reserve of talent in the service of creation, it would need to be on a much smaller scale…like a poem. Along with economy of form came the knowledge that poetry has been considered the highest art of language, “the best words in their best order,” as Coleridge put it. I liked that poetry gave me achievable goals and a case to be made that I worked at the pinnacle of what language could do.
I began reading poetry in earnest, obsessing over tiny masterpieces I discovered. My spare minutes and dollars vanished at Brown Bag Bookshop and Rick’s Recycled Books and the Goodwills, Salvation Armies, and Volunteers of America stores in Rochester. I picked up beautiful volumes published by the press in town, BOA Editions—collections by William Heyen, Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye. I grabbed books by famous names and names I’d never seen before and haven’t since. I took anthologies out of the library, copying by hand into a journal lines and entire poems that spoke to me. I fell in love with the soaring verse of Federico García Lorca; I carried around a beat-up paperback of Robert Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields. I studied journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, The Bitter Oleander, and Mudfish, along with those regal benchmarks Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.
I filled up pages simply because it thrilled me.
Most Came Back with Form Rejections
I published my first poem at the age of twenty-one in an issue of a journal that contained work by James Tate, who had just won a Pulitzer. The satisfaction of that moment—not just seeing my name and work in print, but also joining the Great Conversation—proved too strong to resist, and I began sending out to magazines around the country. Most came back with form rejections.
I learned. I failed better. I remembered why I loved reading and writing in the first place; I tried, in one of my favorite phrases of ‘90s pop culture, to “keep it real,” and I went from there.
I still go from there. Whether I’m taking my own kids to the library or developing new work, I try not to get cynical, overwhelmed, or seduced by fads. The wonders of literature remain true, even when my life gets messy and my mind gets ugly and I see the people around me as something other than a little lower than the angels. Like Galway Kinnell’s sow being blessed by Saint Francis, I need to re-learn beauty, and often. Poetry retains its unique ability to do just that: to instruct at the most profound levels of being. Like the boy sitting on the floor of Harry M. Fisher Elementary school library, I still delight in imagery and sound. I know that the discipline of writing poetry enables meaning and hope rather than desperation, that to dwell in possibility is a good and great gift, and that language used well increases us all.
Photo by Paalia, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Daniel Bowman Jr.
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