It began with small things. Mornings at Lake Geneva Youth Camp went like this: We’d gather around the flag poll and sing a song or seventeen before we got to eat breakfast. (Frosted Flakes and “bug juice” never tasted so good after 400 rounds of “Kumbaya.”) One morning, it must’ve been midweek because I remember feeling somewhere between settled and monotonous, one of my cabin mates was whimpering next to me as we sang. I remember she had thick, curly blond hair. I remember, too, that she was nice.
Another girl noticed as well, and while I just stood there with my hands in my pockets, she threw an arm around our friend and said, “What’s wrong?”
The blond girl put a hand on either side of her mouth, bent toward us (and I admit I flinched because she was making all the same moves as if she were about to throw up) and said, “If I open my mouth, I’ll cry.”
It’s not a sentence that screams “poetry,” but my friend’s declaration had a powerful simplicity to it that produced an empathetic reaction from both me and my other cabin mate. My eyes filled immediately, and my cabin mate whispered, “Oh,” and then the two of us whisked her away. The Frosted Flakes could wait.
A friend and I were talking recently about writing, specifically, about our writing voices. “I want more me and less poet,” she told me, and I chuckled because I knew what she meant. When we don’t trust ourselves and our own abilities, we start to try too hard. I told my friend a story about a stretch of time I didn’t trust my own voice and so began writing in a style of a popular writer instead. My editor gently but firmly called me out and told me to, well, give it a rest.
It’s hard to trust that the big feelings can be expressed plainly or that nuanced or even overwhelming experiences could (or should) be whittled down into simple sentences. I’ve been thinking lately that the desire to express oneself ought to come second to understanding oneself. That is, I am beginning to believe that understanding myself — my thoughts and my feelings — makes me able to turn what I know into something shareable.
Take Anna Kamienska’s poem Small Things. In it, she suggests that it is in the “clumps of moments” in life: “quivering carrot leaves,” “a trampled daisy,” and “laundry hung on a balcony” that a life is built. Each of these “clumps” are images expressed plainly, but each also has that powerful simplicity that gets at nuance and unsaid things.
In the introduction to Kamienska’s book Astonishments Grazyna Drabik, and David Curzon write, “Kamienska strives to speak in a straightforward manner, without any defensive masks. Within this intentional linguistic simplicity, she addresses the problems of loneliness, uncertainty, and the transient nature of human existence. She searches for explicit and exact words to confront death, the yearning for love, the unknowable.”
Perhaps I faced a young Kamienska that year at summer camp. I can’t think of anything more explicit and exact than “If I open my mouth, I’ll cry.” She understood herself exactly, and her words were vulnerable and true, and I remember the sting in my eyes, the catch of my other friend’s breath, the flag’s smack against the wind, and the scratch of the gravel underneath our feet as we helped our homesick friend get somewhere, where, if she wanted to, she could open her mouth and tell us more.
Try It: Small Things Prompt
This week write your own Small Things poem. Give us a glimpse of your day using plain but specific language. After all, it doesn’t get more simple than a quivering carrot leaf or a trampled daisy.
Browse other poetry prompts
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.