In her book Poetry Will Save Your Life, Jill Bialosky takes an unusual approach to memoir. She pairs short passages about her life with poems that she connects with those times. She begins with nursery rhymes and Robert Frost poems and moves through the poetic cannon to the more challenging poems of Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and others. After each poem, she offers information and interpretation of the poet and the poem. In many cases, these are poets to which I never paid much attention, but the poems take on new meaning here. The snippets of Bialosky’s life are intense. She has gone through some hard stuff, but she doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, she reaches for a poem. As she writes on the last page, “[poetry] gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”
For Bialosky, life and poetry have always been intertwined. She reads it, she writes it, and she layers it into her memoir to enhance the memories and sometimes to say what she could not say in ordinary prose.
April is National Poetry Month, a time when poets become more vocal about reading and writing these nuggets of thought crafted into lines with metaphors and juxtapositions that infuse them with meaning. We also compete in numerous poem-a-day challenges. I’ve got two new poems so far.
I credit my Grandma Rachel Fagalde for hooking me on poems. She showered me with books of famous poetry from the time I was a little girl. She wrote poems herself and read them aloud when we visited. It drove my parents nuts; they were not poetry people. They did not understand why I was always scribbling in my little notebooks.
But I was a poetry person. I wrote my first poem at 7, something about the joys of Thanksgiving. I often turned in poems for my homework at school. The teachers weren’t thrilled. They weren’t poetry people either. A wooden plaque with Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” sat on my desk throughout my childhood. Written in rhyme with a sing-song rhythm, it sticks to me even now. “I know that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree . . .” A good poem, like a good song, stays with you.
Most of the people I know are not poetry people. Few have read a poem since they were forced to do it in school. They can’t imagine voluntarily reading poetry. And writing it? Anything beyond “roses are red, violets are blue” seems impossible and pointless. But look at the Bible. Look at the book of Psalms. Those are poems, too, and we revere them.
The statistics about poetry reading are staggering. We who cling to it seem like a small community of weirdos. But we keep at it.
Because so few people read poetry, poets don’t make much money writing and publishing it. Agents won’t represent poetry books. Mainline publishers won’t publish your poetry books unless you’re Bob Dylan or Maya Angelou. Or Bono. You publish it yourself or get published by small independent publishers that do it for the love of poetry. You send your poems to literary magazines edited by college students or volunteers who edit on nights and weekends, supporting their work by grants, donations, and contest submission fees.
Yet there are thousands of us poets writing and sending out our work in the hope of getting it published. I’ve been doing it off and on, mostly on, since I was in high school. Rejections still outnumber acceptances. In fact, I’m participating in an online group that strives to get 100 rejections in a year. The theory is that if you submit enough to get 100 rejections, you will also get some acceptances. And I have. So far, three poems have been published this year. You can read “An Ordinary Afternoon” in the Winter 2018 issue of The MacGuffin. Read “Widow’s Rags” and “Smoke Signals” in the spring 2018 issue of the online journal Willawa.
But still, why bother? The chances for acceptance and profit in poetry are so slim they make the music business look like a sure thing. I can make more money standing on a street corner singing for tips. At least someone will hear me and toss a dollar or two into my guitar case. And yet, because poems are freed from commercial considerations, I feel freer with poetry than with any other type of writing. I can focus on writing the poem instead of wondering who will buy it.
Why poetry? It’s magic. In a few lines, you can say so much. You can paint a picture, share an idea, express a feeling that you can’t express any other way. You can say things you wouldn’t dare tell anybody in plain English.
Poetry today is not the poetry of nursery rhymes or Shakespeare. It doesn’t need to be silly or incomprehensible—although it can. It definitely does not have to rhyme. It just has to say something.
I just drove all the way to Tucson for a poetry master workshop. Why would anybody spend the time and money to do that? Shouldn’t I be studying something useful? Ah, but to me poetry is useful. It keeps me sane. Besides, I turned 66 March 9. I’m not retired. I’m always writing, and I’m still doing the music thing at Sacred Heart, but I have enough retirement-type income to go write poetry in the desert if I want to.
Looking at the poets in Bialosky’s book, I find myself compulsively checking their birth and death dates. So many died before they got to my age. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath didn’t live to age 40. I see the young faces featured in Poets & Writers magazine. Just kids. I worry that I might be too old. But it’s also encouraging to see a new generation embracing poetry.
We older folks keep going. It’s never too late. Billy Collins is 76, Donald Hall is in his late 80s, Mary Oliver is 82. Robert Frost was 88, Carl Sandburg was 89, Maya Angelou was 86,and Lucille Clifton was 74.
These days, you can read poetry online any time you want. Check out The Poetry Foundation, Famous Poetry Online, or Poetry Daily. If you lean toward politics, especially in the era of Trump, try New Verse News. Or try one of the sites listed here: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/10-places-for-daily-poetry/
It’s like guacamole or quinoa. Just try a little. Maybe you’ll like it.
If you’re a poet looking for prompts, there are plenty online. Here are a few:
Megan Falley’s “Dirty Thirty” Writing prompts
Robert Lee Brewer’s poem-a-day challenge
Take a chance. Read a poem or write one. I welcome your comments.