LESSON ONE – FINDING THE POEM

Over the years, as a poetry workshop coordinator, I have noticed that the first hurdle to overcome is “finding the poem.”  “What am I going to write about?”  That is the question that comes up at least a few times in every beginning workshop.  And it is, of course, one of the easiest to answer, because poems, waiting to be written, are everywhere.

If you are anything like me, you notice people.  You notice them in stores, on streets, in restaurants, seated beside you on the subway or standing in front of you in line in the supermarket.  You may notice what they are wearing or hear snippets of what they are saying, or you may, as I often do, notice their expressions.  An example of that was one night my husband and I were having dinner in a restaurant.  A few tables away, directly in my line of sight, was a young couple.  I noticed, immediately, that their eyes were sad, their expressions heavy and uncomfortable.  Before long, I noticed that the young woman was crying.  The young man seemed on the edge of anger.  They were both wearing wedding rings.  I thought about them long after we left the restaurant, and on into the next day.  That afternoon, intruding into their lives through my imagination, I found the following poem.

UNDER COVER OF DARKNESS

breathing consciously

sucking the air

like beached fish

night sounds are shadows

that brush past our senses

in this familiar place

there is the alien throb

of something unspoken

the scaly feel

of promises broken

and truths twisted by time

dissected by inches

owning our separate

side of the bed

we wait stiffly

for sleep our thoughts

creeping through doors

we had vowed never to open

The truth is, of course, I had no way of knowing what was going on between those two young people, and so I took poetic license and assigned a story to them.  It had to do with love and loss, anger and frustration, and the poem committed itself to imagery, to relay those feelings.  The poet Miller Williams used to say that “the poem can lie its way to the truth.”  Because “the truth” is your truth, not necessarily the truth of who has inspired the poem.

I had a woman in a workshop I conducted at a local college, whose work was passionate and beautifully crafted and yet, I noticed she lacked a certain enthusiasm for the whole workshop experience.  And so, I decided to assign a topic for the whole class.  The topic was, “Why I Write Poetry.”  The following week I asked workshop participants if they would be willing to share their poems.  The “reluctant” woman raised her hand.  She read her poem, and the last line answered all my questions.  It was, “I write, because I have no gift for painting.”  She had turned to poetry having found no success in the world of visual art.

Another great place to look for your poem is in the world of the five senses.  Choose a color, and using imagery describe it for us.  What does it look like, feel like, taste like, smell like, sound like, and finally, how does it make you feel?

I did this poetry experience in a fifth-grade class.  One young girl seemed utterly perplexed and raised her hand to tell me she had no idea how to write a poem about a color.  I told her to try, to just think about it as if she were describing a color for someone who had never seen it before.  Unhappily, she set to work to write her poem.  I gave the children the chance to take their poems home and work on them and told them we would share them the next day in class.  To my utter surprise, when I asked who wanted to share their poem my reluctant young lady raised her hand.  I cannot recall the whole poem, but her last line set the entire class off on a new adventure in writing.  Her last line (which she told me before she read the poem, was probably wrong) was as follows: “Blue is the color of wonders.”  Wow!  What a great line and what, by the way, is wonder?  Wonder – was where we found our next poem.

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