If I had written a letter to my 13-year-old self with the benefit of hindsight, it would have said, “Stick with poetry. You’ll need it.”
I’m fairly certain that, charged with such a task as sticking with poetry, my 13-year-old self couldn’t have been trusted. Sporting two-toned flared jeans (it was the 70s, after all) and red, white and blue sneakers (the Bicentennial year on top of that), and a long knit stocking cap that hung to my waist (I mentioned it was the 70s?), I was far more interested in biking down to the neighborhood car wash to dig in the dumpsters for pop bottles I could trade for a dime, which I could, in turn, trade for a Snickers bar or an assorted pack of Pixie Sticks at the local Tom Thumb superette.
Poetry was not on my radar when I built forts in the woods or spent an inordinate amount of time on the flat roof of the church down the street lighting stacks of mimeograph paper on fire (nabbed from the office supply store’s dumpster) with matches (conveniently displayed on Tom Thumb’s counter).
I managed to outgrow my troubling interest in fire well before it could give rise to anything which might lead to a juvenile arson conviction (or even arrest). I wonder if I’d shown an interest in poetry if it would have fallen away the same as my short-lived fascination with the uncanny coincidences that marked the lives (and deaths) of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (I had their posters on my wall). That was probably the year I dressed up as a sandwich for Halloween (complete with green-hoodie pickle).
Like I said, my 13-year-old self couldn’t have been trusted. But knowing what I know now about life (and about poetry), I would tell my 13-year-old self the same thing as Megan Willome would tell hers. Except, of course, that I’d first have to tell my young self to put down the history and political books (and matches) for a minute and find some poetry. And then to stick with it.
Megan writes in The Joy of Poetry of her practice over the years of collecting poems—sometimes poems she has written, at other times the poems of others; sometimes printing them out for her scrapbook, at other times writing a little bit about them in her poetry journal. But wherever she has gone, poetry has gone along, providing the sort of sustenance in the dark days that Leo Lionni’s Frederick gave to his fellow mice in the longest, coldest days of winter.
Clearly, Megan’s 13-year-old self (and Frederick) could be trusted with such a thing as poetry.
We’re reading Megan’s The Joy of Poetry together in our book club this month, this week pondering chapters 1 through 6. Here are some of my favorite parts:
When the mice are cold and depressed, having exhausted their store of nuts, they ask Frederick for his supplies. He gives them a poem about seasons. All these years later, the book still has a fine message: We need words during dark days. (p. 15)
Poetry doesn’t need a lot of fanfare. It’s like a fingerling potato, growing quietly in a dark space. Dig it up, saute it in a little olive oil, give it a chance. (p. 21)
I don’t love every poem—no one says I have to. (p. 22)
A good poem does that—offers multiple gifts upon multiple readings. (p. 40)
Like fly-fishing, poetry takes patience. It forces us to travel to obscure streams in all weathers, at dusk and at dawn. We need all five of our senses and any others laying around to serve as flies to catch the words that do not want to be caught. And when an elusive trout finds its way to where we wait, we need to snatch a picture. Sketch it fast. If possible, write the tale. Because it demands to be released. (p. 43)
“I’ve wasted a lot of time not reading Neruda,” [my dad] said.
(Who says you have to read poems in the order they’re written?)
Are you reading with us? Perhaps in the comments you would share your thoughts from this week’s reading: tell us about a section that stood out or spoke to you, share a “favorite thing,” or even tell us what your 13-year-old self would have done (or actually did) with poetry.
The Joy of Poetry Reading Schedule:
May 4: Chapters 1 – 6
May 11: Chapters 7 – 12
May 18: Chapters 13 – 18
We also invite you to explore the ideas in How to Keep, Save and Make Your Life With Poems beginning on page 148 and consider, at least for the duration of our book club, keeping a poetry journal or signing on a poetry buddy.
Photo by Cherrie Mio Rhodes, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.
Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry—part memoir, part poetry reflections, part anthology—takes readers on a journey to discovering poetry’s purpose, which is, delightfully, nothing. “Why poetry?” Willome asks. “You might as well ask, why chocolate?” Poetry reflects nothing more and nothing less than the pure joy of living, loving, and being, in all of its confusion and wonder. Willome’s book will gently guide you to read, write, and be a little more human through language’s mystery and joy.
—Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem: Based on the Billy Collins Poem “Introduction to Poetry”