Yes, Merry Nell, poets can be a little weird.
I have a certain poem in pre-draft status—meaning, it’s been in existence for quite a while in my head, and lines might be occasionally mumbled aloud but it hasn’t made its way to actual paper. Mentioning it here will probably doom the poor unfinished thing to a sort of poem purgatory, an infernal not-quite capacity from which it may never emerge. But it could find itself there indefinitely anyway, so, really, what’s the harm? At least the poem can be written about, if never actually written.
The pre-draft poem wishes to be Tony Hoagland, or so it says in its yet-unwritten lines. Not Tony himself, of course. That would be weird. But the poem asks to be the sort of guy that Tony Hoagland is when he writes his poems, who makes words do things that seem otherwise impossible for mere mortals.
In “Hearings, ” Hoagland writes
since language uses us
the way that birds use sky,
the way that seeds and viruses
braid themselves into a mammal’s fur
and hitchhike toward the future.
When you say a word,
you enter its vocabulary,
it’s got your home address, your phone number
and weight—it won’t forget
It might be that my elusive poem is wishing to have the power over humans that it perceives a poet can have over words. I wouldn’t know, though, since it’s not yet permitted itself to be written.
You might know about my volume of poetry by John Keats. I’ve written of it more times than I ought, but my life with poetry is bound up in the old gray dusty book with the upside-down cover that lets me pretend to be reading when I’m not, or to actually read while I pretend to be absent-minded. I picked up the book at a monastery I used to visit when I was new to poetry. The collection, which I found difficult to read in the beginning (thus opting more often to pretend), proved Megan Willome’s words before they had, in fact, been written in The Joy of Poetry: “A lot of writers don’t read poetry. A lot of readers don’t read it either. Maybe because, let’s face it, there’s a problem with the poets.”
For me, with John Keats, there was a problem with the poet. He was a fancy boy with fancy words who wrote things like
O for ten years that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.
Then I will pass the countries that I see
In long perspective, and continually
Taste of their pure fountains
I tried to pretend it meant something to me when really I was thinking poetry (or poesy) and those who wrote it were weird. And then along came Tony Hoagland, who surely has his own idiosyncrasies, but who struck me as simply human, and deeply so, with a way of using language (or letting language use him) that allowed poetry to make sense, even enough so that I could later go back and find in John Keats less of the weird and more of a favorite poet and even a deep attachment to his long perspective and pure fountains.
We’re reading Megan’s The Joy of Poetry together in our book club this month, this week pondering chapters 7-13. Here are some of my favorite parts:
Poetry isn’t generally popular. It doesn’t often get a bunch of likes and favorites and thumbs up. It usually impacts people in the tens, not the ten thousands. (p. 61)
. . . the speaker bakes a pie instead of writing a poem because she knows the pie will be good—the poem? Hard to tell. (p. 65)
No one understands a poet like another poet. (p. 73)
If I lie still, I can remember that summer. I can remember how Diet Coke tasted different when I had to walk a mile from Westminster School to buy one. I remember feeling scared when I got lost in the maze at Hampton Court Palace. I can hear the guy, chained to a pole, wearing only underwear, shouting profanity in Leicester Square. And none of this comes back to me in iambic pentameter. (p. 75)
Not all good poetry is weird, and not all weird poetry is good. (p. 79)
But for the love of T.S. Eliot . . . (p. 96)
It’s not hard to love poetry. But it’s oh-so-easy to kill that love. (p. 96)
Too often when I hear a poet interviewed, the journalist assumes every word in the poem is biography. If that were true, the poet would have written an autobiography, or at least a memoir. (p. 102)
Poetry has the power to transform the truth. It can obscure facts the poet prefers remain hidden. It can protect people the poet loves. A poem offers protection in a way that memoir or creative nonfiction never can. In today’s digital climate, where everyone’s bio is available with a click, even fiction can be too revealing. But in poetry the poet can be hyperspecific about a moment without revealing too much. (p. 106)
Poetry is my prescription for adversity. (p. 108)
I don’t need to know how the eggshells got broken. (p. 108)
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 maybe you have a memory of poetry or a poet seeming weird.
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 Toshihiro Oimatsu, 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”