I’ve had enough of poetry. This thought enters my mind probably at least once a month. Poetry and I have had a troubled relationship from the get-go. I came to him (or he came to me rather) after my grandfather died unexpectedly my senior year in high school. So, I entered Stanford with his grief heavily hanging over my shoulders like a jacket 3 times to large for me to wear without struggling each step. After all, my grandfather was one of the main ones who wanted me to attend Stanford.
During that 1st year of college, an older student suggested I take a creative writing course, “it will be fun.” I can’t remember exactly how it happened now, if I looked at the Intro to Fiction course description and compared it with the Intro to Poetry course and ended up deciding poetry would be “more fun” or better in some way. Maybe it was simply that the Intro to Poetry courses were less popular and had more open space or that it fit in with my schedule. Either way, I showed up to my Introduction to Poetry course with Stegner Fellow Gaby Calvocoressi and entered a class that (quite literally) changed my life.
Gaby opened the world and words onto me. The first time we read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” I thought – wow, I want to do that. Because of my high school preparation, or lack of it rather, Gaby’s class was my first time encountering such names like Bishop, Lowell, Rilke, etc., in the classroom. When she told us about Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and how she finally felt the meaning of it after someone close to her died. One day while teaching that poem, reading it, and getting to the end, she cried and she finally understood “The Day Lady Died” because she experienced it on a different level. When she told us that story, I learned that words could change lives, that words could be powerful beyond measure. In Gaby’s class I fell in love – with poetry.
With Gaby’s tutelage she helped me write about, around, and through my grandfather’s death. She said we spend our entire lives writing the same thing just in different ways. I should have known then that my “writerly obsession” would be death. And we all have them, obsessions. In my MFA program I could probably assign every student a topic – sex, dead animals, pregnancy/children, marriage/dating, a grandmother, circuses, father/daughter relationships, mother/daughter relationships the list goes on and on.
Looking back at that point in my life I would have to say I needed poetry. This statement troubles me because I like to think of myself as a strong fiercely independent woman, so when it comes down to relationships – I don’t know that I want to need anyone or anything. But, since that’s the way poetry and I started off, it’s been a crazy rollercoaster ride. Since then I’ve struggled with poetry’s abstractions, “Why can’t you just say what you mean?” To which poetry responds, “What’s the fun in that? You wouldn’t have to work for anything.” So I tried to balance that out with being more narrative and saying exactly what I meant. Over time, the closer poetry and I grew, the more I began to see how little I actually even really knew about him. There were so many names I still had only heard of and never read or studied. There was still so much I needed to learn about poetry.
Times like that are when I get frustrated with poetry and want to throw the towel in. I love you. I hate you. I need you. I don’t. I’m sorry. I’m over you. I didn’t mean to leave. I’m going to find someone new (a different genre to work in), etc. etc. I suppose this type of behavior is typical in all relationships, right?
My relationship problems with poetry have gotten so bad lately that I told poetry “I think we need some time a part from each other so I can figure out who I am.” Sound familiar? So, I made the decision to take a leave of absence from my MFA program in poetry for a while to give poetry and I a much-needed break.
But the opposite happened. I interacted with poetry more and more. I wrote and wrote and submitted and submitted and then came in the rejections. So again, I took out my own hang-ups on poetry and wanted “space.” I switched to fiction and even started a short story, which I’m rather excited about. Last night I even made some major unexpected changes and felt like the story was finally figuring out what it wanted to do.
Today I came to a coffee shop (located within a book store) to continue working on my short story after I bought some new books. I wanted to buy Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves since my own short story has a “working title”: The Prevalence of Crows, I figured I could learn something from her. And what ended up happening? Sure, I found Louise’s book, but I also wandered upstairs to the Poetry Section. Just when I thought I could put poetry on the backburner of my life for a while, he pulls a 180 on me and reminds me just how much I love him. Perusing through the Poetry Section I found Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Words Under The Words,” a collection I had not encountered before. The first poem I opened up the book to was “You Know Who You Are.”
Why do your poems comfort me, I ask myself.
Because they are upright, like straight-backed chairs.
I can sit in them and study the world as if it too
were simple and upright.
Because sometimes I live in a hurricane of words
and not one of them can save me.
Your poems come in like a raft, logs tied together,
I want to tell you about the afternoon
I floated on your poems
all the way from Durango Street to Broadway.
Father’s were paddling on the river with their small sons.
Three Mexican boys chased each other outside the library.
Everyone seemed to have some task, some occupation,
while I wandered uselessly in the streets I claim to love.
Suddenly I felt the precise body of your poems beneath me,
like a raft, I felt words as something portable again,
a cup, a newspaper, a pin.
Everything happening had a light around it,
not the light of Catholic miracles,
the blunt light of a Saturday afternoon.
Light in a world that rushes forward with us or without us.
I wanted to stop and gather up the blocks behind me
in this light, but it doesn’t work.
You keep walking, lifting one foot, then the other,
saying “This is what I need to remember”
and then hoping you can.
That one poem was all it took for me to fall right back into love with poetry. So, I guess I’m bipolar when it comes to poetry because I don’t want to need poetry, but I do. Like the title says, “You know who you are” and I, dear reader, am a poet!