Poetry Not for Wimps

poet is the amen

She said in no uncertain terms, “I hate poetry, it simply bores me and is for wimps”.

Then she wrote a poem since she had an ocean of words to tell her story, and it felt overwhelming, so she thought to try her hand at telling the truth, stripped down and naked through a poem.

She wrote another poem and sent it for me to read. She published that poem. Then she wrote a third poem and read it out loud to a group of writers. Everyone sat stunned.

Not a wimp in that room.

Most people feel like poetry is a breed unto itself, a woman’s preference, a form that does not demand as much as a novel or a memoir from the craftsman. Think again.

Poetry doesn’t have to conform to limits or formats. Poems can be as long as a book, such as Paradise Lost, or simply two lines long, like Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro. It can be 300 pages long as in the revolutionary Dante’s Inferno. Poems don’t have to rhyme or follow any kind of structure or they can be rigidly formatted. Poetry is limitless in its possibilities. For many, poetry is probably the most flexible literary genre.

Introduction to Poetry—Billy Collins

 I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide                                                  or press an ear against its hive.                                                                                                                     I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.                                                                                                   I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.                                                                                                                                                               But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.       They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.

billy collins

For those writing 250 pages of something they may get lost in, or have dropped the thread and are trying to stitch the chapters together, stop. Open a new Word Document and try a poem that captures the heart of the book you are writing. It will rearrange the furniture of your thinking so that when you go back to your novel or memoir, or your non-fiction piece of brilliance, you have new crisp eyes to see with. Or maybe like our woman who hates poetry, you will discover the power of your own words in a new way.

And then again, just listen to a bit of poetry that sends your body into a visceral convulsion that rearranges your very cellular nature.   When you hear this poem read by its author, Dominique Christina, winner of the Women of the World Poetry Award, I assure you, you may think differently about a poem from this moment on. This poem is NOT for wimps.

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Stories are Alive

Tell stories quote

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

― Madeleine L’Engle

 Stories carry energy. Even songs you hear over and over are stories, especially country western sagas of lost love, lost dogs and no truck. Ballads stick with us because they are stories we see in the musical composition. And stories used to be passed down as powerful sources of information and truth from one tribe to another.

But things have changed drastically in the age of the nuclear family. We have lost our tribe and we have lost our storytellers.

So, when I go on and on about the power of story, I am being literal. There is energy in every story: Energy that the storyteller infuses into the telling, energy of the person hearing, and depending on the message inherent in the story, the story itself is alive with meaning and with a vibrational signature all of its own. Story is a powerful change agent.

When we are “burning to say something” it is because we are keeping the story and its energy just cycling in our bodies. The stories lay dormant and when un-birthed or untold they can become part of an illness, a malaise, or some sort of disturbance in the force of who we are. Stories need to do their work and then be passed along so that they can affect more people who need to hear that very thing you are burning to say.

Story is one of the most ancient ways of communication, like music, like poetry and art they are essential to the survival of our culture. And now there are no tribes to pass along the wisdom that comes from living, so each and every one of us are keepers of pieces of the puzzle of life and carriers of truths that our one life has given us. We must all plant the seeds of our experience, our angst, our joy and our wisdom so the next generation has somewhere to hang their hat.

“Stories come alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth. Or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.”
― John ConnollyThe Book of Lost Things

 

The End of Books?

books on the street

The End of Books
By ROBERT COOVER, NYTimes, 1992

“In the real world nowadays, that is to say, in the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries. Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.

Which would mean of course that the novel, too, as we know it, has come to its end. Not that those announcing its demise are grieving. For all its passing charm, the traditional novel, which took center stage at the same time that industrial mercantile democracies arose — and which Hegel called “the epic of the middle-class world” — is perceived by its would-be executioners as the virulent carrier of the patriarchal, colonial, canonical, proprietary, hierarchical and authoritarian values of a past that is no longer with us.” Published in the New York Times 1992

You might think that this article above was written recently but look again. The debate over books becoming obsolete began when my daughters were seven years old and the computer had just become a household option.

Now, 23 years after this article was written by Mr. Coover, much of what he says is true, but what is even truer is that the function of the book, the memoir, the novel and the poetry collection has been given new delivery systems and in small sound bites to fit our changing brains and lifestyles. As with the web series which is rapidly replacing the movie, texting that is replacing most of our oral tradition (like calling and having a long chat with your mother on Mother’s Day), E-Cards replacing that Hallmark cry your eyes card with a personal signature from your loved one, who may have taken the time to compose a poem or say something personal, now we let technology speak for us.
There is something very specific about a physical book and the story it contains. Books are like a treasure chest full of secrets as you move  from one page to another and even the font can be a thing of beauty. A book is something that is irreplaceable. There is a bit of magic in perusing Barnes and Nobel, even if most of the books are geared to romantically starved women and coming of age teens who cannot get enough vampire literature. The dimensionality of a physical book, the texture, the smell of the pages, the graphics, turning pages until the book slumps down on your chest before the night light is out, is brain food that technology cannot replace. Brain Food!

Much like writing with a pen or pencil verses typing on a computer, our brain needs proprioceptive input to fully function and to retain what we are reading or writing. Sensory data is necessary for our imaginative centers of the brain to light up. When we type on a computer there is minimal sensory data and we can simply zone out and skim life. As a result, our attention span withers and is not only shortened but so is retention and general interest: enter the need for the “soundbite. With texting, three-min videos, web series, and even Kindle, being fully engaged in writing or reading a book or story is reduced significantly.

Another perfect example is the sand box.  Or should I say the absence of the proverbial sand box.  It used to be that the sand box was a canvas for the imagination.  Tunnels and towns, wet-scaped mountains, Tonka Trucks and little plastic figures made stories unfold and engaged the body the mind and the spirit.  Building and creating was the mission of the sand box.  Now we have video games.  Enough said.

A story is interactive, and a book should be a relationship you are having for several hundred pages. When did you last have a 500 page barn burner and not even get out of your Jammies or comb your hair all day? Please don’t say Fifty Shades of Grey!

The advent of the television series in the 1950’s, whether it was a half hour sitcom or a one hour crime drama like Dragnet is how we have become accustomed to a story one a piece at a time. Most of the time we are cooking, eating or texting all the while the story is unfolding on the TV. What we miss, what we are not giving ourselves by sitting with a real book, a well written and imaginative story, is priceless. But more than that it is essential for health. No longer indulging in the pricelessness of reading a book, finding that perfect story at the bookstore, and savoring our own imagination is part of why there is so much illness in our country. We fail to take downtime, to focus our creative energy, the have sensory input by writing with a pen or by turning pages. We fail to really read with our whole being and allow our imagination to take us into…the depths of ourselves.

We have replaced this essential relationship between reader and author with a hurried technological life that in fact may be more efficient and more can in fact get done in a day but we have traded a kind of neuro-stimulation of our brains, our eye hand connection, our imagination and creative centers for….expediency.
That is a costly trade since our body depends on all the brain firing that goes on when we are fully engaged. Not only fully engaged with ourselves, our book, our writing project, our characters but with each other and not our phones or Xbox. It is time to rethink how in fact technology is dumbing us down and freezing our brain from our own limitless passion and imagination.